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“We are going to surrender! Stop shooting!”: Reconstructing Óscar Pérez’s Last Hours

May 13, 2018

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Translations: Русский

This report (Spanish version) was co-researched and authored by Giancarlo Fiorella (@invenezuelablog), author of In Venezuela, and Aliaume Leroy (@Yaolri), member of the Bellingcat Investigation Team. Bellingcat undertook the investigation in collaboration with Forensic Architecture who have constructed a navigable three-dimensional digital platform of El Junquito in which the more than 60 pieces of evidence are located in space and time.

To complete the platform we need more evidence.

Three Venezuelan media organisations –  Efecto Cocuyo, Armando.info, and El Pitazo – are partners in the  call for more evidence initiated by Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture. The New York Times Opinion is hosting a similar call in an Op-Ed Giancarlo Fiorella and Aliaume Leroy have written for them.

 

Introduction

On January 15, 2018, some time between 4:00-4:30 UTC-4, approximately 500 Venezuelan law enforcement, military, and police personnel cordoned off and approached a house hanged on the hills of El Junquito, a parish in the west of Caracas. Their target was Óscar Alberto Pérez, the leader of the National Equilibrium Movement (Movimiento Equilibrio Nacional, MEN), a rebel group that had burst onto the national spotlight a mere six months earlier. Exactly ten hours later, the bodies of Pérez and six other individuals present in the house with him entered through the doors of the Bello Monte morgue in Caracas.

How exactly did this operation, codenamed Operación Gedeón, unfold? Who were the actors involved in the operation? What were the circumstances that led to the death of Pérez, his six companions, and two state security officers? Were Pérez and the members of his movement hiding in the safe house executed? These are the questions Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture have sought to answer by identifying, collecting, analysing, dating, and geolocating open source visual content captured on the day. The more than 60 pieces of evidence – videos, photos, audio files and tweets – amassed have been timed and plotted on a spatio-temporal platform of El Junquito Forensic Architecture built. This model not only enhances our understanding of what happened on January 15, but it also serves as a tool for anyone to use to carry out their own investigation of the event.

Based on evidence drawn from the information gathered, Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture made the following findings:

  • Open source evidence suggests that that Pérez and all members of his group were killed between 11:15 UTC-4 and 12:00 UTC-4.
  • According to official death certificates accessible on social media platforms or relayed by Venezuelan journalists, Pérez and his companions were killed by injuries consistent with being shot in the head, with the exception of one who was killed by gunshot injuries to the neck. Furthermore, Pérez repeatedly stated in his videos that he wanted to surrender to the authorities. Leaked radio communications of the state security forces on the day also suggest that Pérez’s intention to surrender was acknowledged by the security services. The reiterated calls for surrender and the injuries Pérez  and his companions suffered suggest that it is likely they were the victims of extrajudicial killings. The Special Actions Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales, FAES) of the National Bolivarian Police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana, PNB) are infamous in Venezuela for engaging in extrajudicial killings and torture. Between May and June of 2017, FAES agents killed 124 people in Caracas during security operations against alleged criminal organizations in some of the poorest areas of Venezuela. The FAES formed an important contingent of the 500 security operatives involved in the raid on Pérez’s safe house.
  • While both the rebels and security forces fired their weapons at each other during the raid, it is impossible to tell which side initiated the shooting. On one hand, Pérez claimed in videos recorded inside the safe house during the firefight that he was attempting to surrender. On the other hand, the Venezuelan government affirms that security personnel opened fire on the safe house in retaliation to shots fired by Pérez and his rebels.
  • The security forces had, at best, tenuous control over the operation. Videos recorded by the security services during the raid show officers discharging their weapons wildly in the direction of the safe house and laughing in excitement at the display of firepower. Intercepted radio communications between the security forces also paint a chaotic picture, as officers screamed repeatedly into their radios for others to cease fire on the safe house or move vehicles which blocked the passage of other contingents, often to no avail. From the radio transmissions, we also know that one rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fired by a state security unit missed its target, the house, and nearly hit another group of state officers.
  • At least one member of a pro-government civilian armed group (colectivo armado) took part in the raid: Heiker (or Heyker) Leobaldo Vásquez Ferrera of the Tres Raíces colectivo armado from the 23 de Enero area of Caracas. Vásquez’s death in the raid was confirmed by high-ranking officials of the Venezuelan ruling party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV) including Freddy Bernal, Minister of the Popular Power of Urban and Periurban Agriculture (Ministerio del Poder Popular de la Agricultura Urbana y Periurbana, MPPAUP) and Diosdado Cabello, Vice-President of the PSUV party. However, the Ministry of the Popular Power for the Interior, Justice and Peace (Ministerio del Poder Popular para Relaciones Interiores, Justicia y Paz, MPPRIJP) did not list Vásquez as one of the casualties in the raid. All of the evidence collected suggests that Heiker Vásquez served as a member of the National Bolivarian Police (Policia Nacional Bolivariana, NBP) under the name Andriun Domingo Ugarte Ferrera, who was named by the MPPRIJP as a fatality.
  • The Venezuelan government and its officials have acted in the aftermath of the raid on El Junquito as if their goal was to wipe out any clues as to what happened on the day. The safe house where Pérez and six other rebels were hiding when assaulted was razed to the ground. Civilians, journalists, and families were blocked off from burials by armed state security personnel. Government officials have also asserted that Pérez did not want to surrender, even though visual and audio evidence from the day contradicts this claim. Nonetheless, the regime has coined a simple narrative about Pérez and his companions: They were terrorists who waived their rights by attacking the government. For the Venezuelan government, the case is closed.

The following sections, along with Forensic Architecture’s 3D model, provide the most complete account compiled to date on the events of Operación Gedeón. When allowed by the evidence, the sections below detail the circumstances that rocked the Araguaney neighbourhood of El Junquito on January 15, 2018, down to the minute.

What this evidence shows is that Venezuelan state security forces deployed an impressive arsenal of military-grade weaponry to put an end to Pérez’s rebellion, nearly levelling the house that provided refuge to him and his companions in the process. The evidence suggests that Pérez and his companions are likely the victims of extrajudicial killings at the hands of Venezuelan state security forces, and that the developments in the weeks following Operación Gedeón were geared towards obscuring this fact.

