weather icon Clear

Imprisoned supercop’s movie-like escape from Venezuela

WASHINGTON — As the last rays of sunlight faded into the Caribbean Sea, political fugitive Iván Simonovis was speeding toward an island rendezvous with freedom.

Three weeks earlier he had fled house arrest, rappelling down a 75-foot wall in the dead of night, then took a bolt cutter to his ankle monitor. Since then he had been furtively moving between safe houses to stay one step ahead of Nicolas Maduro’s security forces.

It was a meticulous plan befitting his reputation as Venezuela’s most famous SWAT cop.

But then, with freedom almost in sight, Venezuela’s crisis dealt one final blow: The motor on his fishing boat conked out, choking on water and sediment clogging its gas tank, a growing problem in the once-wealthy OPEC nation as its crude supply dwindles and its refineries fall into disrepair.

“Nobody would’ve guessed that in Venezuela a motor would fail because of the gasoline,” the 59-year-old Simonovis told The Associated Press in his first comments since resurfacing Monday in Washington after five weeks on the run.

That Simonovis can laugh about his ordeal is as much a testament to his jailers’ incompetence as his own bravery. To date, there’s been no official reaction to his escape after 15 years’ detention — a possible sign that Maduro is too embarrassed to acknowledge his lack of control over his own security forces, some of whom helped Simonovis gain freedom.

“They are active members of the Maduro government, but quietly they work for the government of Juan Guaidó,” Simonovis said, referring to the opposition leader recognized as Venezuela’s president by the U.S. and more than 50 other nations.

Imprisoned in 2004

In 2004, the former Caracas public safety director was imprisoned on what he insists were bogus charges of ordering police to open deadly fire on pro-government demonstrators who rushed to Hugo Chávez’s defense during a short-lived coup. Nineteen people were killed in a gunfight that broke out on a downtown overpass.

Simonovis’ nearly decade-long confinement in a windowless 6-foot-by-6-foot prison cell after a trial marred by irregularities became a rallying cry for the opposition, which viewed him as a scapegoat. His arrest order was signed by Judge Maikel Moreno, who as a lawyer had defended one of the pro-Chávez gunmen involved in the 2004 gunfight and who now heads the Supreme Court.

Similarly, Simonovis became a trophy for Chávez, who accused him of crimes against humanity — for which he was never charged — and erected a memorial on the overpass to those who died “defending the Bolivarian constitution.”

Simonovis and the other police defendants — five of whom remain jailed — were given 30-year sentences, the maximum allowed by Venezuelan law, for complicity to murder.

Worked to reform Caracas

Prosecutors were especially severe because of Simonovis’ ties to U.S. law enforcement and reputation for being incorruptible. He was catapulted to fame in 1998 by ending a seven-hour televised hostage standoff with a sniper’s bullet. Then as safety director, he brought former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton to Caracas to help clean up the capital’s graft-ridden police force and tackle exploding crime.

In the decade that followed his imprisonment, Simonovis and the opposition tried myriad ways to win his freedom: a hunger strike, appealing for a presidential pardon and even attempting a run for congress so he could receive parliamentary immunity.

In 2014, he was granted house arrest so he could seek medical treatment for 19 chronic illnesses, some of them exacerbated by the fact that he was allowed only 10 minutes of sunlight a day.

In the wake of a failed April 30 military revolt called by Guaidó, Simonovis was tipped off that he could soon be put back behind bars. The security detail stationed permanently outside his home on a leafy street was increased from eight to 12 heavily armed agents after Maduro named a hard-line loyalist to head the SEBIN intelligence police after the former head fled the country during the uprising.

“The one thing I knew is that I was never going back to prison,” Simonovis said. “So, I took the decision to leave my home and my homeland.”

Planning took weeks

Plotting the escape took weeks, with one clear finish line — the U.S.

Leopoldo Lopez — Venezuela’s most-prominent political prisoner until he bolted house arrest himself during the short-lived military uprising and sought haven inside the Spanish ambassador’s residence— worked his extensive political contacts to secure the support of the U.S. and two other foreign governments.

Among the tasks was getting permission to enter the U.S. since Simonovis’ only identity document had expired a decade earlier.

He disappeared from his home in the dead of night on May 16. Inside a small bag he carried a flashlight, a pocketknife, a copy of his judicial sentence and a biography of American astronaut Neil Armstrong.

