As part of a sweeping prisoner exchange announced by the White House, Eyvin Hernandez, a Los Angeles County public defender who had been imprisoned in Venezuela since March 2022, is back in California on Dec. 21, 2023. (Courtesy of Bring Eyvin Hernandez Home)
LOS ANGELES—Eyvin Hernandez, a Los Angeles County public defender who had been imprisoned in Venezuela since March 2022, is back in the United States Dec. 21 as part of a sweeping prisoner exchange announced by the White House.
“All you think about when you’re in prison is how you didn’t appreciate being free while you were free,” Mr. Hernandez told an interviewer Wednesday night, minutes after he and five other freed Americans landed at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas.
“There’s no way to understand what it’s like to be in prison unjustly and not have any way out.”
President Joe Biden said a total of 10 Americans who had been detained in Venezuela were released as part of the deal, including six “wrongfully detained Americans.”
“These individuals have lost far too much precious time with their loved ones, and their families have suffered every day in their absence,” President Biden said in a statement. “I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more.”
Mr. Hernandez was among those released in the exchange, which also included the extradition of convicted military contractor Leonard Glenn “Fat Leonard” Francis, who escaped home arrest in San Diego last year after pleading guilty to bribing Navy officials.
“On behalf of Eyvin Hernandez, his family and friends, we are happy to confirm that he has been released by Venezuela and will shortly touch down on U.S. soil,” Mr. Hernandez’s family said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“He has been wrongfully detained since March of 2022. For over 21 months, he has endured horrible conditions and abuse. We were notified this morning that Eyvin was on his way home—an early Christmas present for our family.
“Our first priority is to ensure that he gets the medical support he needs so that he can recover from his time in captivity. He will talk about his experience when he is ready. For now, we want to thank everyone who helped obtain Eyvin’s release.”
The family added, “Even as we celebrate Eyvin’s release, we remember all of the Americans who remain wrongfully detained abroad and we hold close to our hearts a wish that they are all returned to their families as soon as possible.”
Garrett Miller, president of the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Union, Local 148, said in a statement he was “thrilled that Eyvin will be coming home and that this ordeal is finally over.”
“I can’t even imagine how traumatizing this has been for Eyvin, and our union will do all it can to support him in the coming months,” Mr. Miller said. “Eyvin has been deeply missed by his fellow Local 148 members, and we can’t wait to see him again.
“I’m grateful to Eyvin’s family for their tireless advocacy and also want to thank Local 148 board member Drew Havens who worked alongside them advocating for Eyvin’s release.”
County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia said, “On behalf of all 1,100 members of the Public Defender’s Office, I want to extend our gratitude to the Administration and everyone who has fought so hard to make this day a reality. We are looking forward to the time when, after he’s had time to recover and rest, Evyin will return to his rightful place as an advocate in court for the indigent and vulnerable of Los Angeles County.”
Mr. Hernandez, a Los Angeles County deputy public defender for 15 years, was on vacation in Colombia when he joined a friend on a trip to the Colombian-Venezuelan border to resolve a passport issue involving the friend’s stay in Venezuela.
At the border, Mr. Hernandez and his friend were intercepted by what has been described in various reports as either a paramilitary group, a gang, or official Venezuelan forces. Mr. Hernandez and his friend were eventually turned over to Venezuelan security forces and jailed in a maximum security prison in Caracas.
Freed American prisoners who were released in Venezuela arrive at Joint Base San Antonio in San Antonio, Texas on Dec. 20, 2023. (Kaylee Greenlee Beal/Reuters)
Mr. Hernandez was accused of criminal association and conspiracy, which are punishable by up to 16 years in prison in Venezuela.
Over the past nearly two years, various public officials have sent letters to the White House urging the administration to secure Mr. Hernandez’s release. The county Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion last year asking the administration and other federal elected officials to work for his release. The Los Angeles City Council took similar action earlier this year.
U.S. Reps. Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Calif.) and Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) joined Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.), and Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) in introducing a resolution earlier this year calling on the Venezuelan “regime” to immediately release Mr. Hernandez.
In December 2022, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass joined Ms. Barragán and other congressional representatives in sending a joint letter to Biden, asking his administration to work to free Hernandez.
“Eyvin Hernandez landed on U.S. soil this evening thanks to tireless advocacy by his friends and family as well as steadfast leadership by the Biden-Harris administration,” Ms. Bass said in a statement released Wednesday night.
Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass speaks during a press conference to announce new efforts to curb recent retail thefts at City Hall in Los Angeles on Aug. 17, 2023. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)
“When I served in Congress as the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Global Human Rights, my office worked with Eyvin’s coworkers and the Hernandez family and connected them with the State Department as well as with other elected officials who became engaged on this issue as well.
“I want to especially thank Congresswoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove for ensuring that the voices urging for Eyvin’s return continued to be heard. On behalf of the entire City of Los Angeles, welcome home Eyvin.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said she was “so relieved and grateful Eyvin Hernandez is safe and returning home.”
“I applaud the White House and the many U.S. diplomats that worked tirelessly to free Eyvin and the other Americans held prisoner in Venezuela,” Ms. Hahn said in a statement. “The L.A. County family never forgot Eyvin during these long 18 months and I cannot think of a better Christmas gift for his loved ones this year than his safe return.”
Los Angeles Supervisor Janice Hahn speaks at the Port of Long Beach, Calif., on Jan. 11, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Supervisor Kathryn Barger added, “Mr. Hernandez was an innocent bystander caught up in a political power play by the Venezuelan government and has suffered tremendously. I want him and his family to know that our County and its resources stand by to help him recover from this terrible, unjust ordeal. His return is a reminder that we should keep fighting for what we know is right, and to not give up hope.”
Ms. Kamlager-Dove called his release “a miracle.”
“Words cannot express my joy at having this beloved member of our community here with us again,” she said in a statement. “My office will continue to support Eyvin and his family as he adjusts to life back home.”
Ms. Kim thanked “the teams at the State Department Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and the National Security Council for making this a reality.”
“This is indeed the best Christmas present we can ask for,” Ms. Kim said in a statement. “I stand with his family and community who advocated for his return, and I look forward to learning more about the terms of the agreement. I have been proud to work with Rep. Kamlager-Dove to demand his release and join Eyvin’s family and friends in celebrating his return home.”
Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) said, “A public defender and a beloved member of his community, Eyvin’s absence brought angst and fear to his loved ones for far too long. I am proud to have fought relentlessly alongside Eyvin’s family, friends, federal lawmakers, and the State Department’s Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to secure his release.”
A file photo of Secretary of State of California Alex Padilla speaking at the Women's March Los Angeles on Jan. 20, 2018. (Amanda Edwards/Getty Images for The Women's March Los Angeles)
Also among the Americans released Wednesday was Savoi Wright, who grew up in Oakland and earned a business degree at Loyola Marymount University.
In exchange for the return of Americans, the United States agreed to release Alex Saab, a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Saab had been awaiting trial on money laundering charges.