When Venezuela Accused Me of Being a Terrorist
Detained and extorted by Venezuelan Intelligence on the border
“Do you know it’s a 10-year minimum sentence for espionage and another 10 for terrorism?” said the officer from SEBIN, the political police charged with persecuting and torturing those considered threats to the Venezuelan regime.
I had heard a lot of stories about SEBIN during my time reporting on Venezuela — none of them good.
He paused, staring at me. His manner was poised- his posture perfect. He adjusted his wire-frame glasses.
“Of course, we will have to charge your friend with sedition, treason and perhaps espionage as well. It will be more difficult for him than for you.”
He made the threat as if he were commenting on the weather- his manner detached and terrifyingly polite.
He began fiddling with my phone, scrolling through my text messages. “What kind of information does your friend pass to you?” he asked.
An hour before, I was detained on the Venezuelan border while working as a journalist.
Now I was being accused of being a spy and a terrorist.
All of the stories of torture and violence in Venezuelan prisons I had heard in the last two years swirled around in my head.
Maintaining a calm exterior was becoming increasingly difficult.
Twenty-four hours before that charming conversation, I arrived in Maicao, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, to work on a story about gasoline smuggling.
I was travelling with a Venezuelan named “Jose Rafael”, a journalist from Caracas. I was glad to have company. Maicao isn’t the sort of place in which one wants to be alone.
It is a blisteringly hot trade-town on a lawless frontier. Venezuelans come from the western part of the country, where ongoing shortages are the most severe, to buy goods. The region is also a smuggling hub for gasoline, food and cocaine.
During the day, the entire city is an open-air marketplace for every good imaginable- from clothes to cheap electronics to bulk food to diapers to anything else one can imagine.
There is little police presence and after dusk the streets empty as Maicao transforms from bustling market town into a silent city of phantoms.
After sunset we stayed in our cheap hotel room killing roaches, writing and waiting for the sun to rise.
In the morning we went to La Raya, the neighborhood on the frontier.
As Jose and I walked towards the unmarked border, we spied a Venezuelan checkpoint about 100 meters in the distance. A large billboard featuring Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela, with his arm draped around Hugo Chavez bid us welcome.
“I want to go have a look.” Jose told me. I had no desire to go anywhere near the checkpoint. I told him I would wait there, presumably in Colombia. I took a seat on the curb, well away from the officials checking documents.
I waited as he wandered off. A few passersby tried to sell me rides to Maracaibo in Venezuela, but mostly people just smiled at me. I chatted for a few minutes with a curious fruit vendor about life in New York City.
Then I noticed a Venezuelan National Guardsman approaching me. Alarmed, I stood up and slowly backpedaled.
“Please stop moving, sir.” he shouted, with his right hand on his holstered pistol.
“Hello. I’m just waiting for a friend.” I replied, continuing to slowly back up. Why was he following me? I thought maybe if I could keep mobile, I could attract the attention of one of the few immigration officials from the Colombian side.
“I told you to STOP MOVING!” he yelled. He un-holstered his pistol and shifted into a combat stance- feet separated, elbows raised with both hands on his weapon, which he kept pointed downward.
I stopped moving and raised my hands to shoulder level.
“Uh, is there a problem here?” I asked.
He didn’t respond, but kept advancing. When he reached me, he holstered his pistol, but kept his right hand on the weapon. “Identification.” he stated bluntly.
“Sure, officer.” I said, slowly taking out my wallet with my right hand while keeping my left hand raised. “Here is my Cedula”, (Colombian identification card). I knew my appearance and accent had already given me away as American but I thought maybe I could buy some time. Venezuelan officials would not react well to a reporter from the Evil Empire, the name Chavez gave the United States.
I looked towards the Colombian immigration office. There were no officials in sight. He pocketed my identification.
“Come with me.” he said, placing his left hand on my shoulder, his pistol hand still on the weapons’ grip.
“Listen. I think there is a misunderstanding here. I’m not doing anything. I’m just..”
“Shut your mouth.” he told me. “Come with me now.”
“Surely we can work this out.” I said, removing some Colombian money from my wallet.
“I told you to shut your mouth.”
I did. He gripped my arm and pushed me along roughly towards the checkpoint in the distance..
“I’m no thief.” he told me as we approached a small, two-story dilapidated concrete building near the military checkpoint.
It seemed like a strange comment to make.
It turned out later he and I have very different definitions of the word.
Jose Rafael was chatting with an immigration guard in the distance. He spotted me being escorted away and bee-lined towards us.
“Hey! Wait a second!” he shouted.
“What’s the problem here?” he asked as he approached. The guard he had been chatting with followed behind.
“You’re with him?” said the guard detaining me.
“Yeah, he is my friend.” Jose replied. “I just went to get…”
“Come with me,” said the guardsman who wasn’t a thief, cutting him off. The soldier that had been following behind placed his hand on Jose’s shoulder.
They ignored our protests as they escorted us into the building, dumping us in a concrete cell that contained a desk, three chairs and a barely functioning fan.
“What are you doing in Venezuela?” the guard asked after patting me down.
“You brought me here. I was waiting in Colombia.”
“No. You entered Venezuela without permission. Are you a spy?” he said as he opened my backpack.
I laughed. The idea seemed ridiculous. I had been sitting in plain sight on a curb in the middle of the street chatting with passersby. If I were a spy, I would be the worst secret agent in the history of espionage.
“What are these?” He held my cameras up before me, frowning.
“Journalists.” said the other guard, smiling.
My heart sank.
“Please wait here.” said the guard who wasn’t a thief, as if we had a choice. He left the room with the cameras and our phones.
Jose paced with his hands on his face.
“Brother, I don’t think you realize how bad this is. They disappear people like me.” He pulled on his hair as he circled the room.
He stopped, looking me. “How much money can you get a hold of? Right now.”
“Not much. Maybe if I made some phone calls and emptied my account I could come up with a few thousand dollars.”
“It’s not enough.” said Jose. He sighed. “Look. If we can’t get some money together you’re going to be on a bus to a prison in Caracas. They’re not going to kill a gringo. If I’m really lucky I will be there beside you.” He resumed pacing.
“But it’s more likely I will be buried outside in a ditch.”
An hour or so later, the official from SEBIN arrived. He was average height, lanky, perhaps about 45 years old with a neatly ironed uniform, wire-rimmed spectacles and a grim expression.
“Gentlemen, this is a very delicate situation you are in. You have material against Venezuela on your cameras. You snuck into the country, and you are here to commit espionage and terrorism.”
He waved off our attempts to respond. “Please be quiet while I am speaking.”
He arranged his papers in front of him. “In short, you are a spy.” he said looking at me. “And perhaps a terrorist.” He then looked at Jose, “And you are a traitor, a collaborator with a hostile foreign power and perhaps a terrorist as well.”
“But you are lucky. I would rather avoid any international problems. I believe that I can hush this incident up and all can move on if you can transfer ten-thousands dollars to a bank account here in Venezuela. I will provide you with the account number.”
He stood up, still holding his papers. “Now Jose Rafael, you will accompany me, please.” he said, gesturing towards the door. Jose followed him out of the room.
I didn’t know it at the time but he was taken to another cell with a metal chair in the center of the room. Next to the chair was a table on which rested a car battery, rusty terminal clamps, a knife and a pair of pliers. They sat him in the chair and began to explain in minute detail the precarious position we were in.
Jose eyed the torture implements nervously as they spoke.
Another agent from SEBIN entered my cell as they left. His demeanor and appearance the opposite of the first; younger, perhaps 30, muscular and nonchalant. He carried himself with the easy swagger of a gangster- all slouches and threatening smiles- insultingly informal and dangerous. If the first official was terrifyingly polite, he was street-thug intimidation.
He turned the chair around and flopped down before me, uncomfortably close.
He leaned in, his face inches away. He wore way too much cologne. It made my eyes water. “You know what we do to gringos in the prisons here?” he asked me.
He was here to scare me, to underscore and exaggerate all the worst possibilities, and intimidate me physically and with threats.
It worked. He scared me, though he seemed like a cartoon cutout- the “bad cop” as it were. I felt like he had been watching terrible police-dramas to practice for this.
It made me laugh a little inside to think of him as an overly dramatic actor.
I needed the laugh because he was describing beatings, open-air prisons where the inmates would be just as dangerous as the guards, cells shared with a dozen other occupants and serial torture at the hands of officials seeking information.
The scary part wasn’t his demeanor, rather it was the fact that he wasn’t lying. I’ve talked to people who have been in those prisons. It was all true.
He threatened me for 15 minutes then left me to think.
I did not think happy thoughts.
Jose Rafael Escapes
After awhile, “Good-cop” returned with Jose. Jose had convinced the Venezuelan officials that he could obtain a few-thousand dollars. I told them I could do the same.
But one of us would have to go back to Colombia to do it. Jose Rafael volunteered and the agents from SEBIN agreed. They would keep me as collateral. It was the best outcome we could hope for. As Jose said, they weren’t going to kill a gringo- especially a journalist.
As he was leaving, Jose grabbed my phone. He said he would need my contacts in order to raise money.