However, dark spots still exist. Although it is likely that Pérez and his peers were executed according to the evidence collected and analysed, the lack of more compelling proof prohibits definitive statements.

For this reason, Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture are joining forces with three Venezuelan media organisationsEl Pitazo, Armando.info, and Efecto Cocuyoto call for more evidence. The New York Times Opinion is also hosting our call in an Op-Ed Aliaume Leroy and Giancarlo Fiorella have written.

If you have any information that may help us paint a fuller picture of what happened to Óscar Pérez and his companions in El Junquito on January 15, 2018, please contact eljunquito@bellingcat.com or +447835333851 via WhatsApp or Signal. If you are concerned about security or would like to remain anonymous, use one of the following two options:

– Create an anonymous email account on the platform Tutanota (free and no contact details needed) and use this email address to send an email at the address named above. To protect your identity, access Tutanota via the Tor Browser; or
– Send a message anonymously to the above phone number using preferably Signal or WhatsApp, and we will arrange for the best mean to communicate while maintaining your security.”

 

The El Junquito Raid: Anatomy and Ending

A Spatio-Temporal Plunge Into Operación Gedeón

The core theatre of Operación Gedeón was a safe house located at the geographic coordinates 10.453109, -67.027973 (Google Maps, Wikimapia), in the Araguaney neighbourhood of El Junquito, a parish that is part of the Libertador Municipality in the Capital District of Venezuela.

Bellingcat confirmed the exact position of the house by matching elements seen in the picture from the above tweet, taken from a hill to the north of the house, with features visible on satellite imagery. The following image presents these similarities.

Image showing the same elements visible in the image of the Caraota Digital’s tweet and a satellite image from January 2017. The safe house where Pérez and his team sought refuge is circled in yellow. Satellite imagery copyright DigitalGlobe ©​ 2018.

The assault on Pérez’s safe house in El Junquito started some time between 4:00 and 4:30 UTC-4 on January 15, as various Venezuelan media outlets reported.

Residents of the area told Efecto Cocuyo that elements of the Venezuelan security services had been active in the area since the beginning of January. The night before the raid, officials of the General Directorate for Military Counterintelligence (Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar, DGCIM) raided the apartment of William Alberto Aguado Sequera in the block 5, UD-5 of the Caricuao neighbourhood in Caracas, located at the coordinates 10.433774, -66.960918 (Google Maps, Wikimapia). Authorities accuse Aguado Sequera of being the owner of the house in El Junquito in which Pérez and his six companions were hiding.

The timeline of Operación Gedeón as it unfolded on January 15 can be split into the following three periods (hyperlinks open the specific phase in the Forensic Architecture 3D platform of El Junquito):

  1. Negotiations: 4:30 UTC-4 to 8:30 UTC-4
  2. Shooting and Assault: 8:30 UTC-4 to 12:00 UTC-4
  3. Aftermath: 12:00 UTC-4 until the end of the day

Times have been rounded up to the hour or half-hour, as it is not possible to determine the precise start or end time of each phase.

With the open source investigative support of Bellingcat, Forensic Architecture built a spatio-temporal model of the Araguaney neighbourhood on which more than 60 pieces of evidence were geolocated and timed. This provides a unique insight into how Operación Gedeón progressed over time. When assembled as such, open source evidence suggests that that Pérez and all members of his group were killed between 11:15 UTC-4 and 12:00 UTC-4, at the end of the second phase.

Who initiated the Firefight?

As Operación Gedeón was ongoing, both sides were quick to blame the other for starting the hostilities. At 6:46 UTC-4, Pérez claimed in a video he recorded from within the safe house and published on his second, and now defunct, Instagram account “equilibriogv” (archive): “They [state forces] have opened fire on us and we are taking cover, but now we are negotiating with the officers”. 

More than three hours later, at 9:53 UTC-4, Diosdado Cabello, vice-president of the ruling PSUV party, published a tweet on his account stating that Pérez and his companions wounded two security operatives, and that state forces responded with fire. Cabello implied in his tweet that Pérez’s team sparked the firefight, not the security services.

The first official communication by the government about Operación Gedeón broadcasted at 12:49 UTC-4 on January 15, which came via the state-owned channel Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), also blamed Pérez and his companions. According to this communication, they attacked the security services in the midst of negotiations.

On January 17, two days after Operación Gedeón, Cabello again accused Pérez’s team of being the cause of the gun battle. In a television address on his weekly show Con el Mazo Dando, Cabello alleged that a member of Pérez’s team, José Alejandro Díaz Pimentel, was from the 23 de Enero area of Caracas and that he knew Heiker Vásquez of the Tres Raices (Three Roots) colectivo armado. In Cabello’s version of what happened, Vásquez approached the safe house with two vehicles after they had arranged for Pérez and his companions to surrender. According to Cabello, Pimentel shot Vásquez in the chest as soon as he stepped out of the car, and Pérez’s team then threw grenades at the vehicles. Cabello claimed Pérez’s team never really planned to surrender, and opened fire each time they could. He also said that the rebels threw at least 40 grenades.

From the videos and photos Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture have collected from the day of the raid, it is impossible to confirm who initiated the firefight. However, visual and audible evidence indicate both Pérez’s team and the state security forces have used their weapons, the former to a lesser extent than the latter.

What appear to be bullet casings on the ground can be spotted in a video Pérez recorded inside the safehouse on January 15 at approximately 9:15 UTC-4. The bullet holes on the wall express the intensity of the incoming fire Pérez and his companions faced from the security services.

Firepower of the Belligerents

Visual content Pérez and his companions released on the day of the raid shows that they were in the possession of some AK-103, rifles, grenades, and at least one IMI Uzi 9x19mm Parabellum. The following video  shot by Pérez in the safe house between 4:00/4:30 UTC-4 and 6:27 UTC-4 on January 15. Part of Pérez and his companions’ equipment is visible: an AK-103 (best shown in 00:08-00:14), two grenades (00:17-00:20), and an IMI Uzi 9x19mm Parabellum (00:22-00:25).

