On March 18, 2022, Eyvin Hernandez, a dedicated Los Angeles public defender, flew to Colombia for a much-needed vacation. In Medellín, he befriended a woman and agreed to accompany her to Cucuta, a town on the Colombia-Venezuela border. Near Cucuta, things took a bad turn. Having unintentionally crossed into Venezuela, Eyvin and his companion were cornered near the border by armed men, who asked them for money they didn’t have before handcuffing and hooding them, throwing them into the back of a pickup truck, and transporting them to a detention facility.
What was supposed to be a brief trip to Colombia has turned into a year-long nightmare for Eyvin, who remains wrongfully and arbitrarily detained by the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence—the security force behind arbitrary detentions in Venezuela—in a maximum-security military prison in Caracas. He faces 16 years on espionage charges; court records tell us there were no guns or drugs on him when he was arrested. But the real reason for his detention is a calculated game of geopolitical chess, in which Eyvin is a pawn caught in the deteriorated relationship between the United States and Venezuela—a political backdrop that, of course, is not of his own making.
That Eyvin continues to languish behind bars in Venezuela is no surprise, considering the country’s notorious human rights record. But as we approach the first anniversary of his detention, we are once again calling for the US government to bring Eyvin home—and to ensure that no American is caged arbitrarily, at home or abroad.
For months after Eyvin’s capture, a broad community of family, friends, former law school classmates, and fellow attorneys urged President Joe Biden to bring him home. When Brittney Griner was released in December, after spending 294 days in a Russian prison, we rejoiced with the rest of the Bring Eyvin Hernandez Home coalition, which is led by one of us, Henry Martinez, Eyvin’s brother. The news had given us a glimmer of hope about Eyvin. Calls for his release continued, with the National Association for Public Defense adding its voice to demand that Biden take action, following letters from state and federal legislators and leaders of Californian and national public defense offices. With the onset of the holiday season, we hoped for a Christmas miracle: that Eyvin would be back home in LA, standing by a decorated tree, surrounded by his parents, brothers, nieces, and nephews.
But as the 12 days until Christmas passed, one by one, reality sobered us. In January, when Roger Carstens, the US special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, visited Henry, a Christmas tree surrounded by train tracks still stood in the corner. Gifts had been opened, but without Eyvin.
In January, we held a candlelight vigil for Eyvin at UCLA Law School, his alma mater. Among the speakers was Osman Khan, Eyvin’s cellmate in Venezuela who was released months earlier on a prisoner swap that left Eyvin behind. Like clockwork, when the vigil started, Eyvin called Henry, who put him on speaker so Eyvin could hear all the love and support from his community. A few weeks later, on February 6, the California State Assembly passed a resolution urging Biden to negotiate for Eyvin’s swift release.
Yet the US government has failed to act with any urgency. We have to ask President Biden: What is taking so long?
Despite our sustained grassroots efforts, Eyvin is not a famous person. He is a beloved friend, brother, and uncle. He is an immigrant, whose family fled the civil war in El Salvador when he was a toddler. He is a college graduate, a double Bruin, in fact, who graduated from UCLA with a BS in physics and then later, his law degree. He is an advocate who helps everyone in his orbit. He is a dedicated public defender who works hard to zealously represent the people he represents. But none of this matters more than that he is a human being, and no one deserves to be in the position he is in now.
The real irony is that Eyvin, who has devoted his life to freeing people from cages, now finds himself wrongfully detained in a foreign prison with no one to defend him. (The Venezuelan public defender originally appointed to represent Eyvin was promptly removed after unsuccessfully making a motion to dismiss.) If Eyvin were here, he would remind us that we cannot place the American legal system on any pedestal. The public defenders among us have worked in close proximity to abysmal human rights violations here at home in Los Angeles County, Calif. We are no strangers to arbitrary detention within our own borders, where cash bail keeps individuals locked up pretrial simply because they are poor, while their wealthier counterparts can pay to get out of deplorable jail conditions.
Indeed, millions of people are caged across this country in the name of cash bail, excessive sentences, and cruel immigration policies, people who are pawns in a carceral race to the bottom—targeted by the police and subjected to overly exaggerated prosecutions and unjust convictions. No one deserves this. No one deserves to be incarcerated because of their status, nationality, wealth, poverty, or politics.
This is no longer just about freeing Eyvin Hernandez. It is about ensuring that no one is ever put in his position again. Our government needs to make a commitment to prevent Americans from languishing in prison, now and in the future.
When Roger Carstens met with Eyvin and other wrongfully detained Americans in Venezuela back in December to find a way to bring them home, he observed that, even within a maximum-security military prison, Eyvin is still a public defender, advocating for the rights of the people detained with him. This is the Eyvin we know and love. As Henry says, Eyvin is the best of us. It’s past time to bring him back.
March 31, 2023 will mark a year of gut-wrenching, arbitrary, wrongful detention for our cherished friend. Our coalition is holding a rally on March 30 in Los Angeles; this time, we hope to finally welcome him home. President Biden, what will it take to free our friend?