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El Helicoide: a metaphor for a broken country and a broken system

The dome of El Helicoide, the prison where many opposition protesters have been held over the years, is visible in the Caracas skyline. Josh and Thamy Holt spent 23 months under that dome as prisoners of the SEBIN, Venezuela's top law enforcement and intelligence agency. Photo: Getty Images

Editorial note: this is the latest in a series of articles related to the KSL Podcast, “Hope In Darkness.” Find all of our episodes and coverage here

A Utah man held in a Venezuelan prison for nearly two years is offering never-before-heard details about the conditions inside El Helicoide. 

The latest episode of “Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story” focuses on the prison itself — a building never meant to hold inmates. 

El Helicoide: a metaphor for a country 

el helicoide caracas

The dome of El Helicoide is just visible on the right side of this photo of Caracas. It was built during the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez starting in 1956 and today is better known as the home of the political police, the SEBIN. Photo: Getty Images

El Helicoide, the infamous prison where Josh and Thamy Holt spent 23 months, is visible from pretty much anywhere in Caracas. A three-sided pyramid with an aluminum geodesic dome, it rises from the barrios of Caracas, a sharp contrast to the colorful and sometimes rickety, sometimes homemade shelters that house some of the city’s poorest residents. 

It didn’t start out that way. Originally, the designers envisioned El Helicoide as a first-of-its-kind drive-in shopping mall. The building’s name comes from its design: El Helicoide translates to The Helix. A road spirals up around the outside of the structure, like a helix.

Shoppers were meant to drive right up to the store of their choice. New York’s Museum of Modern Art featured a model of the building, then still under construction, during its 1961 “Roads” exhibition. Famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called it “one of the most exquisite creations ever to have sprung from the mind of an architect.” 

The mall was the vision of President Marco Perez Jimenez, a dictator who hoped to show off Venezuela’s wealth and power. 

A hint of a sinister future

But the name of the hill on which El Helicoide sits hints at what it would eventually become. La Roca Tarpeya, or the Tarpeian Rock, was named after a site in ancient Rome where executions were carried out. 

A coup resulted in Perez Jimenez’s removal from office in 1958, long before the building was finished. His opponents accused him and his government of improperly funding the developers. The new government refused to allow the construction to continue. The concrete foundation sat, quiet and empty, forgotten, for years. Occasionally, it was used as shelter for people made homeless by natural disasters. 

Eventually, though, government agencies moved in. Among them: Venezuela’s secret police, the SEBIN — akin to a combination of the United States’ CIA and FBI. The SEBIN made its home on the first few coils of the spiral. That once-forgotten place with its never-opened shops became home over time to large numbers of political prisoners: people who disagreed with the Venezuelan government. 

El Helicoide: political prison 

In 2014, the public first became aware that political prisoners were being held at El Helicoide. 

Laura Gamboa, an assistant professor of political science at Utah State University and an expert on Latin American politics, heard a number of stories about the abuses inside. She lived in Caracas while doing research. 

“I know that people who are kept there are more often than not subject to torture and all sorts of mistreatment,” Gamboa said. “We’re talking about active torture, but we’re also talking about isolation for months.” 

She heard stories about guards refusing to allow inmates any exercise time outdoors, or guard refusing family members to visit prisoners. And much worse. 

What few reports came out of El Helicoide from inmates and detainees detailed horrific abuse. Some described being forced to answer questions with bags of excrement over their heads. Others were waterboarded. In a previous episode of Hope In Darkness, Thamy Holt described guards running her fingers into a pencil sharpener to take off her fingernails. 

Inmates also complained the prison did not take care of them, refusing medical treatment and failing to provide access to food and water. 

The worst place for a kidney stone 

Just days after Josh Holt found out he’d have to spend at least 45 days at El Helicoide, he felt an all-too familiar pain in his back and side: a kidney stone. 

“I’d had a kidney stone when I was probably about 16, 17. And I remembered my parents running me to the ER, because they didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what was going on. I just remember having this pain, and I was screaming and crying,” he said.

kidney stone

Kidney stones cause intense pain by blocking the ureter. They can become medical emergencies, especially if the blockage is so large that the patient cannot pass the stone on their own. Photo illustration: Getty Images

In solitary confinement, a cell just barely bigger than a twin-sized bed with a cockroach infestation, Holt writhed in pain. It radiated through his body. He knew he needed medication and access to clean water, but he had neither. 

“They’d give me, you know, a liter bottle of water, and that was supposed to last me a couple of days,” Holt recalled. And in the oppressive heat of the cell, he quickly became dehydrated, compounding the problem. 

He screamed in pain and yelled for a doctor. No one responded. 

“And so, for the next probably week and a half, that’s what it was like. It was just fighting through the pain,” he said. 

Holt can’t remember exactly how long it took to pass the stone; he couldn’t see the sun to gauge the passage of time. But he did eventually pass it. He doesn’t really know how. 

“A lot of people ask, ‘How did you do this?’ or ‘How did you do that?’ But when we go through things — how do we do it? We just do it! Because we have to,” Holt said. 

A country in chaos, a prison in chaos, and a life in chaos. 

Listen to Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story episode 5 below. 

Hope In Darkness releases new episodes weekly on Wednesdays. Subscribe free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts.