Miami Herald reporter Jim Wyss recounts his 48 hours in Venezuelan custody

Colleague Luisa Yanez, left, gives Jim Wyss, a welcome hug upon his arrival.  Miami Herald reporter Jim Wyss arrived at Miami International Airport after being detained by Venezuela for three days on Sunday, November 10, 2013.
Colleague Luisa Yanez, left, gives Jim Wyss, a welcome hug upon his arrival. Miami Herald reporter Jim Wyss arrived at Miami International Airport after being detained by Venezuela for three days on Sunday, November 10, 2013. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

I was wearing a bulletproof vest, lying flat in the backseat of an unmarked armored car and being escorted by three heavily armed men when I started to worry.

At that point I had been in the custody of Venezuela’s General Directorate of Military Counter Intelligence for 24 hours. I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that a “commission” was waiting for me.

It was Friday, and I had missed my return flight to Bogotá, where I’ve lived for the past three years covering the Andes for the Miami Herald. During that time, I’ve probably made a dozen reporting trips to Venezuela without serious problems — until now.

My troubles began Thursday in the border town of San Cristóbal in Táchira state. I had spent the day interviewing opposition and ruling-party leaders about Venezuela’s Dec. 8 municipal vote.

The national race is seen as a referendum on Nicolás Maduro’s six months in office as he has struggled to fill the shoes of his late boss Hugo Chávez amid a deepening economic crisis and skyrocketing inflation.

In San Cristóbal, not surprisingly, both parties cited contraband as a hot-button issue.

Venezuela’s fixed exchange rate and price controls on basic items have spawned a thriving underground economy. Everything from toilet paper, rice and chicken is spirited across the border into Colombia, where the items can sell for six to seven times their official price in Venezuela. Last week, Colombia stopped what it described as a “massive” shipment of cooking oil being smuggled across the border.

In San Cristóbal, people line up for hours to buy a few kilograms of flour. On the Colombian side, that same flour crams storefronts and is hawked by street vendors.

When Maduro talks about economic “warfare” and “sabotage,” Táchira is a frontline.

I wanted statistics on contraband. Several sources told me to ask the Bolivarian National Guard, which controls the border. After a phone call to its headquarters, I was invited to make the request in person.

Things seemed to go well. I introduced myself as a reporter and was told “The General” would speak to me soon. The afternoon dragged into the evening with multiple reassurances that “The General” had just cleared his agenda for me. At 7 p.m. — about four hours into the wait — I told them I had to leave. They said I couldn’t.

Instead, I was handed over to “The Inspector,” who put me into an armored car with doors that didn’t open from the inside (I checked). When I asked him where we were going, he said, “My office.”

His office was an undistinguished house on an inconspicuous street in San Cristóbal. The windows were heavily barred. Once inside, I was told that I was being investigated by military counter-intelligence.

There were reasons to worry. This year alone, four reporters have been detained and 33 have been attacked in Venezuela, according to the Espacio Público free-speech organization. Tim Tracy, a U.S. filmmaker, was detained in April and held for more than a month — part of that time in a notoriously violent jail — before being expelled from the country.

And as the Inspector reminded me, Maduro often accuses the Miami press of being part of a cabal that wants to destabilize the government. It’s all part of what press freedom organizations view as increasing threats against the media in Latin America.

After preliminary questioning, I was escorted to my hotel, where a rattled manager was told I was checking out.

Back at the office, the real questioning began. The Inspector dug through my computer hard drive, asking me to translate stories I had written and poring over my photographs. It was often a surreal experience. Stumbling across a picture of a glowering bearded man staring manically into the camera, the Inspector said, “ Quien es este carajo?” I had to explain that it was my brother, a chocolate-maker who lives in Nicaragua, mugging for the camera.

But there were also photos of opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. The Inspector said the plethora of photographs suggested I was an opposition activist. I explained that while people like Capriles often give the Miami Herald access, we had never been granted permission to join Chávez or Maduro on the campaign trail. Although we covered their campaigns just as heavily, it was usually from the crowd — and in ways that didn’t generally generate quality portraits.

He also asked one of his underlings to copy the contacts in my mobile phone by hand — all 1,314 of them. When it became clear that it was an overwhelming task, they sent the phone to someone to “ chuparle los datos,” or download the information.

I was still hoping the issue of my identity could be resolved quickly. I’ve been registered with Venezuela’s Ministry of Communication and Information, or Minci, for years, and during special events — such as elections and funerals — I’ve been given the required press badges. They email me statements and press releases daily.

But the Inspector said Minci didn’t know who I was. (The office later told my colleagues that because I failed to inform them about this reporting trip, I was not considered an accredited journalist.)

