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Family and friends of L.A. public defender jailed in Venezuela are desperate for his release

Eyvin Hernandez was jailed in April 2022 while he was on vacation in Colombia. The State Department has designated him "wrongfully detained."
Ana Sandoval, mother of Eyvin Hernandez, shows a photo of Hernandez in Compton, Calif.
Ana Sandoval, at her home in Compton, Calif., shows a photo of her son, Eyvin Hernandez, who's imprisoned in Venezuela.Jae C. Hong / AP file

On Christmas Day, Pedro Martínez received a WhatsApp video call from his son, who's imprisoned in Venezuela.

It was the first time since his son, Eyvin Hernández, a Los Angeles deputy public defender who was jailed in April, was allowed to make such a call.

“I became really nervous,” said Martínez, through tears, about the video call. “Just to see him and hear his voice was the most beautiful gift I’ve ever received. It was a gift from God.”

Martínez, 65, who is retired and disabled, said the call gave him hope that his son would be released soon.

Hernández has been charged with criminal association and conspiracy. His imprisonment in 2022 came as a shock; his family insists he is innocent.

According to relatives, Hernández, 44, enjoyed traveling and was vacationing in Colombia, a country he had visited before, last March. He was supposed to return April 3.

Ana Sandoval checks her phone while talking with Pedro Martinez, in Compton, Calif.
The parents of Eyvin Hernandez at their home in Compton, Calif., on Aug. 29, 2022. Jae C. Hong / AP file

He met up with friends in Colombia and they were planning to fly to some beach towns. One of his friends, who is Venezuelan, needed to have her passport stamped in order to go. Hernández accompanied her to Cúcuta, a town on the Colombia-Venezuela border, to get the stamp.

Once in Cúcuta, they took a taxi and the driver dropped them off in front of a dirt path and indicated they should walk down.

“The intentions, of course, were never to cross over to Venezuela, he was just accompanying her,” said Henry Martínez, Hernández’s brother. “There’s no sign that says, ‘You’re leaving Colombia’ or ‘Welcome to Venezuela.’”

According to Henry Martínez’s account, his brother and his friend were walking down the dirt path when they came across masked men with military equipment. The friend told the men she wanted to get her passport stamped and the men replied that they haven’t done that in three years. The men told Hernández that if they wanted to enter Venezuela, he had to pay $100. Hernández told them he was not trying to enter the country and did not have $100. Hernández and his friend were then hooded, put in the back of a pickup truck and turned over to Venezuelan officials, the brother said.

Since then, Hernández has been held in a notorious military prison known as DGCIM, an acronym in Spanish for General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence.

According to the State Department, the U.S. special envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, visited Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, Christmas to check on Hernández and several other Americans held in the country.

In addition to Hernández, they include Luke Denman, Airan Berry and Jerrel Kenemore.

Ana Sandoval hugs her son Henry Martinez in Compton, Calif.
Ana Sandoval hugs her other son Henry Martinez in Compton, Calif., on Aug. 29, 2022. The family is pleading for Eyvin Hernandez' release. Jae C. Hong / AP file

State Dept. asks for 'immediate and unconditional release'

Hernández has been designated by the State Department as being wrongfully detained in Venezuela.

In a statement to NBC News, the department said, “Our embassies and consulates abroad have no greater priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas.”  

It added: “We continue to press for the immediate and unconditional release of all wrongfully detained U.S. nationals in Venezuela. The United States government will continue to work tirelessly to seek the return of all the wrongful detainees until they are home to their families where they belong.” 

It’s not the first trip Carstens made to Venezuela. Prior visits led to the release of several other Americans.

In a prisoner swap in October, the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro released seven jailed Americans, including five of the so-called Citgo 6, former executives of Venezuela’s U.S.-based oil refining company who were convicted of corruption. The sixth had been released months prior along with a U.S.-Cuban dual national.

The U.S. has not had a diplomatic presence in Caracas since 2019, so access to jailed Americans has been limited since then.

'I want to come home'

Hernández was born in El Salvador and came to the U.S. when he was 3 years old, eventually graduating from UCLA with degrees in math and physics. He later received a law degree from UCLA.

His friends and colleagues have been rallying behind him and formed a group of 45 people, the vast majority of them attorneys. They strategize and identify ways they can support him and bring more awareness to his case. They recently held a candle-lit vigil outside his alma mater.

“He has had an impact in all of our lives and now we’re closely working hand in hand,” said Vianey Juarez, who worked alongside Hernández as a deputy public defender years ago.

His brother and father are upset that the number of calls Hernández is allowed to make from prison has been reduced in recent months — from three to four times a week for about 15 minutes, to twice a week for 5 to 10 minutes.

According to his brother, Hernández has been in solitary confinement most of the time, with the lights turned on 24 hours a day and very little space to walk around. He has lost weight over the months.

Hernández enjoys sports, Henry Martínez said, who isn't as much of a sports fan but was keeping up with his brother's favorite teams to distract him during their calls. But he said lately, things have changed.

“Sometimes I can hear his voice weak and just frustrated and anxious,” Martínez said. “He tells me, ‘I want to come home.’”