It was a slow day.
Francisco Jorges, the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (GDCIM) officer I had gone to the Altamira café to meet, never showed up. Frank, the always-jovial middleman, had offered his sincerest apologies and stayed for a cup of coffee while the four of us — my bodyguard José, Frank, my translator Oswaldo, and I — discussed the ambiguity of Senator Rubio’s latest tweets about Venezuela.
I sort of half-listened while the men debated whether or not a certain phrasing was a signal to the Venezuelan resistance, bored to death by what had been a couple of tedious workdays since the quick death of the so-called coup d’état. As if to spare me from the meaningless theories, Frank suggested we leave before nightfall, given how dangerous Caracas gets at dusk, and we left the café promising to reconvene for what hopefully would be a more productive tomorrow.
Frank got on his motorcycle while Oswaldo, José, and I headed out onto the streets with our usual inconspicuous red Renault. We hadn’t gotten half a block when Frank waved us down and gestured toward the back seat. “I left my jacket in your car, slow down.” (I am, of course, reconstructing these quotes from memory.)
And we did, handing over the windbreaker at an intersection, slowing down to near zero before speeding up again.
And that’s when that slow day turned manic.
The white car cuts us off, forcing us to make a quick stop, and three men in uniform jump out, carrying heavy machine guns. Oswaldo and Jose are quiet, while I can’t stop saying “f***” over and over again while the men open the doors of the Renault.
“Did you enjoy your coffee, miss?” The youngest of the three is dressed in what looks like a GNB military uniform, the word FAES written across the right arm. He has multicolored braces on his teeth and a black baseball cap with FAES written in white on the visor, and when he leans into the car window he runs his tongue across the top braces in what looks like a nervous tic.
His question doesn’t require an answer, but functions as a signal to me and to all the others that I have been under surveillance. I first arrived in Venezuela four months ago, just as Juan Guaidó had announced himself the legitimate president of this chaotic country, challenging President Nicolás Maduro a few months after he’d been reelected in an almost universally questioned election. It was supposed to be a week-long assignment, covering what everyone assumed would be a picture-perfect counter-revolution, but with every new day the conflict grew deeper, darker, and more complicated. What seemed like a conflict between the Maduro government and the Guaidó-led opposition, I soon realized, was a network of sordid Mafia-style rivalries involving Cuban, Colombian, and Venezuelan paramilitaries, Lebanese narcos, regime troops, and barrio gangs that consistently oppressed any type of dissidence or opposition — including systematic violence toward journalists, foreign and domestic.
I get out of the car and look around. José is standing by the right back wheel with the third FAES officer, looking uncharacteristically frightened, and Oswaldo is right behind me, shaking visibly.
“Where is your passport?” the man with the braces asks me, and when I explain that I don’t carry it around with me, he simply shakes his head.
“If you don’t have your passport you will have to come with us.”
I’m pushed into the back of the car, Oswaldo right next to me, the man with the braces on the far left. Now I see the third man, sitting in the front seat, face covered by a balaclava and a large automatic weapon in his lap. He doesn’t look at me but I can see the contours of a wide pug-like face, and when he moves around in the front seat I can see that he’s wearing all black, the look accentuated by a bulky double Kevlar vest.
“We already know that you don’t have legal right to be here and that you crossed the Colombian border illegally. You’re working with the opposition. We know every movement you have made and every person you’ve ever spoken to in this country, so there is no use in lying.”
I burst into explanations and defenses, literally staring down the barrel of a gun, and I try to explain the work I do and why I have met with the people he mentions. But every word out of my mouth seems to annoy him, and by the end of my desperate speech, the man is sucking his braces nonstop.
Oswaldo does his best to translate, but I can tell that he has gone into that zone of shock where every little thing you do takes all your effort and the sounds have a slight delay. He keeps turning to hear what the man with the braces is saying, but when he does, he gets slapped on the back of the head, making him flinch and lose his train of thought.
“You are a terrorist, and that is a very serious crime.”
My mind is going a mile a minute; I’m trying to figure out why now, why like this, and how all this is going to end.
“What I need to do is take you to the SEBIN and they will make you tell the truth, one way or another. Do you know what they do to women at the SEBIN? You will be there for weeks, the torture they will put you through will make you talk.”
It’s the strangest thing. I sort of feel like I should cry, but I’m unable to. I am turned off, like an unplugged machine.
I look behind me and see Oswaldo’s car; José is there with the second FAES officer, but I can’t see what’s actually going on. When he sees me looking, the man in the front seat turns around, gets on his knees in the seat, and starts patting me down, closer and more intimate than the security measure requires. Then he grabs my backpack and pours out its contents, picking up my phone and grabbing my thumb to unlock it.