“You can’t sleep when you know the government is looking for you,” he said.

Every second vital

Descending into a dark alley, he miscalculated and crashed loudly into an adjacent wall. But he quickly recovered and within 90 seconds was in the first of three cars that would drive him to an abandoned home.

“I approached this like a police raid, where every second is vital,” said Simonovis, who spent the nights prior to his escape unscrewing the fence behind his house and practicing his descent on a staircase, anchoring knots he hadn’t used since special forces training. “The speed with which you move is what guarantees your success, so you need to move quickly.”

Once free, Simonovis called his wife, Bony Pertnez, who he had kept in the dark about his plans. She was visiting their children in Germany, which in the days that followed gave rise to rumors that he had fled there too — speculation he sought to foment.

As he was hunkered inside an abandoned home and then a foreign embassy — at one point watching the movie “Argo,” a political thriller mirroring his own escape — he instructed his wife to post family photos and videos on social media to mislead the security forces hunting for him into believing he had already fled the country.

Guaidó, who issued a pardon that Simonovis used to justify his flight, added to the intrigue. “He should have been freed many years ago, a long time ago. But today he is free,” the opposition leader said on the day of his escape.

During the tense drive to the fishing boat launch point, several national guard checkpoints had to be negotiated, so Simonovis traveled in a beat-up Toyota wedged between two other cars in case he had to make a run for it.

In the end, they arrived at a remote area of Venezuela’s coastline with few hiccups. Then what was supposed to be a short sea crossing to an island turned into a 14-hour ordeal when the boat’s motor failed.

For fear of exposing the more than 30 people who helped him escape and who remain at risk, Simonovis declined to identify the island or say how, or exactly when, he got there after the boat started to drift. Earlier this month, one of his lawyers was arrested after speaking to journalists outside Simonovis’ home and remains jailed in the same Caracas prison where Simonovis was held alongside dozens of opposition activists.

Picked up by charter jet

The next day, a chartered jet picked him up. Flying over the Bahamas into U.S. airspace, the pilot handed over the controls to Simonovis, an accomplished pilot himself.

“I landed my own freedom” he said, recalling how he had also been carried away on a plane 15 years earlier, following his arrest. “But this time I was in control of my own destiny.”

Now, as he reclaims his life, he wants to strike back, using his law enforcement background to assist U.S. authorities investigating corruption, drug trafficking and alleged links to terrorist groups by Venezuelan officials. He’s also looking to help Guaidó develop a blueprint for improving urban security should he take power. In Washington, he plans to meet with several U.S. lawmakers to push for more action against Maduro.

He recalls the time lost with a mix of sadness and gratitude whenever he steps out to buy a coffee — a simple task long denied him.

“When you’re a prisoner… you depend on someone else for everything — for eating, getting dressed, for medicine” he said. “I was paying for something the other day and I couldn’t understand the person who was talking to me, not because of the English but because I was so concentrated on what was happening.”

Overwhelmed by freedom

“Right now, I’m overwhelmed by my freedom. But it feels good. It’s the natural condition of man.”

Meanwhile, he hopes his journey will inspire other Venezuelans to persevere and rise up against Maduro.

“There comes a moment when you have to risk it all,” Simonovis said, soaking up the summer breeze under the shadow of the Washington monument.

“When I left my home, there were two possible outcomes: Either I lose everything or I win my freedom,” he said. “But if I had stayed put, I would’ve simply sunk every day deeper into a sea of despair.”

