WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 in the Venezuelan capital, rappelling down a 75-foot (25-meter) 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 last month 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.
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 (2-by-2-meter) 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.
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.”
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.
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 house.
“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 the 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 a nearby 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.
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.”
“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.”
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