Running his family’s ranch in Apure state, Reyes Hernández González found that the cattle business in the Venezuelan lowlands of the 21st century can be just as wild as during previous centuries, with rustlers and criminal gangs being replaced by the better organized and more aggressive leftist guerrillas, who threaten, kidnap and kill to get cattlemen to pay extortion money.
Yet he was never in more danger than after a high-ranking government official showed interest in buying the 8,200 acre homestead.
The official made a $13 million offer in a friendly manner and Hernández politely turned it down, never guessing that his refusal would lead to years of imprisonment at the feared headquarters of the nation’s Military Intelligence Police, where he was hung by the wrists and subjected to electric shocks by agents wanting him to sign the papers giving up his family’s ranch.
Hernández, 43, remained jailed under trumped-up charges for more than four years before he was able to escape. Having lost it all, he is now seeking asylum in Florida, where he tells those willing to listen how regime officials use the country’s justice system to cheat, steal and ruin lives.
“I said no [to their offer] and that is when my ordeal began,” Hernández ƒtold the Miami Herald. “Three months later, a team from the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence showed up at the ranch saying that they were there to search for weapons.” They found none, but they ended up taking him to their headquarters in Caracas and eventually charged him with a terrorist plot to overthrow the Nicolas Maduro regime.
Venezuelan court documents and documents introduced before the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela corroborate Hernandez’s testimony. Part of his story has also been picked up by independent news outlets operating outside the South American country to avoid censorship.
Located 190 miles north of the Venezuelan border with Colombia, the Chaparralito ranch had belonged to the family for 30 years. At the time of Hernández’s arrest, it held 7,500 head of cattle plus around 3,700 head of water buffalo. It is ideally located in a high elevated area of the flood-prone Apure lowlands, which allowed most of the property to remain dry during the rainy season.
The ranch housed a successful dairy operation with a daily output of 8,000 gallons of milk and a number of other dairy products. It has direct access to paved roads, in an area where most ranches do not, but what really sets it apart is its paved landing strip, constructed in 1967 to service a slaughterhouse that was then run on the property
It was a very profitable operation, but what really triggered top regime official Diosdado Cabello’s interest in the ranch was the landing strip, Hernández said.
Cabello, arguably the second most powerful man in Venezuela after Maduro, faces drug trafficking charges in the United States, where officials believe he runs the Cartel de los Soles — the Cartel of the Suns — alongside other regime officials. The U.S. government is currently offering a $10 million reward for Cabello’s arrest.
A large portion of the drugs coming from Colombia enter Venezuela through Apure, where they are loaded into small planes that take off from dirt runways and land in Central America on their way to the United States, according to U.S. investigations of the Venezuelan cartel’s operations.
Hernández said he was first approached in 2017 by an army general saying he had a message and handed him a phone. Hernández found himself speaking to Cabello. After meeting with him a few days later in the city of Maturin, Hernández understood he had a serious problem on his hands.
His uneasiness intensified after a number of generals began to call him soon after to let him know that he had to sell. The final offer came from Cabello associate Luis Bracho, who told him he was authorized to offer $13 million for the whole ranch, and that Hernández would be allowed to take only his clothes and his dead father, whose body was buried on the property.
During the conversations, Bracho told Hernández he had been negotiating to buy some of the ranches in the area and that the buyers were all “Sun People”, which Hernández figured either meant they were all generals — Venezuelan generals wear insignia resembling the sun — or that they were members of the Cartel of the Suns.
“He told me that it’d be foolish for me to lose this opportunity,” Hernández said. “‘’You are smart, don’t fight this’”, he said Bracho told him.
But it was an offer Hernández felt he had to refuse. The lands were his the legacy of his father, whose dying wish was to never allow the ranch out of family hands. Hernández was afraid of the consequences, but after talking it over with his mother and brothers, he told Bracho: Thank you, but I can’t sell.
Not much happened immediately afterwards, and after a few weeks Hernández began to think that Cabello and his generals had accepted his decision. That all changed, however, on Sept. 11, 2017, when a team of 40 men showed up at the in search of weapons. After not finding any and without a court order to detain him, Hernández was flown to Caracas and taken him to the infamous military intelligence headquarters.
When he arrived in the building in handcuffs, Hernández asked to use a bathroom, explaining to his captors that he was still recovering from a recent gastric surgery. That’s when he met Alexánder Enrique Granko Arteaga, a military intelligence officer often used by the regime to conduct its dirty business.
Granko, who has been singled out by international organizations as the perpetrator of a number of crimes against humanity, including torture and extrajudicial killings, quickly set the tone for what the new detainee had in store. He told Hernández he couldn’t go to the bathoom, and added: “Go ahead and s–t yourself and see how I’ll make you eat it all.”
