AP Exclusive: Venezuela jails 3 Americans amid US outreach

CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) — Three Americans were quietly jailed in Venezuela earlier this year for allegedly trying to enter the country illegally and now face lengthy prison sentences in the politically turbulent nation, The Associated Press has learned.

None of the arrests have been previously reported. Two of the men, a California lawyer and a Texas computer programmer, were arrested in late March, just days into the socialist rule of President Nicolás Maduro. freed two other Americans.

Venezuelan security forces nabbed lawyer Eyvin Hernández, 44, and computer programmer Jerrel Kenemore, 52, in separate incidents in the western state of Táchira, according to a person familiar with investigations into the arrests. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss the cases publicly.

Hernandez is from Los Angeles; Kenemore is from the Dallas area, but has lived in Colombia since 2019.

A third American was arrested in January, also for allegedly entering the country illegally along its long border with Colombia. AP is withholding his name at the request of his family.

At least eight other Americans, including five oil executives and three veterans, stay incarcerated in Venezuela, and US officials insist they are being used as a political bargaining chip.

The latest arrests come amid efforts by the Biden administration to reverse a Trump-era policy of punishing Maduro for what they see as trampling on Venezuela’s democracy. Instead, Biden officials are trying to lure him back into negotiations with the US-backed opposition to pave the way for free and fair elections.

As part of that still early rapprochement, the US has raised the possibility of easing sanctions on the OPEC nation, a move that, over time, could also help reduce oil prices, which soared after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The release of two Americans on March 8 was celebrated in Washington, giving a boost to the Biden administration’s rapprochement with Maduro. It is unclear what impact, if any, the jailing of three other Americans will have on relations with Maduro, a close ally of Russia whom the United States has sanctioned and indicted on narcotics charges.

The State Department confirmed all three arrests, and a spokesman said officials advocate the immediate release of all Americans wrongfully detained in Venezuela.

Beyond any political fallout, the arrests point to what US officials see as an alarming trend: the arrest of unsuspecting Americans along the Colombia-Venezuela border, a lawless area dominated by criminal gangs and leftist rebels. Americans trying to enter Venezuela without a visa are especially vulnerable.

Despite Maduro’s often fiery rhetoric against the American “empire,” there is no indication that he is targeting Americans for arrest.

But with the South American country shattered by years of political instability, hyperinflation and devastating food shortages, Maduro’s control over his underpaid security forces is limited. That created an opportunity for hard-liners and criminal elements seeking to sabotage Maduro’s talks with the US.

“There are many different centers of power in Venezuela and not all of them are aligned with Maduro or share his goal of seeing talks with the United States move forward,” said Phil Gunson, an analyst at the International Crisis Group based in Caracas.

In an arrest report seen by the AP, Venezuelan military counterintelligence agents substantiated their actions by citing the “constant threats, economic blockade, and rupture of diplomatic relations” by the United States.

Some top Venezuelan officials also justify arresting Americans. At a press conference on June 13 announcing the arrest of another anonymous American, The leader of the Socialist Party, Diosdado Cabello, said: “They have their plans against our country.”

Hernandez, who was arrested on March 31, was supposed to appear in court on Monday, but the hearing was postponed.

Hernández immigrated to Los Angeles as a young child with his parents, who were fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. After graduating from UCLA law school, he turned down lucrative jobs to work as a public defender representing indigent and sometimes homeless defendants, a sign of his charitable spirit, friends said. and relatives.

Like Maduro, Hernández loves salsa music and has a history of labor activism. An avid traveler, Hernández was taking a short break from work when he traveled to Colombia, where he had been several times before, his brother said. Just before returning home, he accompanied a Venezuelan friend to the border. His family said it was never his intention to go to Venezuela, nor would he knowingly break the law.

Hernandez’s friend is also in custody and faces additional migrant smuggling charges, according to the person familiar with the investigation.

“My brother is deeply missed by my entire family,” Henry Martinez, who also lives in Los Angeles, said in a statement. “He has worked his entire career serving underserved people and he really is the best of us. We hope and pray that Eyvin can return home very soon after this wrongful arrest.”

Two weeks before Hernandez’s arrest, Kenemore was detained under similarly murky circumstances.

According to Kenemore’s family, he had been living in Colombia for more than a year with a Venezuelan woman he met online when they were both going through divorces. The two shared a small apartment where Kenemore was working remotely for a client in the US, but he had decided to move to Venezuela, where his girlfriend had a house.

Kenemore’s family said he was detained by immigration officials upon entering Venezuela, according to a GoFundMe page they settled down to pay for their defense. They posted on the crowdfunding platform what they said was the last photo of him before his arrest near a Colombian border checkpoint at the Simón Bolívar international bridge.

Prosecutors allege that Kenemore, his girlfriend and three others entered the country via a nearby dirt trail, one of hundreds of irregular crossings used daily by Venezuelans traveling between countries for shopping, medical appointments and visits to the family. family. They said that he was carrying three laptops and was accompanied by a captain from the Venezuelan navy, something that also raised suspicions.

Like Hernández, Kenemore was charged with criminal association and conspiracy, crimes punishable by up to 16 years in prison. His girlfriend is also in custody.

“Jerrel is a good American Christian man,” Jeana Kenemore Tillery, his sister, said in a telephone interview. “All he wanted to do was be with the woman he loved. His sisters, sons and grandson miss him very much and we just want him home.”

In April, the State Department warned of threats to Americans along the Colombia-Venezuela border. He recommended that Americans avoid all travel to Venezuela and never enter without a visa, which is almost impossible to obtain since the United States severed diplomatic relations with Maduro in 2019.

Under Venezuelan law, foreigners found in the country without a visa must be deported immediately.

But for reasons that remain unclear, the three men arrested earlier this year were transferred hundreds of miles away to the capital, Caracas, to a maximum-security prison that houses many of Maduro’s opponents.

Americans imprisoned in Venezuela are at a disadvantage when it comes to seeking help from their government. The United States closed its hilltop embassy in Caracas in 2019 after recognizing opposition lawmaker Juan Guaidó as the nation’s rightful leader.

The United Nations has long complained about the lack of independence of Venezuelan judges, as well as the facilities where Americans are held.

“It’s not a legal system you want to get caught up in,” said Gunson of the International Crisis Group.

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman


Conversations are the opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of conduct. The Star does not endorse these views.

Leave a Comment