Dr. Everett Rutherford Jr., the uncle of Matthew Heath, a former U.S. Marine who has been detained in Venezuela for 22 months, walks past a mural created by artist Isaac Campbell in Washington, D.C., on July 20, 2022.

Dr. Everett Rutherford Jr., the uncle of Matthew Heath, a former U.S. Marine who has been detained in Venezuela for 22 months, walks past a mural created by artist Isaac Campbell in Washington, D.C., on July 20, 2022. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Eyvin Hernandez had been detained for six months at a notorious jail in Venezuela when seven other Americans were released earlier this month in a prisoner swap with the United States. The 44-year-old public defender from Los Angeles saw one of his best friends in prison let go as he, and several others, were left behind.

Unlike those freed, Hernandez and the others who remain are still not officially designated by the United States as wrongfully detained abroad, a determination that must be made by the State Department using criteria set by Congress. But the administration is under no legal time constraints. In Hernandez’s case, half a year of imprisonment in Venezuela’s infamous “House of Dreams” has passed without the U.S. government making a determination on his case.

A wrongful detention determination unlocks critical resources for the families of Americans imprisoned overseas, including interagency attention and access to the office of the presidential envoy for hostage affairs, which takes over the case from the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

But repeated appeals to the State Department by Hernandez’s friends and family for the designation have been substantively ignored, his family said in an interview with McClatchy and the Miami Herald.

At least five other Americans are in Venezuelan custody under similar circumstances.

Hernandez “is aware that, in order for him to get released, it’s going to have to be through political negotiations,” his brother, Henry Martinez, said. “That’s pretty clear.”

Hooded at the border

Hernandez had been vacationing in Colombia when his father and brother quickly realized something was wrong. On March 31, Hernandez stopped making his regular calls home. So they asked local police in Medellín to visit the Airbnb where he was staying.

Police video showed his belongings — sandals, luggage, a briefcase — were still in their place.

“Our hearts dropped when we saw that,” said Martinez.

“April 3 came around, and we were hoping he would come on the plane,” Martinez continued, tearing up alongside their father, Pedro Martinez, in a video interview. “Obviously he didn’t make it. I would have nightmares about identifying his body, or something like that. That was the worst part.”

They finally received a message on April 4 from a man who identified himself as Hernandez’s public defender in Venezuela, informing them that Hernandez had been charged with conspiracy and criminal association to commit crimes against the state.

When they were able to communicate with Hernandez in prison, he told them the backstory. He had met a Venezuelan girl on an app, and later in person at a disco club, his family said.

With only days left in his trip, Hernandez offered for her to join him in travels around the country. But the girl claimed she needed a Venezuelan stamp in her passport in order to board a domestic Colombian flight. Venezuelan opposition officials living in Colombia contacted by McClatchy and the Miami Herald were not aware of any such requirement. “The stamp is a formality and normally is not required by anybody in Colombia,” one of them said.

Nevertheless, Hernandez agreed to accompany her to get the passport stamp she needed in Cúcuta, a Colombian town on the border with Venezuela, traveling over 15 hours by bus to get there.

Once in Cúcuta, the pair hailed a taxi to reach a border crossing. Hernandez told his family he is unsure where they were dropped off. But once they were, armed men intercepted them within minutes.

One of the armed men allegedly tried to extract a bribe from Hernandez, asking for $100 in order to secure him entry into Venezuela. He said he had no intention of entering the country. They were hooded, tossed in the back of a truck, and detained.

Hernandez’s case is one of several instances of American men meeting Venezuelan women in Colombia before being led to the border and detained. It is unclear whether the cases form a concerted strategy by Caracas to lure and entrap U.S. citizens, but Biden administration officials told McClatchy they are aware and concerned by the potential pattern.

Hernandez’s family says the girl that traveled with him was arrested as well, and remains in prison.

The State Department issued a warning in August to Americans to avoid Colombia’s border region with Venezuela.

A spokesperson for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said the senator’s staff has been working on Hernandez’s case, was in touch with the State Department and was looking into ways the senator could help. Other representatives for Hernandez’s district did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

American hostages remain

When seven Americans were released on Oct. 1, Biden administration officials proclaimed a victory. “We’re overjoyed,” one senior administration official told reporters. “We got all our wrongful detentions — all of our Americans who were wrongfully detained back home and heading to the arms of their families.”

But human rights organizations in Venezuela believe there are at least six Americans still in the country’s prisons.

Besides Hernandez, there are two former Green Berets — Luke Denman and Airan Berry — who were caught in a May 2020 failed military incursion by Venezuelan dissidents, called Operation Gideon; Jerrel Lloyd Kenemore, a 52-year-old man arrested in Venezuela earlier this year; Jason George Saad, who has been described as a homeless man living on the streets of the eastern city of Maturin; and Dahud Hanid-Ortiz, a U.S. veteran wanted in Spain for the alleged killing in Madrid of two Cuban women and an Ecuadorian man.

Denman and Berry have already been sentenced to 20 years for conspiring to topple Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, but the charges against the rest of the men have not been announced.

Americans charged with conspiracy to overthrow the Maduro regime are often held by the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence, known as DGCIM, at their headquarters in the Boleita neighborhood of Caracas, a former textile factory transformed into administrative offices with detention cells.

Hernandez is currently being held at a sector of the building called Casa de los Sueños, or House of Dreams, which was specifically designed to break down prisoners.

“It serves as, and in fact they described it as a pressure cooker,” said dissident Venezuelan Air Force Lieutenant Luis Lugo Calderón, who was held for several months at the Boleita prison, speaking of DGCIM officials. “They place those that first arrive there to soften them up psychologically. Once they are broken, they are taken to other cells.”

Located in the building’s third basement floor, the 16 cells, measuring six feet by six feet, have very little ventilation. Prisoners held there are subjected to perpetual harsh light that keeps most from sleeping, described a recent report prepared by the Casla Institute, a non-governmental organization that monitors human-rights violations.

The political prisoners in Casa de los Sueños have spent long periods of confinement, where up to five people have been in the same cell. The overcrowding effect and lack of ventilation make it very hard to breathe, the report said.

“Detainees in this place often present respiratory diseases, as well as anxiety and depression,” the report states.

Despite these conditions being known to U.S. authorities, the Biden administration still has not commented publicly on Hernandez’s case.

“We take our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens seriously, and we will continue to press for fair and transparent treatment and consular access for all U.S. citizens,” a State Department spokesperson said. “If a U.S. citizen is detained abroad, the department carefully monitors the case and provides assistance where possible.

“While we have difficulties obtaining access to or confirming reports about detained U.S. citizens in Venezuela, we make every effort to provide the appropriate assistance,” the official added. “In general, the department regularly reviews cases of all U.S. nationals detained abroad to determine if the detention is wrongful. The Secretary makes a determination after considering information from a variety of sources and based on the totality of the circumstances in the case.”

The spokesperson did not answer questions on the length of time it is taking to determine whether Hernandez is being wrongfully detained.

“The president and secretary of state lead a robust team of U.S. government officials who work in partnership with families and nongovernmental organizations to secure the release of U.S. nationals who have been wrongfully detained or taken hostage abroad,” the official added. “We have no further comment at this time.”


Sacramento Bee reporter Gillian Brassil contributed to this article.


©2022 Miami Herald.

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