Before coming, I erased everything; the only remaining contents of the phone are a few memes and a string of old photos from Paris. Oswaldo didn’t take any such measures, and when the man in the front seat sees a picture I’ve taken of him wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest, he holds it up to Oswaldo’s face, triumphantly.
“So you’re also a terrorist, you’re going to opposition rallies to fight, to tear down the government.”
I can see Oswaldo’s face turn the color of bleached paper, and when he starts to explain himself his voice doesn’t really carry, but that doesn’t matter. Neither man is listening, they’re just throwing charges at us, reiterating that we are about to go into the SEBIN, never to be seen again.
There’s a tap on our window, and suddenly, Frank steps into the front seat of the car. He looks worried but calm, somehow, and he starts asking the officers what can be done. They give him the rundown of the charges against me, and once they’re done he suggests that he should call Francisco Jorges, the official I came to meet, to come help sort out this mess.
“Do you want me to do that, Annika, do you want me to call Francisco Jorges?”
I’m dumbfounded by the question from the meek man, given that I need any and all help I can possibly get, and rather than question it I shake my head in a wordless motion.
Somehow there’s agreement among everyone, kidnappers and victims alike, that Frank should make that call, and within no more than five minutes, Jorges himself, a heavyset DGCIM official, steps up to the car. As soon as he gets in, the car starts moving and we are driven around the city while he negotiates with the kidnappers. I hear him say to them that this doesn’t have to go any further, that as long as they haven’t called this business in to the SEBIN, we could all still salvage the situation.
While they debate, I look out the window, trying to identify landmarks. I see an underpass where I once interviewed a whistleblowing doctor and a veterinarian clinic where I helped organize aid packages to a children’s hospital. Every time I see a street name I whisper it to myself, hoping it will stick. It may be a useless exercise, but it keeps my head busy and it gives me a focus other than the darkness of these men’s eyes.
“Do you want to solve this?” The man with the braces asks the question aggressively.
“Of course, tell me what there is to do.”
My reply starts off a furious activity in the car. Francisco Jorges is shooting questions at the man with the braces and, while Oswaldo tries to simultaneously translate, it is still hard to follow the apparent negotiations.
“There is only one solution to a problem like yours, and that is money.”
I’m relieved to hear the man mention a solution but scared, because I don’t have the kind of cash I’m sure he’s talking about. While the man in the balaclava and the man with the braces go through the small wad of cash they found in my backpack, Jorges turns directly to me.
“I’m in deep trouble, just like you. If I risk my life trying to negotiate a deal for you, they will leave you in my custody while you get them what they ask. You have four hours, and if you don’t do exactly as they say, I die, you die, and José and Oswaldo as well.”
Something obviously has been decided when I wasn’t paying attention, and I ask the man with the braces what is expected of me and what happens now?
“The minimum fine for what you have done is $20,000, and that is the only way for you to stay out of SEBIN prison.”
As soon as he mentions the sum, I know I won’t be able to raise the money, but instead of saying that, I just nod. It’s probably idiotic, but all I can think about is getting out of this immediate danger and putting some distance between me and these guns. So I agree to the four-hour deadline, and as soon as I do, Francisco Jorges springs into action.
It’s explained to me that I will be left under Jorges’s supervision and be allowed to spend three hours at my hotel, under constant surveillance by the armed men and their associates, in order to raise the $20,000 and wire it to an account that will be provided by the man with the braces. As a sign of good faith, $1,000 will be collected immediately upon arrival to the hotel and handed over at a drop-off point by José in one hour.
“Can I trust you? Is it wise of me to tie my fate to yours? I am doing this for you now but I need to know you understand the consequences.” Francisco Jorges stares at me and I nod, once again, because I have no real words for what is happening.
When I get out of the car, the man with braces grabs my hand to shake it. “When you’ve done this, when the money is paid in full, you won’t hear from us ever again — your problem is solved.”
José, Oswaldo, Jorges, and Frank all stand around and talk after the kidnappers drive off, having left little doubt that they would be stationed — out of sight — outside my hotel until I delivered. I’m annoyed at the men chatting, my fear having transferred to rage, and when José tries to grab my arm and ask me if I’m okay, I shake him off and ask him how the f*** he could be stupid enough to ask me that kind of question. While they debate the how and when, I turn my phone on and start texting. My editor, a close friend, my contact at the Swedish embassy in Bogotá — just blasting out the information and asking for advice. Everyone draws a blank, much as I had, knowing that it’s a Tuesday night and that even if by some miracle I come up with $20,000, there is no real way to wire it to Venezuela within a time frame that would save my life.
