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Hope In Darkness – Ep. 11 – Full Transcript

Full Transcript – Ep. 11: Prison Riot

A riot erupts inside El Helicoide as tensions mount in Venezuela. Barricaded in his cell, Josh Holt sends a series of fearful videos begging for help from the United States. We go in-depth for the first time on exactly what set it off – and how it resolved. 

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Ep. 11: Prison Riot

HOST BECKY BRUCE:

Hope in Darkness is a podcast that addresses sensitive topics including torture, abuse, and human rights violations. Listener discretion is advised.

By spring of 2018, Josh and Thamy got to spend more time together, thanks to the efforts of shipping tycoon, Wilmer Ruperti.

THAMY HOLT:

Porque el comisario general…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

Because the commissioner gave instructions to his subordinates, to the guards, that we had permission to have a full visit. We had privileges. I only had to call guard! SEBIN! And they open the lock like I was the queen of the cell. I only had to say look, I have to leave, and they let me leave for my visit.

BECKY:

Josh moved again to a new cell within the political prisoners’ part of El Helicoide. One he would get to stay in all by himself.

JOSH HOLT:

It was recently painted, no cockroaches. It actually had an AC unit in it. Yeah, it was pretty awesome, I’m not gonna lie.

BECKY:

One night in May 2018, Thamy came to visit and was allowed to stay overnight in Josh’s new cell.

JOSH:

You know, we at this point…we’re almost at two years, and so we’re friends with quite a few of the guards. And they weren’t as worried about us anymore.

BECKY:

The next day was going to be a visitation day. Unlike American prisons, where inmates go to a specific room to meet with family members or even chat behind glass using a phone, visitation days at El Helicoide were a free-for-all. Prisoners brought their own tables and chairs out into the hallway and set up to spend time with their visitors there. This morning, however, was different. The doors to the cells were open, but before any visitors could come in…

JOSH:

I remember waking up to loud bangs and smashes.

BECKY:

Within just a short period of time, his situation would go from greatly improved to life threatening.

JOSH ARCHIVAL:

They’re saying that they want to kill me. They’re saying that they want me as their guarantee.

LAURIE HOLT (JOSH’S MOTHER) ARCHIVAL:

I know that he is afraid for his life right now.

JOSH ARCHIVAL:

Please, I beg of you, with all my heart. Don’t allow us to suffer more.

BECKY:

I’m Becky Bruce, and this is Hope in Darkness, Episode 11: “Prison Riot.”

[BREAK]

BECKY:

Josh says the prison uprising in 2018 started over, of all things, WiFi. We’ve talked before about the divide between the political prisoners at El Helicoide and the common prisoners, people who were in jail not because of their disagreement with the government, but –  for lack of any better terminology what we’ll call ordinary crimes.

THAMY:

Los presos comunes son tratados como animales…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

The common prisoners are treated like animals. They are beaten. They are mistreated. They are not treated as people. Their rights are totally violated.

BECKY:

Political prisoners had more privileges. Even the strange architecture of El Helicoide reflected the hierarchy. As we mentioned, the hallway of the prison is long and sloping. Common prisoners crowded into rooms mostly near the bottom of the ramp. Political prisoners got more room and relative freedom, a little higher up. A locked gate separated the two areas. The disparity caused a lot of tension. In May 2018, that came to a head.

A few days before Thamy spent the night in Josh’s room, a political prisoner named Gregory claimed his WiFi device had been stolen.

JOSH:

And so, from that point on for the next couple of days, he was fighting with a lot of people, and he was saying a lot of bad things.

BECKY:

Gregory eventually went after one common prisoner.

JOSH:

One of his cellmates, and he started saying that he was the one that stole his WiFi. And that cellmate happened to have a brother and some cousins that lived at the bottom part of the jail. There were upwards of three, four people that would actually run that cell and tell people what to do. Where to do it. And two of those people that were leaders in that cell happened to be connected to this one person that Gregory was getting it into.

BECKY:

The disagreement simmered until visitation day. The gate between the common and political prisoners was open, so all of them could move freely into the hallway. It also gave the common prisoners access to areas they couldn’t always reach, such as a room with free weights in the political prisoners’ side, that the inmates used as a gym.

