Family fights to free beloved US lawyer imprisoned in Venezuela while on vacation California

The family of a Los Angeles man detained in Venezuela earlier this year is publicly appealing to the US government to help secure his release, fearing he could be held long-term as a political bargaining chip.

Eyvin Hernandez, a 44-year-old lawyer and criminal justice advocate in LA, was picked up by Venezuelan security forces on March 31 near the Colombia-Venezuela border and is facing “criminal association” and “conspiracy” charges, his family says.

Hernandez is known in California for his long-time work as a public defender representing low-income defendants and his mentorship of new attorneys and students.

“I beg the US government to do something for my son,” Ana Sandoval, Hernandez’s mother, pleaded in tears. “Me and my whole family are devastated. My son is an honest man. He has not committed any crime.”

Hernandez was on vacation in Colombia and accompanying a Venezuelan friend to the border when he was arrested near the Colombian city of Cúcuta and later taken to a military counterintelligence holding facility in Caracas, according to his family, who says he had no intention of entering Venezuela. .

While abroad, Hernandez had given regular updates to his family, letting them know he was doing well and saying a daily goodnight to his parents, the family said. But days before he was due to come home, he stopped contacting them or responding to messages.

As days passed with no contact, the family reached out to hospitals and law enforcement officials in Colombia and had authorities visit his Airbnb, where they found his belongings left behind. “I couldn’t find any information, and I had images in my head of identifying his body,” his brother, Henry Martinez, said.

Hernandez, pictured with his nephews, used his law degree to advocate for the rights of vulnerable people in LA. Photograph: Courtesy of Eyvin Hernandez’s family

Eventually, Martinez got a WhatsApp message from a public defender in Venezuela saying his brother was in custody. After about 50 days, Martinez also got a phone call from his brother, who said he was waiting to have a hearing.

Hernandez could face 16 years in prison and is one of at least three Americans who were detained by Venezuela this year, according to the Associated Press, which said it had seen arrest reports.

His family is imploring the Biden government to help facilitate his return.

“He is loved here, and he is more valuable to the world being free and advocating for justice for the Latino community and marginalized people in Los Angeles than being detained,” his brother said. “We just hope he is OK.”

From El Salvador to US law school

Hernandez was born in El Salvador in 1978 on the eve of that country’s civil war, and his family fled to Los Angeles when he was about three years old. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood in South Central LA, his mother worked as a housecleaner and nanny and his father as a caterer.

When friends and cousins ​​asked him to hang out in high school, “He always said, ‘I can’t, I have to study,’ and he studied a lot,” his mother recalled.

Hernandez was accepted to the University of California, Los Angeles, earning a degree in physics and mathematics before graduating from UCLA’s law school in 2005. “Instead of him getting a job where he can make a lot of money, he decided to become a public defender so he can help the community,” she said.

Listen: Ana Sandoval, Eyvin Hernandez's mom, pleads that the US bring her son home from Venezuela. “My son is an honest man. He hasn’t committed any crime. They need to start doing something.” She talked about her pride when he became a public defender to “help the community.” pic.twitter.com/5JqwPN2bw0

— Sam Levin (@SamTLevin) August 5, 2022

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Listen: Ana Sandoval, Eyvin Hernandez’s mother, pleads that the US bring her son home from Venezuela. “My son is an honest man. He has not committed any crime. They need to start doing something.” She talked about her pride when she became a public defender to “help the community.” pic.twitter.com/5JqwPN2bw0

— Sam Levin (@SamTLevin) August 5, 2022

Gladys Uribe, a mentee of Hernandez at UCLA, described him as a “quiet leader” dedicated to service: “He’s always been guided by a very strong sense of justice and an ambition to represent indigent and immigrant and vulnerable populations. A law degree was never the road to riches or status for him, it was always about being a voice for those who don’t have one.” She added: “He’d kill me for saying this, but he really is the embodiment of the American dream.”

At UCLA, he pushed for diversity: “There is an abysmal number of Latinos who go to law school, and he made sure I wasn’t feeling too isolated or overwhelmed,” Uribe said.

four people posing for a photograph in which two men are standing at the back and a woman and a young man are sitting in front of them
Henry Martinez, top right, next to his brother Eyvin Hernandez, and with their mother, Ana Sandoval, and another brother. ‘My son is an honest man. He has not committed any crime,’ Sandoval said. Photograph: Courtesy of Eyvin Hernandez’s family

As a public defender, Hernandez has represented people struggling with homelessness, mental illness and addiction, and advocated for youth in the juvenile system, said Drew Havens, a colleague. “Growing up in LA in the 1980s and 1990s and witnessing racial and social injustices and police brutality motivated him to give back to his community.”

He trained dozens of new hires in the department and was active in the labor union. “He’s a fighter. If he felt that his clients were being mistreated, he was very vocal,” said Traci Blackburn, a head deputy in the office.