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Politics Videos
Trumps Strength is also a Weakness - Video
One of Donald Trump’s greatest strengths — his ability to shape national narratives — is also a great weakness.
Tax the Rich Bus Tour makes a stop in Las Vegas - Video
The Tax the Rich Bus has stopped in Las Vegas as part of its summer tour. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno hosts BBQ - Video
Assembly Woman Daniele Monroe-Moreno hosts BBQ to bring the community together to hear about the candidates up for election and for people to gather and have fun.
Democrat Virtual Caucus - Video
Elizabeth Warren visits Las Vegas
Senator Elizabeth Warren made a campaign stop at the East Las Vegas Community Center on Tuesday July 2, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Aaron Ford Speaks About Bill AB431
AB431 is a bill sponsored by Nevada Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson to restore the right to vote for formerly incarcerated individuals. Attorney General Aaron Ford spoke at the AM&E Church in North Las Vegas about the bill, on Monday, July 1, 2019. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Right Take: Biden's Racially Questionable Comments
Joe Biden has uttered racially charged statements for years. Now that he’s the frontrunner for the Democrat presidential nomination, he may finally face prolonged scrutiny for them.
Christopher Rufo Discusses Homelessness In The USA - VIDEO
Christopher Rufo discusses homelessness in the United States and how politicians can work to improve conditions for those with drug addictions.
Clark County 2019 Election Results - Video
The 2019 Elections wrap up in Clark County including an upset in the Boulder City Mayor race.
Olivia Diaz talks about her win in Ward 3 - VIDEO
Las Vegas City Councilwoman-elect Olivia Diaz talks about her election win in Ward 3 and what lies ahead for her.
Greene discusses Read by 3 and Opportunity Scholarships - VIDEO
The Nevada Legislative Session is over and the results are mixed for Nevada students, according to Tom Greene, Senior regional legislative director, Excel in Ed in Action.
Bernie Sanders visits Las Vegas
Sen. Bernie Sanders made a stop at Roy W. Martin middle school on Thursday, during his campaign trail.
Kamala Harris campaigns in Las Vegas
Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris castigated President Donald Trump’s merit-based immigration plan, saying it was “short-sighted” and overlooked the cultural significance of family, during a campaign stop in Las Vegas. “We cannot allow people to start parsing and pointing fingers and creating hierarchies among immigrants,” Harris told Asian Pacific Islander leaders at a Chinatown restaurant, one of two appearances she made Thursday.
The Right Take New Education Funding Plan - VIDEO
On Monday, Senate Education Committee chair Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, released a new education funding formula. For years, many Democrat politicians have criticized the current education funding formula, called the Nevada Plan. They claim it’s old and outdated. Their biggest beef is that it doesn’t allocate more money for students who are English Language Learners or live in poverty. The theory is that it’s harder to educate those students and so they need additional services, which costs additional money.
Kamala Harris campaigns in Nevada
California Senator Kamala Harris meets with One APIA Nevada, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies empowering Asian Pacific Islander Nevadans. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Ben Carson talks housing (Audio only)
Ben Carson discusses housing with the Review-Journal editorial board on Thursday. (Audio only)
Ben Carson visits the RJ (Full Audio Only)
Ben Carson discusses housing with the Review-Journal editorial board on Thursday. (Audio only)
Former Vice President Joe Biden campaigns in Nevada
After campaigning at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 16 in Henderson, former Vice President Joe Biden spoke with the Review-Journal.
Student serenades Mayor Carolyn Goodman at swearing in
Students from the school she founded, The Meadows School, serenaded Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman during a swearing in ceremony for her third and final term. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Al Gore Speaks At UNLV About Climate Change - Video
Former Vice President of the United States Al Gore talks to an audience at UNLV about the effects of Climate change and how to switch to renewable sources of energy.
Forum on Wages and Working People Highlights - VIDEO
Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, and John Hickenlooper speak in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Nevada Politics Today Valerie Weber - VIDEO
Valerie Weber sits down with Victor Joecks to discuss her policies and why she is running for Ward 2 of the Las Vegas City Council.
Cory Booker speaks at UNLV
US Senator Cory Booker speaks at UNLV during a Young Democrats meet and greet on Thursday, April 18, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Michael Cohen campaign finance probe over, prosecutors say

The disclosure in a court filing Wednesday is part of a legal fight over whether to unseal search warrant materials dealing with the investigation.

GOP Sen. Rand Paul blocks bill to boost 9/11 victims fund

WASHINGTON — A Republican senator has blocked a bipartisan bill that would ensure a victims’ compensation fund for the Sept. 11 attacks never runs out of money.

House committee OKs bill by Titus for airport signs

The House Homeland Security Committee approved a bill by Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., Wednesday to translate airport signs into multiple languages to assist tourists and others who don’t speak English.

Rumors, confusion, fear reign on Mexico border with new US policy

Asylum-seekers gathered in Nuevo Laredo grapple to understand what a new U.S. policy that all but eliminates refuge claims by Central Americans and many others meant for their bids to find a better life in America.

Clark County official presses Metro for answers about ICE cooperation

While Clark County Commissioners approved 40 supplemental positions for two understaffed jails Tuesday, Commissioner Justin Jones indicated his future support for more hires will be tied to the Metropolitan Police Department clarifying its role in immigration detention.