JOSH:

While the common prisoners were transitioning from where they stayed all the way up to the very end where the gym is, Gregory was up there trying to buy cigarettes. And since their door was open, they had free roam to the rest of the prison. There was eight of them. They snuck themselves up to the very top as if they were just going to where they were supposed to go. Gregory didn’t realize that they were there. And they ended up grabbing Gregory and throwing them in between two locked cell doors, so that no one could come in, and no one could go out. They had one person holding the door so that Gregory was stuck. And from that point on, the other seven people didn’t hold back. And Gregory came out of that, very, very hurt.

BECKY:

Gabriel Valles, the political prisoner and human rights activist we met in a previous episode, shared video on Instagram documenting Gregory’s injuries as another prisoner narrated. Gabo believes the guards set Gregory up for that beating — that they staged the scene and laid a trap for him.

AUDIO ARCHIVAL:

[Instagram video fades in]…desfibraron su rostro, dentro de este cárcel, un joven secuestrado por el gobierno do Nicolás Maduro…[fades down]

BECKY:

One eye was swollen shut, and half of his face was purple with bruising.

JOSH:

When we came out, hearing the commotion of everything that was just going on. We saw Gregory for the first time and we were shocked. We were shocked at what we were seeing. And that’s why all these political prisoners started to get very angry.

AUDIO ARCHIVAL:

[fades in] …que todo el mundo sepa que aquí no hay armas…[fades down]

BECKY:

Unrest was nothing new at El Helicoide. Periodically, the political prisoners would protest, refuse to go back to their cells for example, or stage a hunger strike.

JOSH:

And what the reaction of that would be from the guards would be to lock the two gates up front and then lock the gate up top before you get to, basically, where their offices are. And so, they would basically contain this group of angry political prisoners. They would allow them to simmer down as long as it would take.

BECKY:

About twelve hours in some cases, but no longer. However, this time, the inmates refused to settle down.

THAMY:

A los otros presos políticos, a enterarse que un preso político fue golpeado, eso estalló.

TRANSLATION:

When the other political prisoners found out that a political prisoner had been beaten up, everything exploded. It put the common prisoners at odds with the political prisoners, and it was a disaster. There was an uproar because the political prisoners said that the police allowed this to happen, that we’re not taken care of, that we’re not protected.

JOSH:

They weren’t getting their-their human rights that they were allowed. They weren’t getting their due process. They weren’t allowed to go to the doctor

THAMY:

Cuales eran los derechos que exigían…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

What rights did they want? To be taken to the hospital because they wouldn’t take you to the hospital. You had to pay to go to the hospital, to be taken to court. You had to pay to get a ticket that you said you needed to be taken to court at this day, at this time. You had to pay for everything. So, they wanted to reduce the corruption.

THAMY:

Entonces ellos querían que disminuyeran la corrupción.

JOSH:

There was a handful of things and every single person has their own problems. So, it was finally the last straw.

BECKY:

It was the last straw for Josh and Thamy, too. In the past, they had stayed out of these disruptions because they didn’t want to ruin their own chance at freedom, but this time, they talked it over and decided maybe they should get involved.

JOSH:

I remember pulling her into the room and talking to her. And I told her, maybe we have to show that we’re willing to do something to get out of there, for something to actually happen. And she agreed with me. We were scared. We were nervous. We didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, but we decided it was time for us to fight for our rights. And so, I went to Gabo and Lorent.

BECKY:

Gabo and Lorent were human rights activists and Josh’s friends, whose videos documenting the riot are largely how the world learned about the uprising. Josh told them he wanted to make sure their efforts weren’t in vain, like they had been in the past. They had to mean something.

JOSH:

I don’t want this to be like all of the other uprisings to where we fight, we scream, we yell, we cry, and we plead for whatever it is that we want. And at the end of the day, we end up just going into our cells and nothing comes out of it. They all agreed with me. They said, “Okay, okay. Yeah, we’ll do it.”

BECKY:

A prison official scolded Josh for putting himself in the middle of the dispute, but Josh wouldn’t be deterred.

