MEXICO CITY — A rogue helicopter that buzzed Venezuela’s supreme court building and possibly dropped grenades became a strange centerpiece Wednesday in the country’s meltdown — with some suspecting it was a ruse by President Nicolás Maduro to further clamp down on the opposition.
Opposition groups initially hailed the chopper flight Tuesday as a sign that security forces were breaking ranks in the first step in a possible coup.
But later, questions crept in. The pilot of the helicopter, which trailed a banner proclaiming “Freedom,” turned out to be an actor, Oscar Pérez, who also served in special operations forces. Maduro opponents then began to interpret the incident as a possible government-staged charade to muster support for even tougher measures against protesters as Venezuela’s political crisis grows more violent and desperate.
At least one prominent journalist rejected that, describing the chopper flight as a genuine act of rebellion by a man who “maybe has a touch of craziness.”
The helicopter was found intact Wednesday on a jungly hillside north of Caracas. But there was no sign of Pérez, who remained at large.
Even as Venezuelans tried to sort out what has been called the “Chopper Coupster,” the nation sank deeper into chaos.
Opposition groups and demonstrators have been outraged by the Maduro government’s attempts to dissolve the National Assembly and change the constitution. More than 70 people have died and at least 1,000 have been injured in near daily clashes over the past several months. Thousands have been arrested, and detainees have alleged physical and mental abuse by security forces.
Maduro, who has presided over an economic collapse marked by extreme shortages of food and medicine, has refused to back down.
On Tuesday, he denounced the helicopter incident as a “terrorist attack” and sent tanks and other armored vehicles onto the streets of the capital to “keep the peace.” Pro-government gangs surrounded parliament and kept lawmakers inside for hours.
In a speech, Maduro accused the CIA of supporting Pérez.
Pérez visited Washington in 2012 under an exchange program for foreign security forces involved in combating transnational crime. The visit was part of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.
Amid the chaos, the government took other steps.
The supreme court, a strong ally of Maduro, issued a decree stripping the attorney general of some powers and transferring them to the nation’s ombudsman, the top human rights official who supports Maduro.
Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz, who has spoken out against abuse by security forces and the erosion of democracy, has emerged as the Maduro administration’s strongest internal critic.
In a news conference Wednesday, Ortega reacted to the supreme court’s decree with defiance and emotion, calling it a move to “annul the attorney general’s office” in violation of the constitution.
“We have terrorism from the state,” she said, referring to Maduro’s vow Tuesday to retain power by force if votes fail. She cited repression of protests, military trials of civilians, warrantless raids and lack of due process.
“I swear to defend the constitution and democracy with my life,” said Ortega, who has been called a traitor by pro-government politicians. “I swear.”
As for Pérez, it turned out that the police inspector and pilot with a special operations brigade has a background as an actor. In 2015, he acted in and helped produce a film, “Death Suspended,” a police thriller.
“Through the cinema, we will enter the consciousness of the viewers, showing that there are Venezuelan policemen who are true heroes,” Pérez said in an interview with a Venezuelan news site about the movie. Pérez has Instagram photos of himself in derring-do poses, including one in which he holds a pistol in one hand and a makeup mirror in the other.
Elyangélica González, a journalist in Venezuela known for her military contacts, said it seems likely that Pérez, in fact, rebelled. González said military officers told her that Pérez was previously suspected of leaking information.
“It’s an isolated action of a man who sees many war movies and maybe has a touch of craziness, I don’t know,” she said. “It all points to it not being a show.”
Rocío San Miguel, a lawyer and security analyst, said the helicopter incident sparked no wider rebellion among the armed forces, although it raised the possibility of dissension in the ranks.
“There is a big institutional crisis, and the government has been called to arms,” she said.
One thing the helicopter incident confirmed: Maduro, with approval ratings of about 20 percent, has little remaining credibility with the public.
“The ‘Chopper Coupster’ episode, in all its glorious surrealism, comes just as the regime needed to draw attention away from its latest power grabs: a decision hollowing out the Prosecutor General’s office of most of its powers, and a straight-up assault on parliament,” wrote Francisco Toro, editor of the website Caracas Chronicles. “Lots and lots of crazy things happening out there, folks. And guys like Oscar Pérez will only sprinkle on more crazy.”
The president of the National Assembly, Julio Borges, said he had “no information on the helicopter incident. We’re analyzing.”
“Some say it was a trap; others say it does show police discontent,” he said in a radio interview.
The incident began in the late afternoon Tuesday, when Caracas residents saw a blue helicopter from the police investigations unit, the CICPC, circling the capital, carrying a banner that read “Libertad” and the number “350,” a reference to the article in the Venezuelan constitution that allows people to “disown” their government if it acts in an undemocratic way.
Ernesto Villegas, the communications minister, said the helicopter was stolen from a military base in La Carlota, in eastern Caracas. Villegas said that it dropped four grenades over the supreme court building and that three exploded. That account could not be independently verified.
In a video he released, Pérez denounced the “criminal government” as four masked men with guns stood behind him. Describing his group as a nonpartisan alliance of military, police and civilian officials, the pilot, wearing a uniform and reading from notes, said their fight was not against the rest of the security forces.
“It’s against the impunity imposed by this government,” he said. “It’s against tyranny. It’s against the deaths of young people who are fighting for their legitimate rights. It’s against hunger.”
On Tuesday, Maduro told supporters at a rally that his government is willing to use weapons to preserve the socialist movement started by Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013.
“If Venezuela was plunged into chaos and violence and the Bolivarian Revolution destroyed, we would go to combat,” Maduro told the crowd. “We would never give up, and what couldn’t be done with votes, we would do with weapons. We would liberate the fatherland with weapons.”
Maduro, who has long accused the United States of propping up his enemies, also called out President Trump, saying: “You have the responsibility. Stop the madness of the violent Venezuelan right wing.”
After the helicopter incident, National Guard and other security personnel in Caracas took positions around government buildings, including Miraflores, the presidential palace. Maduro said he has put the armed forces on high alert to “keep the peace.”
At the National Assembly, pro-government gangs known as “colectivos” — which often ride around on motorcycles and are known for violence — temporarily prevented a group of lawmakers from leaving.
Manuel Trujillo, a journalist with Vivoplay who was inside the assembly during the incidents, said it started when National Guard members entered carrying boxes marked with the letters of the national electoral agency. As an argument erupted about why they were there, the pro-government gangs arrived at the building and threw rocks, bottles and sticks. Trujillo said he could hear several explosions.
“We were very scared,” he said.
Before 10 p.m., lawmakers and others were able to slip out of the assembly.
Krygier reported from Caracas.