Jose and I shook hands. “I will see you in a few hours, brother,” he said, looking me in the eyes.
I had serious doubts that he would. Would he just run off?
I couldn’t blame him if he did, there was no way he was going to be able to enter Venezuela again after this ordeal-he was lucky to be escaping with his life.
They threw me back in the oppressively hot, concrete cell and left me alone. I don’t know how much time passed. I sat in the chair, staring at the electric fan. My heart raced. My thoughts dwelt on prisons in Caracas.
I closed my eyes and slowed my breathing, trying to calm myself. A panic attack wasn’t going to improve my situation. The rising terror was preventing me from thinking clearly.
That’s when the power went out.
I sat in the darkness, sweating, waiting, trying not to scream.
I lost track of time. An hour perhaps? Two? The lights came back on eventually, and with them, the fan. I was most grateful for the fan, between the terror and the oppressive heat I was soaked in sweat.
Bad Cop entered, swaggering, with his hands on his belt. He sat at the desk in front of me.
“Do you have Military experience?” he asked me.
“I studied jazz performance in college.” He seemed a little disgusted by my answer.
“You need to make a transfer, 8,000 dollars. Now. I am out of patience.” he leaned back
“Well. You guys gave Jose my phone, so, respectfully, I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to do that.” I replied.
He stood up, towering above me. His smile was gone. “I don’t think you understand the position you are in, gringo.” He leaned in, perhaps an inch away from my face. His cheap cologne and bad breath were a foul mixture.
“What’s wrong? You don’t have anything to say?” he laughed and stood back upright. “I thought you gringos always had something to say. Usually you won’t shut up.”
He laughed again, mockingly. “You better hope we hear from your girlfriend, Jose, soon.” he said, walking towards the door.
That’s when I realized they had erred gravely by letting Jose Rafael take my phone.
They could no longer extort me directly.
That didn’t mean I was safe. Their frustration at not achieving their extortion plan could lead to them charging me officially out of spite, but they weren’t torturing me.
It was the first hopeful thought that had entered my head since I was detained.
Good Cop Returns
Many hours later, Good Cop returned. He asked if I wanted a bottle of water and a cigarette. I did. Desperately.
He escorted me outside and sat me down at a table. The sun had gone down. I was drenched from the hot cell and from terror sweats. He gave me a cigarette and lit it for me. I breathed in the cool night air.
“Here, we have coffee.” he told me, placing a cup before me. I looked at it suspiciously. “Relax. We are all friends here,” he said. “Look, I will take a little myself.”
He poured a small amount of the coffee from my cup into an empty one in front of him and drank it down. I waited a moment, then took a sip. It was delicious. I asked what time it was; 11:30 p.m. I had been locked up for 11 hours.
“Listen,” he told me. “I am going to be plain with you. You messed up, yes? And you have to pay for the mistake.” He was flanked by the National Guardsman who had arrested me.
“I won’t be able to conceal your presence from the agents who arrive in the morning. At that point, we will have no choice but to charge you officially.” he continued.
I looked at him, uncertain what he wanted.
“Use my phone and call your cell. You need to explain the situation to your friend. At the very least, you need someone to make the transfer.” he said, handing me his cell phone. “You at least have your own number memorized yes?”
I called my number. Jose Rafael picked up. He seemed distant. I explained the situation and asked if he had raised any money. He told me evasively that he was working on it.
I impressed upon him that they were threatening to send me to Caracas in the morning and asked if he could give me the number of a girl I had dated in Brooklyn. I would figure out how to pay her back.
“Sure sure, what’s her name in your phone, man. I will call her for you,” he replied.
It was a strange answer.
“Listen, Jose. They aren’t playing. I need to resolve this.”
The official from SEBIN motioned for the phone. I handed it over. They spoke for a few minutes about sums, finally the officer seemed satisfied. They would settle for four-thousand. He gave me back the phone.
“So you’re going to come with the money?” I asked Jose.
“Fuck no,” he replied. “I’m not crossing the border again, they will just arrest me. Listen,” he told me, “I’m on it. Just sit tight.”
He hung up. I was confused. Had he abandoned me? I sat down, deflated, but I felt letting my captors know the money wasn’t coming would frustrate them, putting me in danger, so I said nothing.
They left me outside under the supervision of the Guard who Wasn’t a Thief.
I told him anecdotes about Brooklyn, stories of my old life in America. I thought maybe I could at least establish some basic human connection. He ignored me as I talked of all the things I loved about New York- the food, the music, girls I knew. I told him he would like Brooklyn and didn’t even need to speak English, half my neighborhood speaks Spanish.