Hernandez also loves to travel, visiting dozens of countries over the years, his family said. He took time off in March to travel to Colombia and work on a novel he has been writing, inspired by his family’s migration, his brother said.

Wrongful detentions a ‘global threat’

It is unclear how or why Hernandez was detained. The Colombia-Venezuela border has seen a dramatic increase in armed conflict in recent years, and the US state department has classified it as a high-risk area where Americans are threatened with detention under the regime of the authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro.

A group of people posing in front of a large gorilla-like figure
Hernandez with his brother and niece on a trip to the Empire State Building in New York City. He loves to travel and took time off in March to work on a novel he has been writing. Photograph: Courtesy of Eyvin Hernandez’s family

In early March, senior US officials traveled to Venezuela for rare talks with Maduro, a major shift since the US closed its embassy in Caracas in 2019 and the Trump administration adopted sanctions and a “maximum pressure” policy. Venezuela subsequently released two jailed Americans, and experts say it appears the White House and Maduro were trying to improve relations amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis.

But Hernandez and another American were arrested soon after, in separate incidents. “The arrests come at a time when detainees are being leveraged in the context of negotiations between the countries to change policy,” said Brian Fonseca, director of the Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University and an expert on Venezuela. “But it further strains negotiations at a time when the Biden administration has signaled a willingness to engage. And the US has to think about how it wants to engage, because they don’t want to inspire more detainments.”

There has been an alarming increase in wrongful detentions of Americans around the globe and in Venezuela in recent years, according to the James Foley Foundation, a US organization which tracks cases and assists families.

“This isn’t just a citizen or two here or there, but a threat globally and a threat to our foreign policy, because it holds our government hostage,” said Diane Foley, whose son James, a journalist, was kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and executed two years later. She said the spike in cases could be due in part to increased reporting, adding, “This is becoming an increasingly complex problem. And what’s frightening now is that it seems to be a deliberate tactic of state actors.”

‘He tries to reassure us’

Hernandez’s family spoke out days after the Biden administration offered a deal to Russia to bring home the jailed basketball star Brittney Griner.

Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention organization, said US intervention was critical for Hernandez: “Once you’re a prisoner of the Venezuelan state, it gets very complicated. There’s no independent judiciary or authority you can appeal to.”

If Venezuela were treating the cases of detained Americans as illegal entry, the country could expel them, but the country is pursuing much more serious charges, Gunson said, adding that some people can be held months or years without a trial, in effect turning them into hostages. While foreigners are less likely to face physical torture, they are often malnourished and denied medical care while in prison.

Hernandez’s family is in contact with state department officials and has reached out to his elected representatives in California, but have gotten limited responses. The family is urging the US to formally designate him as wrongfully detained, which would direct resources to the case through the special envoy for hostage affairs.

Foley, whose foundation has independently classified Hernandez as wrongfully detained, said it was vital that the US follow suit: “We’ve found that the longer people are held, the harder it is.” She praised Biden’s recent executive order to strengthen efforts to bring wrongful detainees home while also pushing to deter detentions through sanctions and other punishments against people responsible for the detentions. “Families are desperate and I think the Biden administration is recognizing this as a problem.”

Man feeding a baby on his lap through a bottle
Hernandez, pictured with his nephew, told his family on a recent call from detention that he hoped the US special envoy for hostage affairs would take on his case. Photograph: Courtesy of Eyvin Hernandez’s family

A US state department spokesperson confirmed Hernandez’s arrest, saying, “We take seriously our commitment to assist US citizens abroad. We are in touch with the family and are closely monitoring the situation.” The spokesperson noted that the US updated its travel warnings for Venezuela in July, citing the risk of arrest without due process, and stating, “Do not travel due to crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, kidnapping and exercise increased caution in Venezuela due to terrorism and wrongful detentions.”

The Venezuelan embassy in the US did not respond to inquiries. Spokespeople for California senators Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein said their offices were aware of the case, but declined to comment further. Congresswoman Karen Bass’s office did not respond to inquiries.

Hernandez’s family has lost contact with an initial lawyer who had reached out, although Hernandez has recently been able to have brief phone calls with his family a few times a week. On a call with his brother this week, he said he was doing OK, but pleaded that the special envoy take on his case.

“From the moment I wake up to when I fall asleep, I’m trying to figure out what’s the next step, what we can do for Eyvin,” his brother said. One of the hardest parts is living with the fear that a wrong move could have a negative impact: “I’m carrying the weight of making these decisions. You have to roll the dice and hope you’re making the right call.”

Uribe, Hernandez’s law school friend, who is part of a network of supporters fighting for his release, said she has spoken to him a handful of times since he was jailed: “He’s trying really hard, even while in detention, to take care of us and our emotions, and doing his absolute best to reassure us, saying this will be over soon and he can’t wait to see us and hug us. And he asked that we take care of his family.”

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