The AK-103 is the standard issue weapon of the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana, FANB). The Ministry of People’s Power for Defense (Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Defensa, MPPD)  acquired 100,000 of those rifles in 2005—along with accessories, ammunitions, training manuals, and shooting simulatorsfrom the Russian state-controlled company Rosoboronexport. In 2006, a deal was made for Venezuela to develop its own AK-103/AK-104 construction plant. It will go into operation by the end of 2019, said the Venezuelan Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino López on April 3, 2018.

The two grenades pictured in one of the videos seem to be a fragmentation and a tear gas device. The tear gas grenade is an Artificio Pelota de Goma (APG), likely an APG 111 as it presents the same features as the APG 111 grenades seen in this image, which are made by CAVIM and the Spanish company Falken. Finally, the IMI Uzi 9x19mm Parabellum seems to be a recurrent equipment with the Venezuelan special forces units.

A photo released by the Venezuelan government after the end of Operación Gedeón presents the weapons that were allegedly seized during the assault. It is likely that some of the weapons Pérez and his team of rebels had in the safe house were stolen during the raid on the barracks of a National Bolivarian Guard’s (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, GNB) company in the Laguneta de La Montaña of the San Pedro de Los Altos parish in Miranda state on December 18, 2017.

The arsenal used by the 500 Venezuelan security operatives during the El Junquito raid contained assault rifles (AK-103 and  AR-15), submachine guns (Heckler & Koch MP5), and heavier weapon systems.

At least four RPG rockets were fired by state security personnel. Those were 40mm OG-7V fragmentation rounds fired from an RPG-7V or an RPG-7V1. The RPG-7V1 seems to be the choice of the Venezuelan security apparatus. The following video represents the second RPG strike hitting the safe house where Pérez and his six companions were hiding. The video was shot at about 9:07 UTC-4 on January 15.

Finally, the security officials called in a Russian-made BTR-80A amphibious armoured personnel carrier (APC) of the Venezuelan Army to support their assault. It entered the Araguaney neighbourhood, where the operation was taking place, at about 11:35 UTC-4 and reached the vicinity of the safe house by 11:45 UTC-4. Video evidence from the day suggests that the BTR-80A opened fire on the safe house at the time of the final assault.

This is a video of the BTR-80A and escorting vehicles after they entered the Araguaney neighbourhood. It was filmed at 11:35 UTC-4.

The above video was recorded near the time of the final assault on the safe house. An RPG strike occurs at the beginning (00:01-00:04) and some of the shots fired later in the video resemble in sound and speed the firing of the BTR-80A canon and mounted machine gun.

A Messy Raid

Videos recorded by state security operatives and leaked radio communications of the security organisations involved in the raid provide an insight into the workings of Operación Gedeón from the side of the security apparatus.  

At one point during the operation, at least one officer began to record the operation the events. The video captured a group of officers watching the attack on the safehouse in awe, with some laughing. The same video ends as the same officers attempt to put an end to a hail of bullets directed towards the safe house by yelling, “Don’t shoot!” repeatedly, mostly to no avail.

Some of the intercepted radio communications of the state security forces appear to suggest that at least some of the officers in charge of the operation were concerned over the lack of discipline and professionalism some officers were exhibiting. At one point in the intercepted audio below, a frustrated officer can be heard ordering others to stop recording the raid on their cellphones. Some of those communications were  released by a Venezuelan hacker who uses the Twitter handle @HDPY0.

The same intercepted communications also show that a lack of coordination between the different security services at the scene led to logistical problems. For example, officers can be heard complaining that there are trucks belonging to one of the security services on the scene parked haphazardly on the road. The officers complain that the drivers appear to have left the vehicles without any regard for the flow of traffic, and there is some confusion as to who the drivers are and where they went. Much of the rest of the audio is made up of confused screams ordering officers to cease fire, suggesting a pervasive lack of discipline and coordination from the agencies involved in the raid.

Finally, a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fired by a state security unit missed its target, the house, and nearly hit another group of state officers.

Extrajudicial Killings

When the last bullet was fired in El Junquito in the morning of January 15, 2018, Pérez and his six companions lay dead. Open source evidence suggests that that Pérez and all members of his group were killed between 11:15 UTC-4 and 12:00 UTC-4.

The following image pictures Pérez dead. What appears to be a hole is visible on his forehead. The legs of another body are near him. This photo was shot sometime between 12:00 UTC-4 and 18:25 UTC-4.

The house in which they had taken refuge had nearly been reduced to rubble, having barely withstood a furious attack throughout the morning that included rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy weaponry.

While the minutes before the deaths of Pérez and his companions remain a mystery, official death certificates for the seven individuals reveal a disturbing pattern: all but one had been killed by shots to the head.

The death certificates of Perez, left, and Abraham Agostini Agostini, right. Both list the following as the cause of death:: “Traumatic cranial injury due to weapon fired at the head”.

Alberto Rodriguez, a Venezuelan journalist, broke the news that Jose Alejandro Pimentel’s death certificate also listed “Traumatic cranial injury due to weapon fired at the head” as his cause of death.

Lisbeth Andreina Ramirez Mantilla’s death certificate lists the following as her cause of death: “… craneal fracture due to bullet [injury] to the head”.

According to a journalist named Yanitza Leon, Daniel Soto Torres’ cause of death was a bullet injury to the neck.

Pérez’s own account of how the morning progressed lends credence to the theory that he and his companions were victims of an extrajudicial killing. In his early videos from January 15, Pérez appears calm and relaxed, and speaks casually while he explains that he is negotiating with the authorities, and expecting the press to arrive on the scene shortly. When he negotiates with the authorities, Pérez is cordial and collegial. These early videos appear to show a man who is confident that a peaceful resolution to the standoff is on the horizon.

Pérez’s later videos paint a different picture. In one, a bloodied Pérez frantically tells the camera that the authorities are firing on them despite their attempts at surrender, while in another a distraught Pérez says that the authorities have just told them that they are going to be killed.

