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Rogue cop launches helicopter attack against Venezuela's top court

Venezuela’s political crisis escalated dramatically Tuesday, when a rogue police officer commandeered a helicopter to launch an attack on the country’s Supreme Court and demand the government step down. The political turbulence has seen countless vivid horrors in the last three months, including armored vehicles mowing through protesters, demonstrators shot at point-blank range, more than 80 deaths.


Analysts say it remains to be seen whether the dramatic flashpoint represents a broader turn against the government by the country’s security forces, who have largely backed embattled President Nicolas Maduro, or whether it’s just the work of an isolated clique.

The helicopter dropped grenades on the court building and strafed the nearby Interior Ministry with gunfire, but, remarkably, there were no injuries, according to the government. Maduro, who had warned earlier Tuesday that his supporters would take up weapons if his government was overthrown, labelled the attack an attempted coup and vowed to track down the “terrorists” responsible.

The pilot behind the attack reportedly escaped the scene and hasn’t yet been caught, but he has made no attempt to keep his identity secret. He posted a number of video statements on his Instagram account, flanked by armed masked men in military fatigues, introducing himself as Oscar Perez, a pilot in the special response unit of Venezuela’s intelligence and investigative police who was acting on behalf of a group of military, police and civic officials who were opposed to the “criminal government.”

“This fight is … against the vile government, against tyranny,” he said in the clip. During the raid on the government buildings, a banner reading “Libertad” and “350” was hung from the helicopter – a reference to a clause in the country’s constitution that permits citizens to rise up against a government that undermines democratic principles.


Local media were quick to seize on Perez’s previously demonstrated flair for the dramatic: he co-produced and starred in a 2015 action film, “Suspended Death,” in which he played an intelligence operative rescuing a kidnap victim.

While the episode marks a sensational turn in the drawn-out political crisis, analysts warn it’s too soon to say whether it indicates a broader rebellion against the government by security forces. Some of Maduro’s opponents even suggested the attack could have been staged to justify a wider crackdown.

“It is very grave and very significant,” Francisco Panizza, a professor in Latin American politics at the London School of Economics, told VICE News. “But the big question is whether this is an isolated stand by this police officer and a few others, or is it a demonstration of a wider split within the security apparatus – and we still don’t have an answer for that. Mr Maduro and his government have survived many supposed turning points so far.”

Why is Venezuela in such chaos?

The once-prosperous South American nation has been rocked by almost daily mass protests since early April, calling for Maduro’s government to step down amid soaring inflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine. They accuse Maduro, a socialist who replaced his mentor Hugo Chavez upon his death in 2013, of mismanaging the economy and of making increasingly authoritarian moves to hold on to power, and are calling for the next presidential election – scheduled for late 2018 – to be brought forward. Both sides accuse each other of attempting a coup.


The protests began after the Supreme Court, which many see as filled with pro-government judges, dissolved parliament and transferred legislative power to itself. The move was reversed days later, but the government provoked further anger when it banned opposition leader Henrique Capriles from political activity, fueling accusations that the country was sliding towards a dictatorship.

Maduro is pushing to hold a vote on July 30 for new body called a Constituent Assembly, which he claims will provide a solution to the crisis, but which the opposition fears will be used to rework the country’s constitutional framework, bolster the president’s executive powers, and override the powers of parliament.

“The issue is that this will not be a normal election in terms of ‘one person, one vote,’ but will be voted on by social organizations, unions, neighbourhood associations which on the whole are controlled by the government,” said Panizza. “It’s widely seen as a way for the government to perpetuate itself in power, not as a way out of the crisis.”

Maduro, on about 22 percent support in the polls, has refused to budge in the face of spiralling protests and civil unrest that has resulted in 80 deaths so far. On Tuesday he doubled down, vowing at a rally broadcast live across the country that he would fight to defend Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution.”

“If Venezuela was plunged into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian revolution destroyed, we would go to combat,” he said. “We would never give up, and what we failed to achieve with votes, we would do with weapons. We would liberate the fatherland with weapons.”

This latest protest shows that a solution doesn’t appear to be on the cards any time soon.