Despite my growing anxiety, there were never verbal or physical threats. In fact, the Inspector told me his orders were “not to touch you, even with the petal of a flower.” I was thankful, but wondered what the interview would have been like without those restrictions.

I also worried about my loved ones, family and colleagues. I was long overdue to check in with them. While I knew I wasn’t going to be swatted with a flower, they were left to speculate.

The questioning went on until about 2:30 a.m., when I was locked in a small room and invited to sleep on a bare mattress. At 6 a.m. Friday the questions resumed. They kept asking why I was taking pictures of military bases. It was troubling, because I had never shot photos of military installations and there were none on my camera or hard drive.

But that morning also brought some lucky breaks. While the Inspector still wouldn’t let me make a phone call, one of his subordinates took pity on me and let me sneak a call as long as it was in Spanish. I called my girlfriend, who just happened to be in Weston, and asked her to relay the message to my boss at the Herald, John Yearwood.

I learned later that after receiving the call, Yearwood and Herald Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez began a furious series of back-channel discussions to secure my freedom. Those included talks with Venezuelan Embassy officials in Washington, senior government officials in Caracas, the U.S. government and even members of the U.S. Congress who have influence with the Maduro regime. Marqués then sent Yearwood to Caracas for face-to-face meetings.

I knew none of that when I had a second lucky break: As I was being escorted out of a downstairs bathroom, three women called my name from the entrance, saying they were reporters. I was hustled upstairs before I could say anything, but the word was out.

The Inspector was not pleased.

“Who let the gringo go downstairs!” he screamed at his subordinates. “You should have made him piss in a bucket!”

Suddenly, he seemed eager to get me off his hands, and a few hours later I was bundled into the backseat of the car and on my way to meet “the commission.”

That ride ended at a commercial airport, where I was rushed into a VIP area and issued a boarding pass under the name Juan Salcedo. The Inspector and a subordinate flew me to Caracas late Friday.

“The commission” turned out to be immigration authorities. I was deeply relieved. I feared that a trip to the capital might mean another round of questioning by military intelligence.

I was taken to the imposing SAIME immigration building in downtown Caracas, where I was met by two U.S. Embassy officials. They assured me they were working to expedite my deportation. They also brought me a clean shirt and a toothbrush. But their mere presence was the greatest relief — Jim Wyss (not Juan Salcedo) was on someone’s radar.

I was booked into a holding cell with eight other detainees. It was a friendly atmosphere. A Palestinian invited me to take the bunk above his, a Syrian dug beneath his cot and found me a dirty, blood-spotted sheet and pillow to get me through the night. There was a small television set, a DVD player and a coffeemaker. I’ve slept in hotels that were worse — but at least their doors opened from the inside.

The main distractions seemed to be chain-smoking and watching the streets of downtown Caracas — several stories below — from holes in the window.

I hadn’t seen a television or newspaper since Thursday morning. And I was under the impression that if any action was being taken on my behalf, it was of the quiet, backroom-diplomacy kind. But that night my face led the evening newscast. I didn’t know whether that was good or bad news. It was a fretful night.

Saturday morning, I washed my sheet and some clothes in the sink and settled in for the long haul. Immigration officials had said I wouldn’t be released until Monday or Tuesday at the earliest. I started rereading Cormack McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses as my cellmates binged on Stone Cold Steve Austin action movies.

I was feeling more relaxed, but there were still spikes of anxiety. One of my cellmates was a government official serving a 45-day sentence for some infraction. He warned me that a National Deputy had told him the government “wants to make you a political issue, so you need to get out of here fast.”

A few hours later, a guard ordered me to collect my belongings. I shuddered. Was I being released or transferred? He wouldn’t say.

I was led to a back office and introduced to Juan Carlos Dugarte, director general of immigration.

He said I was being released — not deported — and that I was welcome to stay in the country as long as I wanted and return to work as a journalist.

I hope that’s true. I love reporting from Venezuela. The country is beautiful, complicated and nuanced — difficult to cover from abroad. It’s also highly polarized, which makes balance vitally important. I’ve been accused of being a right-wing fascist and a Chávez-loving communist based on the same article.

Despite being key trading partners, U.S.-Venezuelan relations are in tatters. The two countries haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010, and a recent attempt to do so ended in more diplomatic bloodletting. That makes accurate reporting from both fronts more important than ever.

My ordeal lasted about 48 hours. I was exceptionally lucky. The Miami Herald, the U.S. State Department, airlines, local journalists and absolute strangers pushed hard for my release. I am grateful to all of them.

Municipal elections are coming up next month, and I hope to cover them. And I’m still looking for those statistics on contraband. General: You have my phone numbers — and the contact information of everyone I’ve ever known. Call me.