Furthermore, Pérez and his companions’ calls for surrender were acknowledged by the security forces, according to leaked radio communications between the security operatives involved in the raid that were allegedly recorded between 11:15 UTC-4 and 11:32 UTC-4 on the day. In a segment of the leaked transmissions obtained by Univision, an officer states: “There’s a negotiation with Alpha 6, there’s a negotiation with Alpha 6. Nobody fire. Alpha 6, they’re surrendering to Alpha 6”. Alpha 6 is Major Rafael Enrique Bastardo Mendoza. As head of the FAES of the National Bolivarian Police (Policia Nacional Bolivariana, PNB), he was one of the individuals leading Operación Gedeón. The government maintains that Pérez did not want to surrender.

The evidence gathered makes it impossible to state conclusively that Pérez and his companions were the victims of extrajudicial killings by Venezuelan government forces. However, it does suggest that as a strong possibility. In a nation beset by police violence, Pérez and his companions would be neither the first nor the last Venezuelans to die at the hands of state authorities under these circumstances. Pérez’s outspoken willingness to surrender, his death certificate and those of his companions, along with the threat that he represented to the government of the Maduro government raise an important set of questions regarding the conduct of state security forces in  Operación Gedeón.

In the days following Operación Gedeón, the safe house was razed by the government, erasing all traces of the January 15 raid.

 

The Rebels: Who Were Óscar Pérez and His Companions?

There were seven individuals in the El Junquito safe house when it was assaulted by the Venezuelan security forces: Óscar Alberto Pérez, José Alejandro Díaz Pimentel, Daniel Enrique Soto Torres, Abraham Israel Agostini Agostini, brothers Abraham and Jairo Lugo Ramos, and Lisbeth Andreina Ramírez Mantilla.

A tweet posted on February 15, 2018exactly a month after Operación Gedeónsuggests Perez and his team were in the safe house since at least the end of December 2017. The tweet contains a group selfie taken by Soto near the kitchen of the safe house. The poster of the tweet states that the image represents the “last Christmas supper (bread, juice, and melon juice) of our warriors”. The Spanish text reads: “Última cena de navidad (pan, queso, jugo de melón) de nuestros guerreros.”

Selfie from February 15 tweet and shot within the safe house, allegedly on Christmas Eve. Identifiable individuals are: Soto (taking the picture), Pimentel (left, with a cap on), and Pérez (to the right of the man wearing a white sweater or jacket and a hat).

Óscar Alberto Pérez

37 years old when killed, Óscar Alberto Pérez captured the national spotlight on June 27, 2017, when he stole a Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) Bo 105CBS helicopter belonging to his former police unit, the Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigations Agency (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas, CICPC), Venezuela’s forensic police force. The blue CICPC-2 is one of the two MBB Bo 105CBS helicopters owned by the organisation. It was delivered to the CICPC on January 31, 2014.

According to the newspaper El Pais, Pérez flew that helicopter before 18:00 UTC-4, first over the Ministry of the Popular Power for the Interior, Justice and Peace (MPPRIJP)offices (Google Maps, Wikimapia) and then the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, TSJ; Google Maps, Wikimapia) building in Caracas. Perez allegedly fired at the buildings, and dropped explosive devices on them. The two videos below depict the incident, in which no one was injured or killed.

This composite of four videos depicts the June 27 helicopter attack on the TSJ building. The third video (00:34-1:18) shows the assault itself. While the helicopter circles above the TSJ building, an explosion (1:01-1:04) and multiple gun sounds (00:37, 00:54-00:55, and 1:13-1:18) can be heard.

In the video above, the blue CICPC-2 helicopter takes off from the rooftop of a building located at coordinates 10.433872, -66.868965. This building belongs to a block of apartments known as the residencias Ríos de Venezuela, located in the La Trinidad area in Caracas. El Pais reports that Pérez landed the MBB BO 105CBS in this area, 10 kilometers southeast of the TSJ building, at 18:15 UTC-4 for about 15 minutes before taking off again.

A banner is visible on the side of the helicopter at 00:21 of the video. Reading “350 LIBERTAD”, it hung from the helicopter as it zig-zagged through the skies of the capital. The tweet below gives a better view of the banner, the helicopter, and Pérez. It also shows that Pérez was not alone in the aircraft.

“350 LIBERTAD” is a reference to the article 350 of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, which outlines the right of Venezuelan citizens to rebel against tyrannical governments.

Prior to launching his rebellion, Pérez had enjoyed a successful career spanning more than 15 years (archive) with the CICPC. There, he became a helicopter pilot and K9 instructor. Reaching the rank of inspector, Pérez was the chief of operations for an elite air division of the CICPC (archive), the Special Actions Brigade (Brigada de Acciones Especiales, BAE). It was in the CICPC that Perez developed the technical knowledge to pull off his June 27 helicopter mission, as well as his months-long campaign against the Maduro government.

In some parts of this video, Pérez is seen performing various training drills aboard the blue CICPC-2 MBB Bo 105CBS helicopter. Note that this is the helicopter he stole from the CICPC to undertake his June 27 attack on the Venezuelan TSJ building. .  

Aside from his work as a member of the Venezuelan security apparatus, Pérez starred in and co-produced a 2015 independent film called Muerte Suspendida (Suspended Death), a police drama inspired by the kidnapping and rescue of Portuguese businessman Joao Dos Santos Correia two years earlier. Pérez also had a prolific presence on social media, including a personal Instagram account featuring all aspects of his life. This profile, with username “oscarperezgv” (archive), was deleted from Instagram after the June 27 helicopter attack on the TSJ building in Caracas. It is on this Instagram account that Pérez’s first public call for rebellion was published while his helicopter was flying above Caracas. Surrounded by four armed men, Pérez is seen in the video wearing his CICPC uniform with the insignia of his BAE unit.

Pérez and his accomplices managed to escape authorities following their attack on the TSJ and Ministry of the Interior buildings. They landed near the town of Osma (Google Maps, Wikimapia) in Vargas state, in a mountainous area 45 kilometres northeast of Caracas. There, they slipped into the clandestinity from which Pérez would lash out against the Maduro government for the next seven months.

Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s vice-president since January 2017, posted two tweets on June 28, 2017, at 16:59 UTC-4  and 17:03 UTC-4, each containing the same image of the blue CICPC-2 MBB Bo 105CBS helicopter near the town of Osma, Vargas Municipality, where it was found by the National Bolivarian Armed Forces of Venezuela (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana, FANB).

Having spent two weeks in hiding, Pérez resurfaced in public at an anti-government demonstration called The March for the Fallen (Marcha por los Caídos) in Caracas on July 13, 2017. Surrounded by cameras from local media outlets and star-struck demonstrators, Pérez gave a fiery speech in which he said that it was time for President Maduro’s “narco-government to fall”, and called for a general strike.

 

This is Pérez’s message from July 4, 2017. He refers to Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s President, and Diosdado Cabello, Vice-President of the state’s ruling party PSUV, as assassins. He asks again people to take to the street. He asserts the legitimacy of his actions in articles 333 [right of any citizen to bring back the Constitution if it ceases to be applied] and 350 [discussed above] of the Venezuelan Constitution.

While his call for a general uprising went unheeded, Pérez quickly began to develop a following of supporters who were angered by the increasingly autocratic Maduro government, and by what they perceived to be the political opposition’s inability to mount an effective challenge to his rule.

Pérez maintained a low profile for much of the rest of 2017, only occasionally surfacing on videos recorded from inside safe houses. The videos typically featured Pérez making more calls for an insurrection against the government, and for the country’s security forces to help remove President Maduro from power. In the videos, Pérez would often appeal to ideas like liberty and freedom of expression, and voice a desire to see Venezuela return to the path of democracy and achieve economic and social stability. While some of the videos featured Perez alone, others included members of Perez’s rebel group, which now had a name: the National Equilibrium Movement (Movimiento Equilibrio Nacional, MEN).

This is an example of videos Pérez recorded from inside safe houses after his last appearance in public on July 13, 2017. Featuring Pérez and José Alejandro Díaz Pimentel, this video was published on November 22, 2017.  

On December 18, 2017, Pérez led a small group of rebels on what was to become his second major move against the Maduro government since June 27. During the overnight hours, a group of approximately 15-20 men headed by Perez broke into the barracks of a National Bolivarian Guard’s (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, GNB) company in the Laguneta de La Montaña of the San Pedro de Los Altos parish in the Miranda state.

Pérez called the assault on the GNB barracks “Operation Genesis”. Wearing a mixture of official uniforms bearing the insignia of the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, SEBIN) and the General Directorate for Military Counterintelligence (Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar, DGCIM), Pérez and his team subdued the sleepy soldiers and stole AK-103 rifles, 9mm pistols, and dozens of ammunition cartridges for both weapons. Pérez recorded the raid and promptly posted it on social media, including segments in which he and his companions lectured confused soldiers on civic duty and ethics. No one was injured in the raid, for which Pérez thanked “God and Jesus Christ”.

A video of “Operation Genesis” recorded by Pérez from within the GNB barracks. Pérez, Pimentel, and six other members of his team are visible in the video. At least 14 GNBs are pictured in it. The video was made public on the day of the raid: December 18, 2017.

Another video of “Operation Genesis” recorded outside the GNB barracks. Pérez and his men have tagged the number “350” on the barracks and a GNB car. It is in reference to the article 350 of the Venezuelan Constitution. Its significance is discussed above.

The last visual of Pérez alive was a video he filmed from within the safe house on January 15 at about 9:59 GMT-4. His final words in the video were “we want to surrender! Stop shooting!”

 

Lisbeth Andreina Ramírez Mantilla

Lisbeth Ramírez’s family found out that she was with Oscar Pérez and his group in El Junquito from media reports naming her as one of the fatalities in Operación Gedeón.

At 29 years old, Ramírez was the youngest of five siblings, and lived with her parents in San Cristobal, in Tachira state, located in the country’s southwest. The daughter of Colombian citizens, Ramírez had hoped to move to Colombia in search of a better life but was unable to complete all of the necessary paperwork required to migrate to the neighbouring country, according to her sister.

Having graduated as a nurse, Ramírez was enrolled in an odontology program at a university in Maracaibo, Zulia state at the time of her death. She had travelled to Tachira one last time to celebrate the Christmas holiday with her family in December 2017, before leaving the state on a bus on January 9. While her family thought that Ramírez was heading back to Maracaibo to resume her studies, she was in fact going to El Junquito.

An image of Ramírez dated August 7, 2010, taken at the time of a high school graduation.

Ramírez was the only female in Pérez’s group. Her family claims that she was not a member of Pérez’s rebel movement. Ramírez’s family says that what brought her to the safe house that day was her partner, Jairo Lugo Ramos, whom she had been in a relationship with for the last twelve years.

During the raid, Pérez pleaded with the authorities to exercise restraint in their attack, as he claimed that there were civilians and children in the home. It is possible that he was making reference to Ramírez, since early reports suggested that she was pregnant. In the days following her death, Lisbeth’s family refuted these reports.

The unique sighting of Ramírez on January 15 is from a video Pérez filmed in the safe house sometime between 8:27 UTC-4 and 09:02 UTC-4. Not posted on Pérez’s Instagram account, the video was released a week after the incident by Anonymous Venezuela. Ramírez appears on camera between 00:28 and 00:34.

Jairo Lugo Ramos

One of two brothers killed in the raid, Jairo came to El Junquito from the Lago Azul neighbourhood of Maracaibo, Zulia state. Before joining Pérez’s rebels, Jairo had reached the rank of 2nd Sergeant in the GNB. Jairo eventually retired from the GNB, and dedicated the last months of his life to selling drinking water on the street.

In 2006, while Lugo Ramos was a member of the GNB, he travelled to San Cristobal, Tachira to take a course at the CICPC’s regional headquarters. There, he met Lisbeth Andreina Ramírez Mantilla, who worked in a cell phone store in front of the CICPC building.

In a televised press conference on January 16, 2018, Minister of the Interior Nestor Reverol claimed that Jairo, along with his brother, took part in a raid on the Fuerte Paramacay military base in Carabobo state on August 6, 2017. Jairo was 30 years old at the time of his death.

Abraham Lugo Ramos

Like his brother, Jairo Lugo Ramos, Abraham was a 2nd sergeant in the GNB. In 2010, Abraham was charged with attempted murder in Los Teques, Miranda state, and spent time at the Ramo Verde military prison.

