Disputed marijuana charge led to Venezuelan activist’s immigration problems

Marco Coello hugs his parents Armando Coello and Dorys Morillo de Coello at the Blandon Law office in Weston following his release.
Marco Coello hugs his parents Armando Coello and Dorys Morillo de Coello at the Blandon Law office in Weston following his release.

The decision of federal immigration authorities to detain and deport asylum-seeking Venezuelan political activist Marco Coello may have been triggered by a marijuana charge filed against him in Virginia last fall, a charge that was later reduced to trespassing.

Records for the General District Court in Fairfax County, Virginia, located in the suburbs just outside Washington D.C., show Coello was cited for misdemeanor possession of marijuana on Sept. 17.

But by the time Coello went to court two months later, the marijuana count had been amended to trespassing, another misdemeanor. Coello was convicted and had to pay $192 in fines and court costs, according to the court records.

Yet some mystery still swirls around the case.

Coello’s attorneys insist he was cited only for sleeping inside a car in a parking lot without paying the fees, and that no drugs were involved.

Coello was arrested Wednesday at the U.S. immigration office in Miami while awaiting a routine hearing on his asylum request. He was released the next day after Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, asked the White House to intervene.

But even after his release, immigration officials gave no indication they were backing down from plans to deport him, noting that his misdemeanor conviction violated the terms of his stay in the United States.

In Venezuela, Coello has been a potent symbol of dissent against the regime of Nicolás Maduro since his arrest at a 2014 Caracas demonstration and the police torture he endured afterward. Released on bail three months later, he fled to the United States during his September 2015 trial.

Now 22, Coello was just an unknown high school kid of 18 when he inadvertently stumbled into the national spotlight in Venezuela. He was among several hundred people arrested at anti-government protests across the country in which three died and dozens were seriously injured.

Coello later told human-rights investigators that he had been knocked down by a teargas canister as he tried to flee the scene of violent confrontations between police and protesters. As he lay in the street struggling to breathe, he said, he was beaten by cops and arrested. Later, at the police station, he was beaten again, this time with golf clubs, a stick and a fire extinguisher, and he was doused with gasoline and subjected to electric shocks in the chest.

Coello’s case was singled out later in a report by the international organization Human Rights Watch as an especially egregious example of what it called “a pattern of abuse” by security forces at the demonstration that included “ violations of the right to life; the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; the rights to bodily integrity, security and liberty; and due process rights.”

His troubles in the U.S. stemmed from an incident the night of Sept. 17 last year. Virginia police said Coello and an unidentified companion stopped their car in McLean, an upscale, unincorporated area of Fairfax County that’s best known as the location of the headquarters of the CIA, a little bit after 10 p.m.

“The road was closed due to an unrelated incident that was an accident, so an officer was conducting traffic control in the area,” Fairfax County police spokeswoman Tawny Wright told el Nuevo Herald. “The occupants of the vehicle put the windows down and asked for directions and when they did, the officer detected the odor of marijuana. So he asked them to pull over and the investigation led to drug-related charges to the driver, Coello.”

Wright didn’t know why the drug charge was changed to trespassing. And Coello’s attorneys said he was never charged with anything to do with drugs, anyway.

“What I’ve got officially is that he has a conviction only for trespassing,” attorney Elizabeth Blandon said. “We don’t know why that report [of the marijuana charge] exists. We don’t know if it’s some kind of computer glitch.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, she pointed out, had already admitted to one mistake — their initial claim that Coello had two misdemeanor convictions, which they later amended to one.

Follow Glenn Garvin on Twitter: @glenngarvin