Major Hugo Parra Martínez spends his days behind bars in constant tension: he doesn’t know when he will leave or if immigration authorities will end up deporting him to Venezuela, where he says his life is in danger.
“I fell in a hole and I'm at the bottom. I lost everything: my family, my house. What I did was worth nothing. I don't see a way out,” he told Noticias Telemundo Investiga from the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, one of the prisons where Donald Trump’s administration holds thousands of immigrants while their asylum cases are processed.
This 42-year-old major of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB), doesn’t know who else to ask to intercede for him and his case. "Here, my only company is the Bible and God. I beg Him every day to help me out soon," he says in a phone conversation.
It has been more than eight months since he turned himself in to US immigration authorities at the Juárez-Lincoln Bridge No. 2 in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in April 11 th of last year. Since then, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has moved him to two different detention centers, denied him two bail requests, and hasn’t given him an appointment yet with an immigration judge.
Parra is one of more than 100 Venezuelan soldiers who rose against Nicolás Maduro’s government when, in early 2019, opposition Congressman Juan Guaidó launched 'Operation Freedom' and promised to guide Venezuela out of the crisis, form a transition government and call for new elections.
Guaidó, recognized by at least 60 countries as interim president, called on the military to stand "on the right side of history" and promised them "amnesty and guarantees." But there wasn’t enough support from the armed forces, and their attempt to remove Maduro from the Miraflores presidential palace failed.
Almost a year after the South American country was shaken by massive protests that left dozens dead and thousands injured and detained, the opposition is deeply fragmented and Venezuelans continue to flee in stampede, constituting the world’s second worst refugee crisis, after Syria.
Although the United States was the first country to recognize and support Guaidó, to catalog the Maduro government as a dictatorship and to recognize the country’s political and humanitarian crisis, the US also continues detaining and deporting Venezuelans, and has been reluctant to approve a Status of Temporary Protection (TPS) for them.
Meanwhile, dozens of soldiers who rose against Maduro have had to leave Venezuela as refugees, mostly to Spain and other Latin American countries.
Others like Major Parra came to the US to seek refuge in the same country that had showed them support during the days of the insurrection. But almost a year later, this officer also feels abandoned by Guaido, who also said he would protect them.
Fleeing from Colombia
February 23rd, 2019 would be a point of political inflection for Venezuela that would seal the fate of dozens of military officers like Parra.
Aerial photos of Venezuelan security forces at the border town of Cúcuta on February 25th, after they blocked the passage of humanitarian aid into Venezuela. (Photo: Getty Images).
That Saturday, Guaidó crossed the Tienditas International Bridge, from the Venezuelan state of Táchira, to the Colombian city of Cúcuta. Dozens of volunteers were hoping to pass 600 tons of humanitarian aid to Venezuela, stored in several containers. Maduro, denying that the country needed such help, refused them entry and called the international gesture a "Trojan horse" to oust him.
Aside from the support of the civilian population, Guaidó also needed the support of the military to complete this operation. That day, some 1,200 troops decided to take a step that, unbeknownst to them, would push them shortly after into exile: to swear an oath to support the youthful, relatively unknown leader of the National Assembly.
Parra was one of the first five officers to do so, and the one with the highest ranking. The video of his encounter with Guaidó quickly spread around the world. Expectations were high.
"We were very hopeful," he recalls, from the detention center in Louisiana. “But the support that was necessary from Guaidó and his people to annihilate the Maduro government wasn’t there. He should have been more forceful, more drastic.”
After a confrontation between the forces still loyal to late president Hugo Chávez and those attempting to transport the aid, the operation failed. In fear of returning to Venezuela and being persecuted by Maduro’s political police, deserting military officers like Parra surrendered in Colombia, where they were housed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Major Hugo Parra and first lieutenant Erick Molina cross Juárez-Lincoln Bridge No. 2 in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where they surrendered to US immigration authorities on April 11. (Photo: Courtesy of Raynell Martínez).
Parra, who initially stayed in a parish house and then at the Acora Hotel in Cúcuta, said he and his colleagues received death threats and were attacked with a car bomb by agents of Maduro’s paramilitary squads, also called 'collectives'. The lack of security caused many to leave Colombia as well.
In his case, Parra escaped with First Lieutenant Erick Molina by plane to Mexico. There, both were handed over to the immigration authorities in Nuevo Laredo.
Their odyssey was just beginning.
Without a lawyer or a court date
After spending two months detained at the Rio Grande Detention Center in Laredo, Texas, Parra was transferred to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility (Mississippi) in May. Two months later, in July, he was transferred again, this time to Winn.
The Venezuelan embassy in Washington assigned him a pro-bono lawyer, but both agreed that they would not continue working together, after Parra complained about the lack of results and the lawyer responded he was doing everything he could in his spare time from other cases.
Now Parra is being held without legal representation, in one of the states that grants the least benefits to asylum seekers
“Of about 40 cases that I have worked in in recent months in this state, none have been granted asylum. And I don't know anyone in a (detention) center in Louisiana who has received it,” says immigration lawyer Lorena Pérez, who currently works for several clients pro-bono.
Perez says the government forces immigrants to wait for long periods in detention centers to wear them out, so immigrants themselves ask to be returned to their countries.
"It's a race to see who can take it the longest, who is stronger," he says.
View of the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, where Parra is being held by ICE since June. (Photo: Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections).
Telemundo News Investiga found that Parra's file number does not appear in immigration courts records, which may mean that after eight months being detained his case hasn’t even begun being processed.
Erick Molina had a bit more luck. After the two were separated, he spent another three months in detention and was granted parole on bail. He is now in Austin, Texas, awaiting an answer on his asylum case, as a free man.
