World

Utah man held in Venezuela portrayed as dangerous conspirator, 'a gringo agent'

  • Josh Holt (R) and his wife Thasmara Belen Caleño Candelo (L).

    Josh Holt (R) and his wife Thasmara Belen Caleño Candelo (L).  (Photo Courtesy of Laurie Holt)

  • Laurie Holt holds a photograph of her son Josh while daughters Jenna, left, Katie, right, and husband Jason look on.

    Laurie Holt holds a photograph of her son Josh while daughters Jenna, left, Katie, right, and husband Jason look on.  (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistribu)

A 24-year-old newlywed from Utah is suddenly at the top of Venezuela’s worst enemies list.

Since his arrest on June 30th, Joshua Holt has been portrayed by the pro-government media as “el agente gringo,” a U.S. spy who infiltrated the country under the guise of a man in love, but in reality the mastermind of a plot to destabilize the socialist government.

Today marks the 55th day Holt spends incarcerated in one of the headquarters of the almighty Venezuelan intelligence police, also known as Sebin, along with 20 men and women who call themselves political prisoners and have been there for months if not years.

To his devastated mother, Laurie Moon Holt, the profoundly devout Mormon is still her “little boy” and a “good, kind person” who fell in love online despite warnings about traveling to the South American country to get married.

“I’m living a nightmare. I don’t’ have a life. This is my full-time job,” she told Fox News Latino over the phone from her home in Utah.

She said Josh’s lawyer in Caracas, Jeanette Prieto, is urging her to get the help from the U.S. government. “[The lawyer told me Josh] is being held as a political pawn.”

FNL reached out to Prieto for comment but she declined.

On June 30th, Holt and his wife of five days, Thamara Caleño Candelo, were arrested in a raid in the public housing complex they were living in as they awaited her U.S. visa.

They were accused along seven people of being part of a paramilitary gang called Los Sindicalistas, responsible for the murder of Chavista leader Omar Jesús Molina Marin on April 12.

Authorities claimed to have found assault rifles and a hand grenade in their apartment and held them on suspicion of being spies.

"Under different facades, the secret services of the United States are seeking to achieve goals in an unconventional war through interventionist actions that stimulate the formation of criminal paramilitary gangs in housing complexes," then-Interior minister Gustavo González López said on July 20th referring to the Holt case.

"We won't permit the dark interests of capitalism, backed by the criminal gangs, to suffocate the stability and peace of the country," he added.

A month later, Holt’s mother posted on Facebook a transcript of a handwritten message she recently received from him saying he is terrified, as the jail is filled with innocent people.

“I have been told by 10 or 20 people, prisoners, and guards, that I am here because I am American,” he wrote. “I have also been told by guards that Americans have no rights here.”

Personnel from the U.S. embassy in Venezuela last saw him on August 16th.

A U.S. government official who asked to remain anonymous told FNL that they are providing Holt with all possible consular assistance. International regulations leave them unable to do much more.

“While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law,” the official said.

“We monitor conditions in foreign prisons and may protest allegations of abuse against U.S. citizen prisoners when requested to do so by the prisoner.  We work with prison officials to ensure treatment consistent with internationally recognized standards and to ensure that U.S. citizens are afforded due process under local laws and international standards,” the official said to FNL.

Holt is the 12th U.S. citizen known to be in Venezuelan custody.

Holt’s case has been widely covered by the local media, but they are making him out to be a villain. Still, Holt’s mother said the Venezuelan people are on their side.

“[The media] are working for their government, but the opposition is in favor of Josh and knows the charges are trumped up,” she said. “The people know.”

Holt spent his first week and a half in a cell where you could only fit a twin size bed, with two small windows about 12 feet above the ground.

His fellow inmates at Helicoide, a 1960 commercial mall turned jail, include Manuel Rosales, a former governor and presidential candidate, three lawmakers and opposition activist Betty Grossi, who was arrested in August 2015 for “financing terrorism.”

Grossi’s lawyer, Joel Garcia, described the jail conditions at Helicoide.

“They normally don’t have clean water and sometimes the prisoners have to collect money to pay for a tanker truck to have access to water,” he said. “The cells even have flatworms.”

In the letter Holt said this is when he sees his wife: once a day when he goes to retrieve pop bottles filled with water to bathe.

Under these conditions, Holt's health has deteriorated.

He is suffering from sickness, kidney stones, bronchitis and “a permanent itch without a known cause,” according to the letter posted on Facebook.

According to Garcia, the lawyer, no medical attention is provided in the prison. “When a judge orders a health check for a prisoner, Sebin just does it when they please,” he said, explaining that the Intelligence office follows commands directly from the Interior minister’s office and is accountable to almost no one.

“It’s hard to express the feeling I felt yesterday, as my lawyer told me that we were accused and would have to stay until the 15th of September. My heart was broken as she tells me that we need more help and support from my government,” Holt wrote in the 2,000-word letter posted on Facebook.

“When it comes to taking my money my government becomes an expert and never fail, but when it comes to saving my life,” he added, “they abandon me and say there is nothing they can do.”

Wednesday, the judge in Josh's case ruled that he and his wife will remain in jail until their hearing, scheduled for September 15th.

Laurie Holt posted the below update to her Facebook page. 

Rebekah Sager contributed to this report.

Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.

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