CLEVELAND (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 country.
Two of the men, a California lawyer and a computer programmer from Texas, were arrested in late March, just days after the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro freed two other Americans.
Venezuelan security forces arrested lawyer Eyvin Hernandez, 44, and computer programmer Jerrel Kenemore, 52, in separate incidents in the western state of Tachira, according to a person familiar with investigations into the arrests. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the cases publicly.
Hernandez is from Los Angeles; Kenemore is originally from the Dallas area, but had lived in Colombia since 2019.
A third American was arrested in January, also for entering the country illegally along its long border with Colombia. AP conceals his name at the request of his family, who fear reprisals.
At least eight other Americans – including five oil executives and three veterans – remain imprisoned in Venezuela, and US officials insist they are being used as political bargaining chips.
The latest arrests come amid efforts by the Biden administration to reverse the Trump-era policy of punishing Maduro for what they see as his trampling on Venezuelan democracy. Instead, Biden officials are trying to drag him back into negotiations with the U.S.-backed opposition to pave the way for free and fair elections.
As part of this still early awareness, the United States suspended the possibility of easing sanctions against the OPEC nation, a decision which, over time, could also help to lower oil prices, which soared after Russia invaded Ukraine.
The release of two Americans on March 8 was celebrated in Washington, boosting the Biden administration’s awareness of Maduro. It’s unclear what impact, if any, the imprisonment of three other Americans will have on relations with Maduro, a close Russian ally whom the United States has sanctioned and indicted for narcotics trafficking.
The State Department confirmed all three arrests, and a spokesperson said officials were advocating for the immediate release of all Americans wrongfully detained in Venezuela.
Beyond any political fallout, the arrests point to what U.S. officials see as an alarming trend: the arrest of unsuspecting Americans along the Colombia-Venezuela border, a lawless zone dominated by criminal gangs and leftist rebels. Americans attempting to enter Venezuela without a visa are particularly vulnerable.
Despite Maduro’s often fiery rhetoric against the American “empire”, there is no indication that he is aiming for Americans to quit.
But with the South American country torn apart after years of political turmoil, hyperinflation and devastating food shortages, Maduro’s grip on his poorly paid security forces is limited. This has created an opening for criminal elements and hardliners seeking to spoil Maduro’s talks with the United States.
“There are a lot of different power centers in Venezuela and not all of them are aligned with Maduro or share his goal of seeing the talks with the United States move forward,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.
In an arrest report seen by the AP, Venezuelan military counterintelligence agents justified their actions by citing the “constant threats, economic blockade and severance of diplomatic relations” from the United States.
Some senior Venezuelan officials also justify the arrest of Americans. At a June 13 press conference announcing the arrest of another unnamed American, Socialist Party leader Diosdado Cabello said, “They have their plans against our country.”
Hernandez, who was arrested March 31, was scheduled to appear in court on Monday, but the hearing was postponed.
Hernandez emigrated to Los Angeles as a toddler with his parents, who were fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. After graduating from law school at the University of California, Los Angeles, he turned down lucrative jobs to instead work as a public defender representing indigent and sometimes homeless defendants, a sign of his charitable spirit. said friends and relatives.
Like Maduro, Hernandez loves salsa music and has a history of union activism. An avid traveler, Hernandez was taking a short break from work when he traveled to Colombia, where he has been several times before, his brother said. Just before returning home, he accompanied a Venezuelan friend to the border. His family said he never intended to go to Venezuela and would not knowingly break the law.
Hernandez’s friend is also being held and faces the additional charge of migrant smuggling, according to the person familiar with the investigation.
“My entire family misses my brother deeply,” Henry Martinez, who also lives in Los Angeles, said in a statement. “He has worked his entire career serving marginalized people and he truly is the best of us. We hope and pray that Eyvin can return home very soon after this mistaken arrest.
Two weeks before Hernandez’s arrest, Kenemore was taken into custody 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 while the two were recovering from their divorces. The two shared a small apartment where Kenemore worked remotely for a client in the United States, but had decided to move to Venezuela, where his girlfriend had a home.
Kenemore’s family said he was detained by immigration officials upon entering Venezuela, according to a 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 crossing on the Simon Bolivar International Bridge.
Prosecutors allege Kenemore, his girlfriend and three others entered the country via a nearby dirt road, one of hundreds of irregular crossings used daily by Venezuelans commuting between countries for groceries, medical appointments and to visit family. They said he was carrying three laptops and was accompanied by a Venezuelan navy captain, which also raised suspicion.
Like Hernandez, Kenemore was charged with criminal association and conspiracy – crimes that carry a sentence of up to 16 years in prison. His girlfriend is also detained.
“Jerrel is a good American Christian,” Jeana Kenemore Tillery, his sister, said in a phone interview. “All he wanted was to be with the woman he loved. He misses his sisters, his children and his grandson very much and we just want him to be home.
In April, the State Department warned of threats to Americans along the Colombia-Venezuela border. He recommended Americans avoid all travel to Venezuela and never enter without a visa, which is nearly impossible to obtain since the United States severed diplomatic ties with Maduro in 2019.
According to Venezuelan law, foreigners found in the country without a visa must be deported immediately.
But for reasons that are unclear, the three men arrested earlier this year have been transferred hundreds of miles from the capital, Caracas, to a maximum-security prison housing many opponents of Maduro.
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 country’s rightful leader.
The United Nations has long complained about the lack of independence of Venezuelan judges as well as the facility where Americans are being held.
“It’s not a legal system you want to be trapped in,” said Gunson of the International Crisis Group.