It is not clear if Abraham’s case ever reached the trial stage.

José Alejandro Díaz Pimentel

As Pérez’s right-hand man, José Alejandro Díaz Pimentel featured predominantly in many of the videos that he released in the months leading up to the El Junquito raid. Born in Caracas, Pimentel spent the last few years of his life living in the Arismendi municipality of Margarita Island, in the state of Nueva Esparta.

A screenshot of Jose Alejandro Pimentel speaking on video recorded on January 15, 2018. In the video, Pimentel says that he is “giving up his life” for a “better Venezuela”, and calls on Venezuelans to march to the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas to help overthrow the government of President Maduro. The video can be found here.

Pimentel served alongside Pérez in the CICPC. In 2009, he was arrested for attempted murder and robbery in Nueva Esparta state. While Pimentel served time in prison, it is not known for how long he was behind bars, or if he was held in pre-trial detention or as part of a sentence.  

His wife, Dayana Santana Diaz, was arrested and sent to prison in July of last year by agents from the SEBIN for allegedly participating in the anti-government protests that were taking place throughout the country at the time.

Pimentel had two children, and was 37 years old at the time of his death.

Daniel Enrique Soto Torres

Having recently graduated from a social communication program at the Rafael Belloso Chacin University in Maracaibo, Zulia state, Soto’s relatives were taken by surprise when they learned that he had been killed in El Junquito. According to them, Soto had plans to emigrate from Venezuela in the near future. Prior to joining Pérez’s team in El Junquito, Soto told his family that he was going on a trip out of the country with some friends as a cover.

Soto’s family last saw him alive in the week before Operación Gedeón. He was 30 years old.

Abraham Israel Agostini Agostini

Aside from having served in the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana, FANB), Abraham Israel Agostini Agostini had also worked as an Aragua State Police officer.

El Estimulo reported that, as was the case with Abraham Lugo Ramos, Agostini had been working in the informal economylikely as a street vendorat the time that he joined Pérez’s rebels. A friend also told the newspaper that he saw Agostini alive the week before the raid in El Junquito, and that he was living in Caracas at the time.

At the time of his death, Agostini was 33 years old. He was married and had four children, all of whom had left Venezuela.

 

State and Paramilitary Forces

Operación Gedeón involved 500 law enforcement, intelligence, and military operatives from a number of Venezuelan state security organizations, ranging from civilian police bodies to elite military and intelligence units. The large number of agencies involved, from national police to military counterintelligence to pro-government paramilitary groups, is evidence of the large number of organisations that make up the Venezuelan state security apparatus. Throughout the morning of January 15, these organizations would work in tandemoften under chaotic circumstancesto bring to a dramatic end the story of Óscar Pérez and his band of rebels.

Based on the audio-visual evidence collected for this piece, the following organizations took part in the raid on the safe house in El Junquito:

National Bolivarian Police (Policia Nacional Bolivariana, PNB)

The PNB is often seen conducting crowd control operations at anti-government protests. The PNB was created in 2009 as Venezuela’s first national police force. It operates under the command of the MPPRIJP, the Interior Ministry.

The Special Actions Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales, FAES) took a prominent role in the January 15 El Junquito raid. The FAES is an elite unit that is tasked with carrying out SWAT-like operations. Throughout much of 2017, the FAES became infamous due to its central role in Operation Liberation of the People (Operacion Liberacion del Pueblo, OLP), a security initiative that involved raids on some of the country’s poorest neighbourhoods. Launched in the summer of 2015, the OLP quickly gained a bloody reputation amid widespread allegations that FAES officers were engaging in extrajudicial killings and torture of some of Venezuela’s most marginalized peoples. Between May and November of 2017, FAES agents killed 124 people in Caracas during security operations.

Motorbikes with FAES operatives on them moving towards the zone of operation in El Junquito. This video was shot at location 10.453056, -66.990306 around 11:38 UTC-4 on January 15.

The man heading the FAES on the ground during Operación Gedeón was GNB Major Rafael Enrique Bastardo Mendoza. As the document below shows, Major Bastardo was appointed head of the FAES on May 2, 2017.

Official document appointing GNB Major Rafael Enrique Bastardo Mendoza to the role of head of the FAES. The document is dated May 2, 2017, and signed by Carlos Alfredo Pérez Ampueda, National Director of the PNB and Brigadier General in the GNB. Original source of the document.

Major Bastardo is the man with whom Pérez and his companions negotiated in the early hours of Operación Gedeón. The voice responding to Pérez and Daniel Enrique Soto Torres in the following two videos belong to Major Bastardo. In the state security radio communications from the day, leaked to Univision, Major Bastardo is identified by other participants as Alpha 6. From what police sources said to Univision, the Alpha code is used by the PNB. Alpha 1 is allegedly the head of the PNB, Carlos Alfredo Pérez Ampueda. This speaks to the important position Major Bastardo helds in the PNB.  

This is the video of the first contact between Pérez and Major Bastardo on January 15. It was recorded by Pérez between 7:44 UTC-4 and 08:26 UTC-4.

Above is the video of a round of negotiations between Pérez and Daniel Enrique Soto Torres, and Major Bastardo and his men on the other hand. It was recorded by Pérez between 7:44 UTC-4 and 08:26 UTC-4, after the previous video, on January 15.

According to Punto de Corte, Major Bastardo was in the past a member of the Commando Actions Group (Grupo de Acciones de Comando, GAC) of the GNB and was Director of Operations and Tactical Actions of the PNB under General Juan Francisco Romero Figueroa.

Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigations Agency (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas, CICPC)

Although its involvement is recorded in two videos, Pérez’s former police unit does not seem to have played a major role in the Operación Gedeón. It came to the site after the time of  Pérez’s death.

The following video pictures a CICPC truck driving towards the operation area where the safe house was located. It was recorded at about 12:12 GMT-4 on January 15, 2018.

National Bolivarian Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana, FANB)

Three elements of the FANB took part in the raid on the safe house: The National Army of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (Ejército Nacional de Venezuela , ENV), the National Bolivarian Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, GNB), and the General Directorate for Military Counterintelligence (Direccion General de Contrainteligencia Militar, DGCIM).