I’m weirdly calm. Mostly due to shock, but also because I have already given up on meeting my end of the bargain. Now I am going to be another one of those stories on the Venezuelan crime scroll, another victim of the grotesque criminal environment in this country’s story of 1,001 nightmares, and even though my origin and profession may make my notoriety last an extra day or two, by Friday, my name will have gotten lost in the masses.
The last person I text is a local colleague, explaining that I am being kidnapped and extorted by the FAES, that it looks as if it will end badly and that when it does he should make as much noise as he possibly can.
And then I start collecting cash.
$400 in my room, another $100 in my pants, and some loose, small bills from Oswaldo. It’s not enough for the first installment and now, for the first time, I allow the panic to set in. More than two out of the four hours have already passed, and if I don’t get my hands on $500 in the next hour, they have promised that they would come for me.
“Manten tus manos, manten tus manos en alto!”
Two men come around the corner of the hotel, guns drawn, pointing them at all three of us before putting José and Oswaldo up against the hotel wall. The two men are dressed in civilian clothing and they say very little as they search us and sit us down on a nearby bench. Then my colleague shows up, and as surprised as I was to see the two gunmen I am perhaps even more shocked to see Roman.
“Okay, these are FAES,” he says. “You were kidnapped by men masquerading as FAES and now the real deal are here to take them down. Do you have any questions?”
I have a million of them, but I settle for one — how did the real FAES find out and get here? “I called David as soon as I got your WhatsApp message, something about all this sounded really off.”
It’s an absurd statement, really, as everything about what has happened in the past five hours is off, but I’m just so relieved not to be alone in this anymore that I accept the idea that these people with guns would save me from the other people with guns.
It’s pitch-black now, and outside my hotel are four large trucks filled with armed FAES officers, and they nod at me as I’m taken to what seems to be the lead vehicle. I have no idea what’s going on, but I’m in a frame of mind where I follow any lead and accept that this situation is far beyond absurdity. The cars speed off into the night and the five people in there with me are yelling. I’m only barely listening, because I’m busy holding on to the door while we fly across the Altamira boulevard.
And then we stop. Abruptly. The doors open and the FAES officers brandish their weapons, there’s chaos, two shots go off, and then there is an odd silence before I’m allowed to peek out of the car window.
I know the first two faces immediately; one Francisco Jorges and the other, the man with the pug face, now without the balaclava. They’re being cuffed up against a wall and there, right beside them, is the man I trust most in the entire world, my bodyguard José.
I’ve tried to get into the FAES headquarters for almost three months, calling everyone but God to get an interview, and now that I’m here it feels surreal. It’s a large compound atop one of the highest points in Caracas that is accessed only through a back gate, spray painted with a white skull below which the FAES-letters are transcribed.
There are about 35 people in the courtyard when our convoy arrives, and once the arrestees are taken out of the third truck, they’re placed against the wall holding the FAES logo and in front of them someone unfolds a table and places the weapons they had been carrying at the time of their arrest. I see José in cuffs, and I keep asking the people around me why he’s not being released, trying to explain that he is not a criminal, but my bodyguard.
“Mami, we have reason to believe that he helped set you up, he has to be questioned, just like the others.”
I don’t care that I’m in a place in the world where you don’t walk off alone in the company of people who will shoot you on sight if you appear out of nowhere; I walk off, as far away from the perp walk as I can, anything not to see José in handcuffs and not have any of these officers see my tears as they were now rolling down, as unstoppable as bullets.
“Annika, you can’t run off like this, you need to come back to leave your victim statement.”
Suddenly, Roman is behind me, and neither of us seems to be holding it together, though he has more experience in the specific type of heartbreak that I was now living through for the very first time.
“He can’t be involved, Roman, he can’t, that will break me. I don’t know that I can come back from that. He’s like my father.”
Roman sighs, heavily and sadly, and just shrugs and says we cannot know until we know.
“Right now, it looks really bad, let’s pray that’s all there is.”
I probably smoke 20 cigarettes before it’s my turn to meet with the commander, standing at the edge of the hill, overlooking a city that has changed my life forever. I don’t feel much, and there’s a stillness to relinquishing all your power, knowing that you’re in the hands of something much greater than yourself.
The commander, David, offers me a shot of whiskey, and then another, and I feel my muscles relax just enough to focus on our conversation. He shows me Francisco Jorge’s phone, and in it are pictures of me, from months ago, forwarded to everyone in the kidnapping ring who had taken me. I’m staring at the images, and it’s truly chilling to see myself in those candid situations, captured before I was captured, knowing that I had been slowly walking into this trap.