Former Major Raynell Martinez, who retired from the Venezuelan Air Force and entered the US in 2014 under similar conditions, has helped them both since they arrived in Mexico. She helped Molina secure bail through Guaidó’s embassy in the US. She hasn’t been able to help Parra as much.
"We’ve taken all the steps for Guaidó's ambassador to the US, Carlos Vecchio, to support (Parra) by providing a lawyer, but we haven’t received any response yet," she lamented.
“Frowned upon” by the United States
Some believe the cost of disregarding military dissidents and their immigration cases could be heavy.
José Antonio Colina, ex-military and president of Veppex, an organization of exiled Venezuelans, protests in Miami in December to ask for the release of some 400 nationals imprisoned in ICE jails. (Photo: Belisa Morillo).
Forgetting these soldiers, leaving them with little to no protection, could drive away potential allies inside and outside Venezuelan territory, and further discourage other military of participating in future uprisings, according to former Bolivarian National Guard of Venezuela José A. Colina, who is exiled in Miami and is the president of Veppex, or Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile.
"If this government recognizes there are human rights violations in Venezuela, that there is a dictatorship that oppresses people and that people are dying, then Venezuelans who arrive here should be given some protection," says Colina.
The ex-military, whom we interviewed in mid-December during a march attended by Venezuelan immigrants, question that senators, congresspeople and other US officials criticize the Maduro government, but do not take enough measures to protect those fleeing from him because they fear for their lives.
Colina says he has repeatedly asked Guaidó and the State Department to intercede for a dozen soldiers in the same situation as Parra and Molina, but there has been no response.
Some 4.7 million Venezuelans—16% of the country's population—have fled since the economy suffered a 65% contraction in 2013. (Photo: AP).
The US government—says this exlieutenant—takes longer with military cases because it takes time to determine if they are actually persecuted politicians who supported the opposition and not chavista agents who seek immigration benefits or come as spies for Maduro.
The case of Parra, whose support for Guaidó was recorded on video and had broad media repercussions, should not have taken so long, Colina claims.
Military officers like him, who no longer have a place in Maduro's Venezuela, are also "frowned upon" by the US government. "They are seen as part of the (chavista) system," he warns.
Guaidó is "aware" of the situation
Telemundo News Investiga questioned the US Department of State about military cases like Parra’s but they could not comment on it. By the time of publication, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had not responded either to an information request.
Opposition leader Juan Guaidó greets a group of followers during a demonstration against Nicolás Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela, May 2019. Photo: Getty Images.
The director of Consular Affairs at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C., Brian Fincheltub, said Guaidó "is aware" of the situation facing dissident military officers like Parra and Molina, but that this isn’t the only “incident” the Congressman has to take care of.
"Every day in Venezuela there are millions of emergencies and hundreds of cases like these that are happening," Fincheltub said. He added that the interim president’s diplomatic mission resources in the US are limited, and that they have restrictions to act, "especially on immigration issues."
“We have emphasized those (military) cases because we recognize they had the courage to do what they did. However, it is not up to us for the US government to make the process faster or slower.”
Fincheltub says the Embassy has made complaints to both ICE and DHS, but they have not received an answer: "We are doing everything in our power."
A slave to a promise
The US has deported military officers to Venezuela after denying their requests for political asylum, and despite them having expressed fears of returning.
One of the best-known cases is that of former member of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces Helegner Tijera, who came to the US in 2016 after defecting. He spent two years detained by ICE, lost his case to an appeals court and was sent back.
Despite being released on bail, Erick Molina says he lives in "terror" of being returned to Venezuela.
"We thought that because the United States is an ally of Guaidó, they would talk to each other and help us with the immigration process," he explains. “But all the military officers who go to Cúcuta are in limbo. Floating."
In the past, the US has deported Venezuelan military officers who have defected, like Helegner Tijera, who, after joining the opposition, emigrated to the US seeking asylum. He spent two years imprisoned by ICE before being deported. Photo: AP
Molina says that there’s more than 100 of them, and that they are currently dispersed throughout the region: “I am sure that (Guaidó) doesn’t know who they are or where they are. They are scattered all over Latin America: Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Chile.”
Regarding the interim president’s promise of protection and guarantees, he says that "it was never fulfilled at any time." "He has become a slave to his promise," he says.
In a recent interview with the Spanish newspaper El País, in which he denies that "Operation Freedom" has been a failure, Guaidó said that it is necessary to seek greater support from the Armed Forces to achieve a transitional government.
Molina thinks that after seeing how the situation has developed, the opposition leader will find it even more difficult to obtain support in the future from the sector that holds the firepower, something necessary to gain political control in Venezuela, where the state apparatus is located deeply within the military.
"Within the Armed Forces, more than a few won’t want to stand up against the regime and support someone who won’t keep his promises later," Molina warned.
Meanwhile, at the Winn Detention Center, Hugo Parra says he does not regret that step he took on February 23, when he shook hands with Juan Guaidó and said to him: "At your service, Commander-in-Chief."
In Caracas, he says, his and his mother's house were occupied by the Maduro government. The family’s only vehicle was confiscated. His mother, who is recovering from cancer surgery, had to flee to Colombia to a relative’s house.
In the neighboring country, his wife managed to find a job and took their children with her.
He hasn't had much news about them since he was imprisoned. He says they only allow local calls at the detention center.
Parra says that if Guaidó was in front of him, he would advise him to put “a little more love and heart into what he wants”, so that he can “achieve his goals.” However, he reiterates that he doesn’t regret a thing: "I would do it again," he says.
“Venezuela’s freedom is worth more than my own. I am proud of what I did. At some point God always rewards the righteous".