The GNB is tasked with maintaining public order in Venezuela, and is typically deployed to quell protests and other civil unrest. It counts on a military-grade arsenal of weapons and equipment. The armored personnel carriers and heavy weaponryincluding the RPGthat participated in Operación Gedeón belonged either to the GNB or the National Army of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

The GNB is made of various entities. One of them is the People’s Guard (Guardia del Pueblo, GP). Created in 2013, the GP tend to supplement the ranks of GNB officers during crowd-control operations. Another one unit visible in Operación Gedeón is the National Anti-Extortion and Kidnapping Unit (Comando Nacional de Antiextorsion y Secuestro, CONAS). Created in 2013, the CONAS isas its name indicatestasked with investigating and finding resolution to cases of kidnapping and extortion. It is not unusual for CONAS officers to participate in operations outside of their mandate, and are often deployed as a SWAT-like force. Yet another branch of the GNB is the GAC, to which Major Bastardo belonged in the past.

The DGCIM is Venezuela’s military counterintelligence service, and is tasked with safeguarding national security by preventing, detecting and taking action against espionage attempts by foreign entities. The DGCIM’s public operations most commonly involve the arrest of officials and military officers suspected of working against the interests of the Venezuelan government. Given its mandate, the DGCIM is one of the more obscure organizations in the Venezuelan security apparatus, yet it participates in a broad range of policing activities, including the arrest of individuals suspected of committing financial crimes.

National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional, SEBIN)

Since its inception in 2010, the SEBIN has become one of the most feared institutions in Venezuela. As the country’s internal security service, the SEBIN’s role is to neutralize domestic threats against the Venezuelan government. In practice, this includes arresting anti-government protesters and political dissidents. The SEBIN’s headquarters in Caracas is colloquially known as La Tumba [The Tomb] given its underground location and the torture to which its inmates are subjected by their captors. The SEBIN has been singled out as a particularly brutal arm of the Maduro government’s arsenal of repression, and has been accused by human rights organizations like the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch of torturing detainees.

Pro-government armed group (Colectivo Armado)

There is evidence to suggest that official state authorities were not the only ones that participated in the safe house raid. In an audio message leaked to the media that same day, a high-ranking PSUV official named Freddy Bernal, also Minister of the Popular Power of Urban and Periurban Agriculture, announced the death of a “patriot” in the raid: Heiker Vásquez, the alleged leader of a colectivo armado named Tres Raices (Three Roots) which operated in the 23 de Enero area of Caracas. Below is Freddy Bernal’s declaration about Heiker on January 15, 2018. The first notification about the existence of this audio recording appeared on Twitter at 12:40 UTC-4 on the day.

Aside from being the head of a colectivo armado, Vásquez was also a member of the PNB, serving under the name Andriun Domingo Ugarte Ferrera. Vásquez’s death in the operation was confirmed by Diosdado Cabello, the vice-president of the ruling PSUV party, who said in a televised address two days after the raid that Vásquez’s presence at the site had been requested by the rebels, and that he was killed early on in the operation. The day after the raid, Minister of the Interior Nestor Reverol announced that two police officers had been killed in the operation, Andriun Ugarte being one of them. Reverol did not mention Vásquez in his official statement.

Diosdado Cabello talks on his TV show about how Pérez and the rebels asked Vásquez’s presence to surrender, and how he was betrayed by them. Cabello’s address was aired on January 17, 2018.

Vásquez’s burial on January 17, 2017, was attended by both uniformed members of the PNB as well as heavily-armed civilians. As his casket was lowered into its plot in Caracas’ Cementerio del Este, gunfire erupted in the 23 de Enero neighbourhood as Tres Raices mourned the loss of its leader.

This video portrays an alleged section of Vásquez’s funeral. Members of various units from the PNB, such as the FAES, and the Special Tactical Operations Unit (Unidad De Operaciones Tacticas Especiales, UOTE), surround what is said to be Vásquez’s casket and sing.  

This video captures the sound of gunshots in memory of Vásquez.

In recent years, colectivos armados have gained a morbid reputation as the Maduro government’s shock troops, and played an extensive role in helping official state security forces quell the anti-government protests of 2014 and 2017. Last year alone, colectivos armados were responsible for several high-profile killings of anti-government protesters, including Paola Ramirez and Carlos Jose Moreno.

In a report dated October 30, 2017, Amnesty International reported that colectivos armados “are tolerated or supported by the authorities” as they intimidate and sometimes attack protesters and other government dissidents. While Vásquez’s participation in the El Junquito raid is not in itself evidence that colectivos armados played a formal role in the operation, it does highlight the blurred boundary between official state security forces and armed government sympathisers in policing activities in Venezuela.

 

“Oscar Perez Lives”

While El Junquito was the epicentre of Operación Gedeón, Venezuelan security forces also arrested six people in connection to the case in other parts of the country.

The most substantive official statements on the case came from a MPPRIJP press conference on January 16, and from comments made by PSUV vice president Diosdado Cabello during his weekly television show on January 17. The government is monolithic in its version of events: Perez and his rebels were violent terrorists who were bent on overthrowing the government of President Maduro, and they were killed in a confrontation that they initiated with security forces.

By demolishing the safe house in which Oscar Perez and his companions were killed just days after the raid, and burying the bodies of the deceased, the physical traces of the raid have been all but erased. In a country suffering from an unprecedented social, economic and political collapse, the story of Oscar Perez’s last stand has largely fallen out of the news cycle. With the definitive version of the event already established, it is unlikely that the Venezuelan government will revisit the issue.

Oscar Pérez was buried six days after his killing in one of the most inaccessible plots of Caracas’ Cementerio del Este. The authorities allowed only two relatives to witness the burial. A group of relatives were blocked from accessing the grounds by GNB soldiers, who kept them at the gates while Pérez was laid to rest.

Pérez’s burial came at the end of a tumultuous week, one that was filled with the same types of rumours and conspiracy theories that had shadowed him during the last seven months of his life, aided in part by the government’s refusal to provide details on his death. It was only the heightened police presence at the Bello Monte morgue in Caracas starting on January 16 that gave away that the facility as the holding place for Pérez’s remains and those of his six companions. Two days after his death, the authorities had yet to allow his relatives access to the morgue to identify the body and make funeral arrangements.