No response. I continued my monologue as he looked stoically into the distance.
An hour-and-a half later, Good and Bad Cop returned. They told me Jose Rafael was no longer answering phone calls. Their demeanor had changed considerably. They seemed…nervous?
Meanwhile in Colombia…
I didn’t know it at the time, but instead of trying to raise money for a ransom, Jose had been pursuing an alternative plan. He called every media contact he had in Venezuela. Then he called the American Embassy, local police in Maicao, the law-enforcement arm of the Wayúu Nation (the indigenous region of Colombia in which Maicao is located) and immigration officials on the border.
When he finished with that he called the Center for the Protection of Journalists, Reporters without Borders and the Foundation for the Liberty of the Press- all organizations that advocate for journalists in danger.
He then called every editor I had ever worked with, trying to raise as much attention as he could to my detention.
That is to say, he was calling in the cavalry. I later learned that hundreds of people were working behind the scenes to acquire information, pass along details of my situation and coordinate a response.
He also started contacting international media companies telling them that Venezuelan intelligence had kidnapped an American journalist.
The attention spooked the guards. I have no doubt their superiors were horrified to learn of their blunders in handling the situation.
After another hour of waiting, Venezuelan officials returned, looking annoyed.
They informed me that if I promised to come back in the morning with two-thousand dollars, they would release me. They would keep my camera gear as collateral.
I was too stunned to have an emotional reaction.
The Coyotes Flee
A solitary Venezuelan National Guardsman escorted me to Colombia, where Jose Rafel was waiting with three enormous and heavily armed officers from GAULA Colombian special forces, kidnapping specialists comparable to American S.W.A.T.
“Brother!” shouted Jose as I approached. He gave me a hug. I’ve never been so happy to see a friend in my life.
“Were you trying to start a war, you idiot?” he laughed. “I called half the world, man. I thought Trump was going to send in the marines!” he handed me a pack of cigarettes and a sandwich.
“Four newspapers in three countries were ready to publish the story of the gringo journalist kidnapped by Venezuela.”
I lit a cigarette and looked around. “Well, at least we didn’t start World War Three, right?” it was a feeble attempt at a joke. I was trembling and it wasn’t because of the chilly desert night-time air.
The officers escorted us to a waiting land-rover. We would be safer away from the border, they said. They would take us to Riohacha on the Colombian coast, 77 kilometers away.
As we left La Raya, Jose was exuberant. He boasted about going public with the story and how it would be an embarrassment to Venezuela. He joked that maybe he would be invited to the White House. He exulted in the victory.
I remember that our escort was listening to a Spanish translation of the “Grease” soundtrack as we raced north, ignoring the posted speed-limits. The world seemed utterly surreal.
As the trip wore on, Jose’s enthusiasm faded. He grew silent and pensive. The agents dropped us off at a cheap hotel. Jose didn’t have much to say. I left him to his thoughts, still traumatized by the experience myself.
In the morning we walked to the beach. Looking at the Atlantic Ocean, I smoked as he drank a beer. We didn’t talk.
We watched the waves break against the shore.
Jose Rafael’s sacrifice, his bravery, the fact that I was American and quite a bit of luck had freed me.
As we sat in silence, I thought about the frontiers between nations.
Most Americans don’t have to deal much with land borders. We fly over them when we bother to leave our country, and once we arrive, our passport insulates us from the majority of the discrimination that they impose upon the rest of the world.
They are dark places. They dehumanize by definition; the man-made invisible walls that restrict the passage of people. They are gathering points for humans at their most desperate as well as magnets for miscreants seeking to exploit those who are at their most vulnerable.
I have been writing from borders here in Colombia for two years and I have grown to hate them.
Jose Rafael was now a man without a country- a journalist who fled Venezuela simply for doing his job, and was now considered a traitor. My passport, which I earned merely by virtue of where I happened to be born, protected me from such a fate- gave me privileges that millions lack. In the eyes of media companies and our captors, it made my life more valuable than his.
We were silent for a long time before Jose finally looked at me.
“I can never go back to Venezuela,” he said. “Never see my girlfriend or my family again.”
“I know.” I replied. “I’m sorry.”
“Me too.” he said, finishing the beer and staring into the distance.
I have never been so grateful for my liberty as I was in that moment sitting. The Ocean had never looked so beautiful, and I have never been happier to breath fresh air- but it was made bittersweet by the knowledge of what Jose had lost.
He had saved me.
His reward for doing so was exile.
We watched the waves break against the shore of the picturesque Colombian beach, saying nothing.
Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter based in Bogota Colombia. For more stories you can follow him on twitter