Hernández braced himself, not sure if he would be able to control his bodily functions given his recent surgery, but the officer who. Hernández at the ranch intervened. He told Granko the detainee had in fact had a recent surgery and had serious health issues. And then Hernández heard him whisper: “It might be best if you allow him to use the bathroom. This guy is innocent. I brought him because those were the orders, but if he dies”, it could be a problem.
Hernández was allowed to go to the bathroom and clean his wounds and attend to a drainage tub, then was to a small waiting room, where he was kept for three days before being transferred to a smaller room, where other prisoners waited to hear their fate.
He ended up spending several months inside a six-foot-by-six-foot room, nicknamed “the elevator,” where prisoners who were not yet officially charged were held.
The elevator held six and 12 detaineeds at any given time, which left little space for people to lay down, forcing them to take turns to be able to sleep. Prisoners were allowed to go to the bathroom and were fed regular but meager rations. From time to time, they were taken away and subjected to harsh interrogations, although Hernández said the ill treatment was rather light in comparison to what was to come.
After a year of detention in the elevator he was finally taken to a tribunal in Caracas, charged with terrorism and transferred to a section known as the House of Dreams, where political prisoners are held.
There Hernández met a number of well known political prisoners, including general and former Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres, former Defense Minister and now deceased Gen. Raul Baduel, and former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath, who was recently released.
Hernández said that all House of Dreams inmates were tortured with the exception of Rodríguez Torres. The treatment was savage. “I saw generals crying,” he said.
It was then that Granko got heavily involved in his case. In different torture sessions, Hernández said he was hanged by the wrists, his feet dangling two feet above the floor. In one ocasión, one of his arms popped out of his shoulder blade.
His torturers were not interested in obtaining information from him. All they wanted was for him to sign over the ranch. He was told their boss, whom they didn’t name “wants the Chaparralito ranch. But now, in order to be able to leave, you have to give up the ranch and give us a million dollars.”
Hernández was not willing to sign over the ranch, nor did he have a million dollars, so the torture continued.
At times they beat him while hanging from the wrists, at other times they would apply electricity to his testicles and his anus. Other times, they would place over his head a plastic bag and spray insecticide inside.
During one of the torture sessions in 2021 Hernández collapsed. They had him dangling by his wrists again and were applying electric shocks when he blacked out. Seeing that he was not responding, his torturers, Granko and Navy Captain Abel Angola, took him to the infirmary, where they were told he had suffered a heart attack and needed to be taken to the military hospital.
At the hospital doctors there were able to stabilize him. Soon afterwards his family was allowed to visit him.
Prosecutors didn’t quite know what to make of the case against Hernández, given there really wasn’t any evidence against him. They told him to plead guilty to a lesser charge, assuring him that he would be sentenced to 27 months, which he had already served at the military intelligence headquarters.
His lawyers, who saw no other way out, recommended that he accept. He did and was freed a few days later, but did not have much time to celebrate. Arriving at his mother’s apartment in Caracas, he got a call from one of his brothers telling him that military intelligence officials were searching for him. “I think they mean to kill you,” his brother said.
Hernández drove back to the military intelligence headquarters to turn himself in, telling officials there that he didn’t quite understand what was going on. He was told that a judge in Apure state had ordered his arrest for illegal arms possession, because that they had found a smoke grenade and a few rifle rounds on his ranch.
This new charge, as the one before, was false, but Hernández ended up spending another year detained by military intelligence before he was transferred to Apure to face the new charges. There, he convinced the judge the accusation was false, given that at the time the alleged munitions were found, he was detained in Caracas.
Ruling in his favor, the judge also ordered the National Guard to take control of the ranch. Once freed, Hernández headed to his ranch, hoping his ordeal was over. But when he arrived, he found a new prosecutor waiting for him.
“Damn, Reyes,” the prosecutor told him. “I just got a call from Diosdado Cabello and he chewed me out because the prosecutor’s office did not issue a preventive order to keep you in custody while we appeal the judge’s decision.” The prosecutor then got another call, this time from the nation’s attorney general, Tarek William Saab, ordering him to present new charges against Hernández. “I don’t know how, but you fix this problem,” Saab told the prosecutor.
The prosecutor gave Hernández a head start and the rancher, who had spent more than four years in custody, got in his car and headed towards the Colombian border, happy to be free and out of Cabello’s reach.
The judge who allowed him to go, Carlos Albertmo Jaimes Gómez, and Hernández’s lawyer, Juan Carlos Guillén González, were arrested soon afterwards and are currently jailed on corruption charges.
This story was originally published January 30, 2023 5:00 AM.