The theory that Pérez had been executed was bolstered when a death certificate leaked out of the morgue on January 19 showing that Pérez’s cause of death had been a bullet to the head. During that same week, rumours appeared and spread on social media claiming that government authorities would attempt to cremate Pérez’s body against the wishes of his relatives in order to destroy evidence of the execution. Growing crowds of supporters outside of the morgue, initially gathered to show support for Pérez and his cause, were by January 21 bent on stopping the supposed cremation from taking place.

Once buried, the authorities began to allow mourners at the cemetery’s gate to begin the laboured walk up a winding path to pay their last respects to the man who had been the focus of national attention for the past week. There, on a sparsely-populated plot atop a hill alongside a set of telecommunication towers, they found a simple white stone with “OSCAR PEREZ” painted in black letters marking the location of his grave. One of the men to make the trip that morning was a priest who performed a mass at Pérez’s grave for the swelling crowd that had gathered there by mid-morning.

A Twitter accounting linked to Pérez fell silent mid-morning on January 15, around the same time that the authorities are believed to have overwhelmed Pérez and his companions, and killed them.  

On January 16, the account began to tweet a flurry of messages to counter the government version of events in the El Junquito safehouse the day before. Uncertainty over what would happen to the account was soon put to rest as it became clear that someone in Pérez’s network had survived the El Junquito raid and was now running the account. The account has been tweeting messages sporadically since January 16, calling on Venezuelans to unite and fight to overthrow the Maduro government, carrying on Pérez’s message.

Jose Alejandro Diaz Pimentel was also buried in Caracas’ Cementerio del Este. His burial took place a day prior to that of Pérez, on January 20. In this video, mourners sing the national anthem. His children kneel at his grave.

While the MEN’s Twitter page continues to show activity, the organization has not conducted any anti-government operations since the death of its leader. Based on video evidenceincluding the December 18 GNB barracks raidit is unlikely that Pérez stayed with a group larger than a dozen or so fighters while he was living in hiding. It is not clear at this moment how big Pérez’s network was at the time of his death, or how many members it may still have.

In the early afternoon of January 21, Pérez having been buried scarcely six hours earlier, a young man in gear typical of the anti-government protester approached his grave and gave an impassioned speech before the mourners there. Overcome with emotion, the young man yelled through his mask,

Since his death, vigils have been held for Pérez and his companions not only in Venezuela, but also in Miami and New York. Haunted by fears that his message was falling on the ears of a skeptical and cynical populace, one of Pérez’s last tweets was an assertion that his rebellion had been genuine.

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14 Comments

  1. Paul Williams

    Man ends up shot by police in police raid in which his group shot at police?

    That’s the essence of the story here?

    Reply
    • Andrea

      Kinda XD
      but the fact they all died with a bullet to the head suggests something weird happened…
      …either some great snipers 😛 …
      …either some angry “cops”

      Reply
      • Dissident Voice

        Or scared cops. You know who violent the rightwing extremist opposition is in Vzla. Or Perez made his imminent fall into a suitable narrative. either way, its not uncommon in civilized countries to kill terrorists with guns. In France no terrorist ever survives. In Israel they are shooting everyone in the head and afterwards calls them terrorists. In the Netherland some train hijackers originally coming from a part of Indonesia were filled with about 500 bullets each. But of course, in Vzla the death of a rogue soldier who targetted an institution of democracy with guns, is a blatant breach of the rule of law.

        Reply
    • Rob Heusdens

      @Paul Williams
      Thanks for this great summary, it saves me a lot of time reading that article.

      Now such incidents happen all over the world on numerous occasions and in plentitude of countries, including the US (remember #BlackLivesMatter).

      Why then is Bellingcat so engaged in clearing up this kind of incident in Venezuela? Is there some agenda behind it?

      Ah I see. Venezuela is Socialst, and the US and western countries are against that. So they need to create a mess there to be able to overthrow the government.

      Case closed.

      Reply
      • Nate

        For f**ks sake, Venezuela is a damn autocracy. No, no chance for them to overthrow the government now. If you really think Bellingcat is propaganda, you have been indoctrinated in “alternative facts”.
        Please take off your tinfoil hat and take your damn medicine.

        Reply
      • Nate

        Sorry, no chance of the US overthrowing Venezuela this time. If you think the protests are astroturfed, you have watched too much TeleSUR. Take off your tinfoil hat. You’re just like those damned 9/11 truthers who refuse to go away.

        Reply
  2. ClaudioGentile

    By the sound of it a bunch of fascistic terrorists were neutralized…incidentally I can’t seem to find the bellingcat report on the sniper killing of unarmed protesters in Gaza (just imagine the hype if Assad was reportedly doing it)….I guess some “investigations” are more important than others…

    Reply
    • Sy

      No investigation is more important than the rest, the fact that you call Oscar Perez a “fascistic terrorist” just means you know absolutely nothing about Venezuela and it’s current situation, before spitting feces through your keyboard I would suggest that you read more about it or keep the ignorant comments to yourself.

      Reply
      • Paul Williams

        He was a terrorist by all internationally agreed definitions of what is a terrorist.

        Reply
  3. Jm

    First of all none of you belong or are from this beautiful country (venezuela) so please reserve your f*ck*ng comments. If you see and experience what me and my family and millions of venezuelans go thru everyday just to survive you will not be making this stupid comments. Is very easy to blame the right or the left or even western countries all together(US) but the reality is that we have real criminals running the country pillaging everything in site while making their pockets and family menbers (close associates also)richer, even the food that is allocated to the local poor population is being stolen.
    This people kill with no problem what so ever, they are the same sh*t as the right wing dictators that ran the Latin American countries in the past. killing everything in site. They are in fact the same crap as what they say they hate. People are dying and are exiting the country in masses ladies and gentlemen. So unless you sell everything that you owe and help that same people your talking about shut your f*ck*ng mouths and get back to your beautiful secured societies. Because is very easy to talk crap when you are living the good life where ever you are. By the way great análisis from bellingcat!

    Reply

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