In the jungles of South America, state-sponsored transnational crimes are being committed against U.S. citizens in the form of cross-border kidnappings, a problem that is raising the concerns of Colombian and U.S. officials.
Last year, an American named Eyvin Alexis Hernandez was kidnapped by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s regime and taken to a dilapidated military compound. What is most frightening about Mr. Hernandez’s situation, however, is that when he was detained, he was most likely still on Colombian soil.
Mr. Hernandez isn’t the average lawyer. He has spent 15 years with the Los Angeles County Public Defender defending those who cannot afford to defend themselves. In a cruel irony, Mr. Hernandez now finds himself arbitrarily detained in a windowless Venezuelan prison under circumstances that exceed his worst nightmares. It is now our responsibility to get him home.
Mr. Hernandez was born in El Salvador in 1979 and was brought to the U.S. at age 3. He studied math and physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and decided to study law at his alma mater. On June 1, 2006, he was sworn in as a member of the State Bar of California. He soon became a champion for those experiencing homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse, and became an advocate for children in the juvenile justice system.
Last March, Mr. Hernandez took a vacation in Colombia, beach-hopping with friends. When one of his Venezuelan friends needed to go to a town on the Colombia-Venezuela border to have her passport stamped, Mr. Hernandez accompanied her to the small town of Cucuta. The town has increasingly become the center of turf wars fought by armed paramilitary groups, making it one of the most dangerous locations in the region.
When Mr. Hernandez and his friend thought they arrived at their destination by taxi, their driver left them on a dirt path and advised them to follow it into the woods to get to the border station. Soon, the pair were confronted by masked men in paramilitary gear who accused them of crossing illegally into Venezuela.
The two explained they were only trying to get a passport stamped, but the men said that process had been phased out three years ago, and offered a counterproposal, suggesting the two should pay $100 to cross into Venezuela. When the couple reiterated they did not want to enter Venezuela and did not have the money, they were hooded and forced at gunpoint into a pickup truck.
In an interview with NBC News, Mr. Hernandez’s brother, Henry Martínez, said, “The intentions, of course, were never to cross over to Venezuela, he was just accompanying her. There’s no sign that says, ‘You’re leaving Colombia’ or ‘Welcome to Venezuela.’” The fact that the pair were told they would have to pay if they wanted to cross into Venezuela suggests they were still on Colombian soil.
Mr. Hernandez was soon turned over to Venezuelan officials who locked him up at a compound known as DGCIM, an acronym in Spanish for the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence. Mr. Hernandez was charged with criminal association and conspiracy. Since then, he has had little contact with the outside world. What few facts are known have come from WhatsApp video calls Mr. Hernandez makes to his family. He has been locked up in a tiny solitary confinement cell with the lights turned on 24 hours a day. Other inmates have attempted suicide.
While his family has tried to distract him with sports updates, his father told NBC that he is losing hope. Mr. Hernandez’s friends and fellow public defenders have struggled to raise awareness of his situation.
Mr. Hernandez “has had an impact in all of our lives and now we’re closely working hand in hand,” fellow deputy public defender Vianey Juarez told NBC News.
Fortunately, Roger D. Carstens, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for hostage affairs, has been visiting Caracas to get information about Mr. Hernandez.
The Hernandez kidnapping is the newest case for Mr. Carstens, who is known for orchestrating last year’s prisoner exchange of seven other Americans, including five of the Citgo 6 — a group of oil executives who were charged and convicted of corruption (the sixth member had been released months before).
Those Americans were Houston-based Citgo employees who were visiting the company’s parent state run oil company, PDVSA, in Caracas. Shortly after their arrival, masked security agents burst into a conference room and abducted them. The other two Americans freed were Florida resident Osman Khan, also detained at the Colombian border, and Marine Corps veteran Matthew Heath, previously arrested at a roadblock in Venezuela on a weapons charge.
One of the Americans Mr. Carstens is still working to free is Jerrel Kenemore, who was also kidnapped by an armed gang near the Colombian and Venezuelan border. A software coding programmer from Paris, Texas, Mr. Kenemore was the 52-year-old divorced father of three who had been working remotely from Colombia since 2019. He has been described by those who know him as a Christian. Mr. Kenemore was abducted outside a grocery store at the Colombian and Venezuelan border, accused of engaging in terrorism, and turned over to the Venezuelan Immigration port at gunpoint. On March 17, 2022, Mr. Kenemore was erroneously charged as a spy.
Two other Americans, former Green Berets Airan Berry and Luke Denman, also remain imprisoned, accused of entering the country from Colombia to overthrow Mr. Maduro. These Americans all face sham trials overseen by judges who answer to Mr. Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela. If convicted, they could spend decades in prison.
While the U.S. appears to be working diligently to facilitate release of these Americans, their cases should serve as a warning to other Americans that even when they do their best to respect the rule of law, the governments of the countries they visit may not do the same. It should also admonish our government that despite recent policy shifts, we should not trust or work with Mr. Maduro’s regime, except to do what is absolutely necessary to bring our fellow Americans home.
• Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is a former Washington prosecutor who served as a senior appointed White House adviser and director of the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting from 2017 to 2021. He currently serves as a member of The Washington Times’ editorial board and can be reached at [email protected].