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Venezuela jails 3 Americans including a computer programmer from Texas

CLEVELAND (AP) – Three Americans were silently jailed in Venezuela earlier this year for allegedly attempting to enter the country illegally and now face lengthy prison sentences in the country’s political turmoil.

Two of the men, a lawyer from California and a computer programmer from Texas, were arrested in late March, just days after President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government released two more 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 the investigations into the allegations. -arrest. The man spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the cases in public.

Hernandez from Los Angeles; Kenemore is from the Dallas area, but has lived in Colombia since 2019.

A third American was arrested in January, also for allegedly entering the country illegally along its high border with Colombia. AP withheld his name at the request of his family, fearing retaliation.

At least eight more Americans – including five oil executives and three veterans – remain incarcerated in Venezuela, and U.S. officials insist they are being used as political bargaining chips.

The most recent arrests come amid the Biden administration’s efforts to unwind Trump-era policy to punish Maduro for what they consider to be his trampling on Venezuelan democracy. Biden’s officials, however, are trying to lure him back into U.S. -backed opposition negotiations to pave the way for free and fair elections.

As part of that earlier outreach, the U.S. is hanging on to the possibility of easing sanctions on the OPEC country, a move that, over time, will also help lower oil prices, which rose after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The release of the two Americans on March 8 was celebrated in Washington, giving impetus to the outreach of the Biden administration in Maduro. It is unclear what effect, if any, the imprisonment of three other Americans will have on Maduro, a close ally of Russia who has been sanctioned and accused by the U.S. of narcotics charges.

The State Department confirmed the three arrests and a spokesman said officers were advocating for the immediate release of all wrongfully detained Americans in Venezuela.

More than any political fallout, the arrests focus on what U.S. officials consider an alarming trend: the arrest of unsuspecting Americans on the Colombia-Venezuela border. , a lawless place ruled by criminal gangs and leftist rebels. Americans trying to enter Venezuela without a visa are even more vulnerable.

Despite Maduro’s ever -burning rhetoric against the U.S. “empire,” there is no indication that he is targeting Americans.

But the devastation of the South American nation after years of political turmoil, hyperinflation and devastating food shortages, Maduro’s grip on his poorly paid security forces has been thwarted. That creates an opening for criminal elements and hardliners seeking to ruin Maduro’s talks in the US.

“There are many different centers of power in Venezuela and not all of them agree with Maduro or share his intent to find U.S. development talks,” said Phil Gunson, an analyst based in Caracas for the International Crisis Group.

In an arrest report seen by the AP, Venezuelan military counter-intelligence agents justified their actions by citing “constant threats, economic disruption, and the breakdown of diplomatic relations” in the US.

Some senior Venezuelan officials also justified the arrest of the Americans. At a press conference on June 13 announcing the arrest of another, unnamed American, Socialist party leader Diosdado Cabello said: “They have plans against our country.”

Hernandez, who was arrested on March 31, was supposed to appear in court on Monday but the hearing was postponed.

Hernandez immigrated to Los Angeles as a child with his parents, who fled 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 the poor and sometimes homeless defendants, a sign of his generous love, said friends and relatives.

Like Maduro, Hernandez loves salsa music and has a history of labor activism. An avid traveler, Hernandez took a short break from work when he traveled to Colombia, where he had been several times before, his brother said. Before he returned home, he was accompanied by a friend in Venezuela to the border. His family said he never intended to go to Venezuela, nor did he intentionally break the law.

Hernandez’s friend was also detained and faces further charges of migrant smuggling, according to the person familiar with the investigation.

“My family misses my brother very much,” Henry Martinez, who also lives in Los Angeles, said in a statement. “He has done his entire career serving marginalized people and he is the best of us. We hope and pray that Eyvin recovers soon from this wrongful arrest.”

Two weeks before Hernandez’s arrest, Kenemore was jailed in similarly unfavorable conditions.

According to Kenemore’s family, he lived in Colombia for more than a year with a Venezuelan woman he met online when the two divorced. The two share a small apartment where Kenemore works remotely for a U.S. client, but decides to move to Venezuela, where his girlfriend has a house.

Kenemore’s family said he was detained by immigration officials on 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 he was arrested, near a checkpoint on the Colombian border at the Simon Bolivar international bridge.

Prosecutors allege that Kenemore, his girlfriend and three others entered the country in a nearby sewer, one of hundreds of irregular crossings used daily by Venezuelans shuttling between countries for groceries, medical appointments and family visits. They said he was carrying three laptops and was accompanied by a Venezuelan navy captain, something that also raised suspicions.

Like Hernandez, Kenemore was charged with criminal association and conspiracy – crimes punishable by up to 16 years in prison. He also held his girlfriend.

“Jerrel is a good American, Christian man,” Jeana Kenemore Tillery, his sister, said in a phone interview. “All he wants to do is be with the girl he loves. She misses her sisters, children and grandchildren very much and we just want her to come home. ”

In April, the State Department warned of threats to Americans on the Colombia-Venezuela border. It recommends Americans avoid all travel to Venezuela, and never enter without a visa, which has been nearly impossible to obtain since the U.S. broke diplomatic relations 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, all three men arrested earlier this year were transferred hundreds of miles away from the capital, Caracas, to a top security prison inhabited by several opponent of Maduro.

Disadvantage of Americans imprisoned in Venezuela if they ask for help from their government. The U.S. closed the hilltop Embassy in Caracas in 2019, after recognizing opposition lawmaker Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader.

The United Nations has long complained about the lack of independence for Venezuelan judges as well as the facility where Americans are being held.

“It’s not a legal system that one wants to be trapped,” Gunson of the International Crisis Group said.

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