“Don’t feel bad, these things happen, you were very vulnerable out there and these people prey on the vulnerable.”
But I do feel bad. Not just for the violence and terror but for failing to double- and triple-check the credentials of these people and for trusting in a country where that is a recipe for death. I held on when I should have kept my distance, and I don’t know that I’ll ever forgive myself.
I’m there for over five hours, and in that time, it almost becomes normal. The officers, the guns, the culprits handcuffed to the staircase — I just accept it for what it is and thank God that I am no longer in the back of that car. A few hours ago I was staring down one gun, and now I am oddly comforted by another. Venezuela has crept up inside my skin and perhaps I, like the others in this country, am starting to shift my perception of reality and my acceptance of the truly horrifying and absurd.
When I walk out into the courtyard, José is there. He has been released, pending investigation, and seeing his face, I feel almost worse than I did when they first cuffed him. After this night, we will never be the same again; neither of us says it, but we know. For almost four months, José and I have built a little family, a zone of comfort and security, to hold off all the darkness that surrounded us. Now, the darkness has won, it has broken up our defenses, planted its poisonous doubt and brought us both down. We can’t fight it, and now we stand here like strangers.
I’m brought back to the hotel by a couple of FAES officers who are outside my room to guard me, because two more culprits are still on the loose. It’s the first time in ages I can sleep, having run from everyone and everything since I got here. It’s a whole new level of absurdity, a new normal that I couldn’t have foreseen just a few weeks ago, but at this point I have no more energy left to question it.
Not all journalists’ ordeals end even this well in Venezuela.
In the four months I have worked here I have been chased by the secret police, held at gunpoint by government-supported paramilitaries, robbed of my material and equipment, and deported by direct order of a minister. This is of course what totalitarian states do, and partly why I am here in the first place. Journalism is considered a crime in many places on this planet, and honest reporting is seen as a threat to authoritarian leaders who aim to control their people by limiting information and shutting the doors to the outside world.
I am just one of more than 20 journalists from ten different nations who have been denied entry at Maiquetía international airport in the past six months. The official grounds have been violation of immigration regulations and other bureaucratic pretexts. President Nicolás Maduro famously accused CNN of “manipulating” the facts and stripped them of their signal, cutting off any ability to broadcast out of Venezuela. Ranking 139th out of 180 countries in the Reporters without Borders freedom-of-the-press ranking, Venezuela has become infamous for suppressing the voices of journalists and using a variety of methods to do so, from seizing material and equipment, to physical threats, to information blackouts, to deportation and incarceration.
At least 32 Venezuelan and foreign journalists have been arrested and illegally placed in detention since the start of 2019, according to the National Press Workers Union (SNTP) in Venezuela. On January 31, Reporters without Borders asked United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres to take immediate action against President Nicolás Maduro to end the arrests of journalists, but as of yet no such action has been taken.
Because of the difficult circumstances, many international journalists have chosen to report from the other sides of the borders of Brazil and Colombia, avoiding the threats of the Venezuelan regime. The absence of real-time reporting has resulted in Venezuela becoming something of a black spot on the map, with the atrocities that unfold there largely going unreported.
There are other aspects to the lack of coverage as well. In recent decades, most leading media outlets have cut the number of foreign correspondents on staff and closed down news bureaus abroad, and freelancers like me have filled the void. In their 2014 report “Redefining Foreign Correspondence,” Maxwell Hamilton and Eric Jenner wrote that keeping a foreign correspondent on staff costs approximately $250,000 a year. With that in mind, it makes economic sense to sub out staff for a freelancer who who sells stories for a few hundred dollars apiece, thereby avoiding paying for insurance or security measures. The creation of this new market is not solely due to corporate greed but is also a consequence of technological advances and globalization, and it has certainly opened up some opportunities for journalists who otherwise would not have been able to be published by large mainstream outlets.
This means, however, that we journalists are not being fairly compensated for our work and end up either cutting corners on security or avoiding the most chaotic places that are in most dire need of journalistic coverage and exposure. Either way, the dark side wins and the weakest among us are forced to suffer and die in abject anonymity.
This is Caracas, the city that eats you up and spits you out and still keeps your heart and doesn’t let go of it. I came here almost four months ago, thinking I would answer questions for others, but now I only have more of them, finding myself wrapped up in yet another layer of this fractured society. Now, as I’m putting my head on the pillow, traumatized and weary, with armed officers standing at attention outside my door, I know that this isn’t the end for me and Venezuela.
My heart is broken, but it still resides here. God help me, but this isn’t over.
Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a journalist and political adviser in Sweden.