It’s been one year since Eyvin Hernandez has hugged his family. It’s been one year since he’s been home.
And it’s been one year since the Los Angeles County public defender has been able to argue for a defendant’s innocence.
Except this time, Hernandez is the defendant.
Hernandez, a criminal defense attorney who grew up in the South Bay, was arrested at the Venezuelan-Colombian border a year ago while on a two-week vacation. Since then, he has been detained in a Venezuelan cell, with his family and the United States government describing Hernandez as a political prisoner wrongfully detained.
His loved ones have also described the Los Angeles resident’s living conditions as dire – and they want him to return home as soon as possible.
That’s why Hernandez’s family and friends, about 40 people in all, gathered in front of the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, in downtown Los Angeles, last week to publicly urge the US government – President Joe Biden in particular – to help bring him home .
His friends also have a change.org petition to call for political actions, which had accumulated 6,504 signatures as of Friday morning. A GoFundMe accounts had raised more than $34,800 for legal fees and financial assistance when Hernandez came home.
The rally took place on Thursday, March 30 – a day before the one-year anniversary of Hernandez’s arrest. Those who know the 44-year-old pleaded with the Biden administration to intervene on his behalf.
“The president has the power to bring him home,” Hernandez’s father, Pedro Martinez, told the Daily Breeze after the rally. “It’s (been) a year already. He deserves to be home as soon as possible.”
A State Department spokesperson, in a statement provided to the Southern California News Group, said officials are working to free him – and all captive Americans.
“The US Government continues to work aggressively to bring home all US nationals wrongfully detained or held captive abroad and also to prevent and deter future hostage-takings and wrongful detentions,” the spokesperson said. “These are top priorities for the President and the Secretary of State.”
In March 2022, Hernandez was on vacation in Colombia. One day, he accompanied a friend to Cucuta, a city near the border with Venezuela, to get his passport stamped. He never intended to enter Venezuela and was due to return home in a few days, his family said.
The two were walking down a dirt road asking for directions when a man told them to pay a $100 bribe to cross into Venezuela. After they refused, the pair were approached by heavily armed men, accused of being American spies and turned over to Venezuelan officials, his family said.
It’s unclear if Hernandez’s friend was on vacation with him and the information on him is sparse. But Hernandez’s family said she is Venezuelan, not American.
Either way, their arrests were unsurprising within the context of Venezuela’s current unrest.
The State Department urged Americans not to travel to the country and in March 2019, the US withdrew all diplomatic personnel from its embassy in Caracas.
Violence is common in Venezuela, according to the State Department, and the government of longtime President Nicolás Maduro has been accused of human rights abuses.
“Violent crimes, such as homicide, armed robbery, kidnapping, and carjacking, are common,” the State Department says about Venezuela on its website.
And US officials have determined Americans who travel there would be at risk for detention.
“Reports from the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission document human rights abuses attributed to the Maduro regime,” the State Department website says, “including torture, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and detentions without due process and/or fair trial guarantees or as a pretext for an illegitimate purpose.”
Hernandez, meanwhile, has been locked in a maximum security prison for political prisoners since his arrest, and has been charged with criminal association and conspiracy against the Venezuelan government.
His family has insisted he is innocent. If found guilty, Hernandez could spend up to 16 years in prison, his family said.
Seven months into his detention, the State Department determined Hernandez was “wrongfully detained,” which means his case gets enhanced resources from the government.
But one year has passed, and there is still no clear sign of a release date or his return to the US
Hernandez’s last time in court came in August for a pretrial hearing, said his younger brother, Henry Martinez.
“They say they are working on it,” his father said, “but we don’t see action.”
But those efforts are ongoing, the State Department spokesperson said, while declining to provide details.
“We continue to press for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr. Hernandez at every opportunity and will continue to do so,” the spokesperson said. “Beyond that, we are not going to discuss ongoing diplomatic conversations or negotiations.”
Hernandez’s capture, henceforth, has caused significant angst among those who know him.
Martinez, for example, said his son, who has dedicated his career to seeking fair treatment for vulnerable people, is needed here in Los Angeles, not just by the family – but also by those he serves.
Drew Havens, who attended Thursday’s rally, witnessed Hernandez’s dedication to his job personally. Hernandez trained Havens when he was a new public defender, he said.
Hernandez is a “very inspirational, very diligent, excellent attorney,” Havens said, and he “really cared about the people that he was training.
“He taught me what it means to fight for justice,” he added. “Eyvin has dedicated his entire life to serving the most marginalized people in Los Angeles County. He’s a dedicated public servant. He doesn’t deserve to be held captive from his family in Venezuela.”
Hernandez was born in El Salvador in 1978.
His family moved to the US, when Hernandez was a toddler, to seek a better life.
He graduated from Leuzinger High School in Lawndale and attended El Camino College, where he discovered his passion for physics. He eventually transferred to UCLA, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics.
He then went to law school – which was unexpected
Karlene Nguyen is a friend of Hernandez who studied with him at El Camino College before they both transferred to UCLA.
She was initially surprised when she decided to become a lawyer, Nguyen said.
Their graduation in the early 2000s coincided with the dot com bubble bursting, forcing many fledgling internet and communication companies to shutter after a brief period of rapid growth.
There were no jobs at the time, Nguyen said, and she thought Hernandez, who had studied physics and mathematics in college, would be eager to become a physicist or an engineer.
But instead, he chose to go to law school.
In 2006, Hernandez joined the LA County Public Defender’s Office, where he’s spent his entire career.
His most recent assignment was at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Courthouse handling felony cases. Hernandez has also volunteered his time advocating for children in the juvenile justice system.
“It makes sense now that he’s never been focused on money,” Nguyen said about his friend’s decision to study and practice law. “He always was very principled. He wanted to do something bigger for the community, and so money was never his priority.”
Those who care deeply about Hernandez said the slow response from the government, as they described it, is frustrating.
They aren’t sure, for example, why it took so long for Hernandez to be classified as wrongfully arrested, despite overwhelming evidence that he was unfairly taken, Hernandez’s brother said.
“They don’t provide us with a game plan,” he said. “I think we get the repetitive quotes that other families get, which is, simply, ‘We’re working on it. Eyvin’s case is a top priority and we’re doing what we can.’”
But during a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting last month, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said he had spoken with the family in late January, and that his staff engaged with them on a regular basis.
Roger Carstens, the US special envoy for hostage affairs, and the head of the state department‘s Venezuela Affairs Unit, have traveled to Venezuela multiple times to try to free Americans who have been wrongfully detained, including Hernandez, the secretary said.
“We will continue that effort,” Blinken said, “until we bring Eyvin and any others home.”
Pedro Martinez confirmed Blinken’s conversation with the family. But even though he appreciates what the State Department officials are doing, the elder Martinez said, he also wants immediate action.
“As Secretary Blinken has said,” the State Department spokesperson said, “he is personally focused on bringing home US nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.”
The last time Hernandez’s family spoke with him was March 26.
Even though he’s desperate, his family said, Hernandez is trying to stay as positive as he can
But his loved ones say they are worried about his health. The light in his cell remains on 24/7, so he has not had adequate sleep in a year. He has not eaten nutritious food.
And he has not yet had a trial.
Bahar Mirhosseni, a criminal defense/human rights lawyer and a friend of Hernandez, said it pained her to know that Hernandez was locked up in “deplorable conditions”–thousands of miles from his family.
“We are not saying that he should be freed because he’s an amazing human rights lawyer,” she said. “We’re saying he should be freed because no one deserves this.
“Even one minute is one minute too much,” Mirhosseni added, “and we’re talking about an entire year of a human being’s life.”
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