It was just before 7 a.m. when John Yearwood got the call.
Twelve hours earlier, he had heard from Jim Wyss as he prepared to wrap up his reporting trip to San Cristóbal in Venezuela, a border town with Colombia known for contraband, drug trafficking and intense politics.
Jim’s girlfriend, Ana Soler, was on the phone. Jim, she told Yearwood, was being held by the Bolivarian National Guard, an arm of the Venezuelan government, and he couldn’t leave.
“You never want to get that call,” said Yearwood, the Miami Herald World Editor. He has probably gotten two or three such calls during his past 10 years directing our coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean. Each instance was resolved quickly and quietly.
This time, at first, seemed to be simply a case of miscommunication.
“I thought they picked him up thinking he was a spy. I wanted to establish quickly [with Venezuelan authorities] that he was a journalist,” Yearwood said. “As we discovered, it was far more complicated.”
Wyss has traveled extensively in Venezuela as the Miami Herald’s Andean Bureau Chief for the past three years. Although there is an element of risk with almost any foreign assignment, Wyss has encountered relatively few during his travels, mostly a testament to his deep roots in the region after decades-long work as a journalist in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama and Mexico.
“Nine times out of 10, there are never any problems,” Wyss said. “I’ve never been through anything like this.”
Suddenly, we were confronting a rare and delicate situation: the detention of a veteran reporter in a foreign country without the protections of U.S. laws and processes. Complicating matters were the fragile and frayed relations between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments. Just last month, each country expelled three of each other’s diplomats.
Increasingly, there has been cause for concern for journalists working in Venezuela. This year alone, four reporters have been detained and 33 have been attacked in Venezuela, according to a free-speech organization. Also, there was the case of American filmmaker Timothy Tracy, who was arrested in April and accused of being a CIA agent. He was released after more than a month in detention.
“You have a protocol in your head of what to do,” said Yearwood, who is the North American Chairman of the International Press Institute. “You don’t want to panic. You think, ‘Whom do I know who may be able to help with the situation?’ ”
There isn’t a convenient, universal playbook that applies to all situations. The conditions clearly vary from country to country. Our primary concern was Wyss’ safety and obtaining his immediate release.
Yearwood’s first calls were to the Venezuelan press attaché in Washington, D.C., and her counterparts in Caracas.
Assured of Wyss’ imminent release, we lobbied quietly as we waited. Word began to trickle out through social media about his detention when a local journalist spotted him in custody in San Cristóbal . Instead of his release, the next call got us particularly worried: Jim had been transferred to Caracas and it was unclear which government agency was holding him.
“We weren’t sure what that meant — either they were going to release him or they were going to double down,” Yearwood said.
Only later we learned from Jim that, traveling under the alias Juan Salcedo given by the Venezuelan government, he had been put in the back of a truck wearing a bulletproof vest and escorted by heavily armed men.
Our efforts took on a new sense or urgency, a full-court press that included the U.S. Embassy, the State Department, attorneys, other media and congressional representatives, including those with close ties to Caracas. We did not know where in Caracas Jim was being held. I thought we had to find out and determine his condition. I asked Yearwood late Friday to drop everything and fly to Caracas.
By the morning of Saturday, Nov. 9, Yearwood was on the first flight, hoping he would be able to escort Wyss home. In the meantime, we continued to work with U.S. officials to gain his release. The support was broad and spanned both countries, perhaps most notably Venezuela-based journalists, who kept Wyss’ case front and center across social media, in newspapers and on the air.
“Our strategy was to flood the zone and try to get as many people calling down there as possible,” Yearwood said. “That may have made a difference.”
After being detained more than 48 hours, Wyss was released.
Early next month, there are important municipal elections in Venezuela, seen as a referendum on President Nicolás Maduro’s six months in office. Wyss would like to be there to cover the national elections. Our coverage of the country is important to our readers, many of whom are Venezuelans, as well as those with family ties or business interests.
Upon his release, a Venezuelan official told Wyss he could return as a journalist whenever he wanted. It’s still unclear to us what triggered Wyss’ detention as he has been registered with Venezuela’s Ministry of Communication and Information for years.
Before he books his next plane ticket, we’ll need some assurances from the Venezuelan government. Allowing Wyss to return will indicate whether his detention was arbitrary or part of a larger government effort to crack down on the international media.