Cleveland (AFP) – Three Americans were quietly imprisoned in Venezuela earlier this year for allegedly trying to enter the country illegally and now face lengthy prison sentences in the politically volatile country.
Two of the men – a California lawyer and a computer programmer from Texas – were arrested in late March, just days after President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government fired other Americans..
Venezuelan security forces have arrested attorney Evin Hernandez, 44, and computer programmer Jerel Kennemore, 52, in separate incidents in the western state of Tachira, according to a person familiar with the investigations into the arrests. The person spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issues publicly.
Hernandez from Los Angeles. Kennymore is from the Dallas area, but has lived in Columbia since 2019.
A third American was arrested in January, for allegedly entering the country illegally along its long border with Colombia. The Associated Press is withholding his name at the request of his family, who fear reprisals.
At least eight other Americans — including five oil executives and three war veterans — remain in prison. In Venezuela, US officials insist they are being used as a political bargaining chip.
The recent arrests come amid efforts by the Biden administration to do away with the Trump-era policy of punishing Maduro for what they see as trampling on democracy in Venezuela. Instead, Biden officials are trying to lure him back into negotiations with the US-backed opposition to clear the way for free and fair elections.
As part of that still early engagement, the United States has hinted at the possibility of easing sanctions on the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) – a move that could, over time, also help lower oil prices, which rose after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The release of the two Americans was celebrated on March 8 in Washington, giving impetus to the Biden administration’s outreach to Maduro. It is not clear what impact, if any, the imprisonment of three other Americans will have on relations with Maduro, a close ally of Russia who has been sanctioned and charged with drug-related matters by the United States.
The State Department confirmed the three arrests, and a spokesperson for the officials said officials were calling for the immediate release of all Americans unjustly detained in Venezuela.
In addition to any political fallout, the arrests point to what US officials consider an alarming trend: the arrests of unsuspecting Americans along the Colombia-Venezuelan border, a lawless region dominated by criminal gangs and leftist rebels. Americans trying to enter Venezuela without a visa are particularly at risk.
Despite Maduro’s often fiery rhetoric against the US “empire”, there is no indication that he is targeting Americans with arrest.
But with the South American country torn apart after years of political turmoil, hyperinflation and devastating food shortages, Maduro’s grip on low-wage security forces is festering. This has created an opportunity for criminal elements and hardliners looking to spoil Maduro’s talks with the United States
“There are a lot of 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 progress,” said Phil Johnson, Caracas-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.
In one arrest report seen by the AP, Venezuelan military intelligence agents justified their actions by citing “ongoing threats, economic blockades, and severance of diplomatic relations” by the United States.
Some senior Venezuelan officials also justify the arrests of Americans. At a press conference on June 13 Announcing the arrest of another unnamed American, “They have their plans against our country,” said Socialist Party leader Diosdado Cabello.
Hernandez, who was arrested on March 31, was supposed to appear in court on Monday but the hearing was adjourned.
Hernandez immigrated to Los Angeles as a young child with his parents fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. His friends and relatives said that after graduating from UCLA Law School, he turned down lucrative jobs to instead work as a public defender representing indigent and sometimes homeless defendants, a sign of his charitable spirit.
Like Maduro, Hernandez loves salsa music and has a history of labor activism. His brother said Hernandez, who was a keen traveler, was taking a short break from work when he traveled to Colombia, where he had been several times before. Just before he got home, he escorted a Venezuelan friend to the border. His family said he had absolutely no intention of going to Venezuela, nor would he intentionally break the law.
Hernandez’s friend is also in custody and faces an additional charge of migrant smuggling, according to the person familiar with the investigation.
“My entire family misses my brother very much,” Henry Martinez, who also lives in Los Angeles, said in a statement. “He has worked his entire career serving marginalized people and is really better than us. We hope and pray that Evin gets home so soon from this wrongful arrest.”
Two weeks before Hernandez’s arrest, Kenmore was arrested under similar mysterious circumstances.
According to the Kennymore family, he’s been living in Colombia for over a year with a Venezuelan woman he met online when the two were going through a divorce. The two shared a small apartment where Kenmore was working remotely with a client in the US, but decided to move to Venezuela, where his girlfriend had a home.
Kenmore’s family said he was detained by immigration officials upon entering Venezuela, it reported GoFundMe Page They set up to pay for his defense. They posted on the crowdfunding platform what they said was the last photo of him before his arrest, near a Colombian border checkpoint on the Simon Bolivar International Bridge.
Prosecutors allege that Kenmore, his girlfriend and three others entered the country on a nearby dirt road, one of hundreds of irregular crossings Venezuelans use daily on interstate shuttles for groceries, medical appointments and visiting family. They said he was carrying three laptops and was accompanied by a captain in the Venezuelan navy, which also aroused suspicion.
Like Hernandez, Kenmore was charged with criminal association and conspiracy – crimes punishable by up to 16 years in prison. His girlfriend is also detained.
“Jeryl is a good American Christian,” his sister, Gina Kenmore Tellery, said in a phone interview. “All he wanted to do was be with the woman he loves. His sisters, kids and grandson miss him so much and we just want him at home.”
In April, the US State Department warned of threats to Americans along the Colombia-Venezuela border. She recommended Americans to avoid traveling to Venezuela, and not to enter without a visa, which has been nearly impossible to obtain since the United States cut diplomatic ties with Maduro in 2019.
According to Venezuelan law, foreigners who are found in the country without a visa must be deported immediately.
But for reasons that are unclear, the three men arrested earlier this year hundreds of miles away in the capital, Caracas, have been moved to a maximum security prison that houses many of Maduro’s opponents.
Americans imprisoned in Venezuela are at a disadvantage when it comes to asking for help from their government. The United States closed its hilltop embassy in Caracas in 2019, after recognizing opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader.
The United Nations has long complained about the lack of independence of Venezuelan judges and about the facility where Americans are being held.
“It’s not a legal system one wants to get stuck in,” said Johnson of the International Crisis Group.
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