JOSH:

And from there, we started arguing more and more with the warden — but nothing was happening. And so, he said, you know, what, if you’re not gonna listen to me, we’re going to get everyone out of their cells. And now I’m thinking, wow, this can’t be happening, like holy cow. Hopefully we’ll get something out of this. As we all started running up to the very top, we got to the point to where the common prisoners could see us from the gym, but what they didn’t know was what just happened. They didn’t know that we were upset with the people in the jail, the officers, and the way that they were treating us. They thought that we were coming to them to fight them, because what happened to Gregory. So, they started breaking through their door to come at us. To fight us. I remember we were all held up our hands, into a circle, to say no we’re together.

And, when they came out of that cell and came towards us, and we collided with them…it was just this crazy feeling of everyone was just ready to let all their frustrations go. I didn’t realize what we had done until we started going back and everyone started breaking doors, breaking glasses, breaking the computers, popping all the light bulbs.

AUDIO ARCHIVAL:

[Audio clip of prisoners shouting, tensions are rising]

JOSH:

At this point, I started to get afraid. I started thinking, okay, what did we just do?

Before we went up top, to break the rest of these people out, I had put my wife into my room. I told her, don’t leave. Well, when I’m coming down with this group of people, as everyone’s just running down to the bottom part of the prison, someone turns around the corner to where my cell is and pops this light bulb. [Audio of light bulbs breaking and Thamy screaming] And there’s my wife, just screaming, holding her hands over her head as all this glass is now falling on top of her. I go up to her, I said, “What are you doing? I put you inside my cell, and I told you not to leave.” She said, “I know but I had to go get other people.” She wanted her friends to be with her. So, now I have my wife and two other women in my cell. And there I am, and everyone’s freaking out.

BECKY:

Josh went out and grabbed another political prisoner friend, Cappy — so nicknamed because he was a captain in the military.

JOSH:

I brought Cappy in with us. We pushed my bunk bed up against the door. The adrenaline was just pumping, pumping, pumping. We didn’t know was coming up. We knew that this was crazy and gotten out of hand already, but we didn’t know what was coming.

THAMY:

Todos empezaron a atacar a Joshua.

TRANSLATION:

Everyone began attacking Joshua.

JOSH:

They came to my door, and they started screaming for me to come out. These were just common prisoners.

THAMY:

Porque decían que Joshua era la garantía…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

Because they said that he was the guarantee. And what did he guarantee? That the police wouldn’t come in. They threatened the officers. Saying, “If you come in here, into the cell or into the jail, we’ll get them and kill Joshua.”

JOSH:

And the next thing I know, they’re saying that if I don’t come out now, that they’re going to come in, and that they were going to kill me.

THAMY:

Y es la parte en que Joshua…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

This is the part where Josh made videos saying, Mom, they’re going to kill me. This is crazy. I want my family to know that I love them, things like that.

JOSH ARCHIVAL:

I’ve been begging my government for two years. They say they’re doing things, but I’m still here and now my life is threatened. How long do I have to suffer here? How long do my kids have to go asking for their mommy and daddy?

JOSH:

I don’t think I’ve ever been this afraid in my life. It’s completely different than at the very beginning when, you know, I was up against the wall and I had cops behind me, pointing their guns at me. Because that lasted you know, 20 seconds. This was a constant screaming, yelling, pounding for more than an hour.

THAMY:

Empezaron a golpear las puertas…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

They started beating on the doors, to the point that they made a huge hole in the wall.

JOSH:

A hole the size of a basketball. And they did that with just this little hand weight, pounding it on this brick, in order to basically break out the lock on my door to break it open and to get in.

THAMY:

Porque golpeaban…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

They pounded on the door so hard that I’d ask, what do you need? What do you want? Then bravely, even though I was afraid, I confronted them and said —

THAMY:

Tú no vas a tomar a Joshua. Va a dejar Joshua en paz. No le molesta. Ve a buscar otra cosa que hacer.

TRANSLATION:

You’re not taking Joshua. Leave Joshua in peace. Don’t bother him. Go find something else to do.

THAMY:

Error mío porque solo les enojaban más…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

That was a mistake, because they got angrier. The prisoners wanted to grab me so that Josh would give himself up. Because they said if they got me, Joshua would easily give up because I was his wife, the only thing he had in prison. And he’d say, “Okay, take me, leave her alone.”

BECKY:

The attempts to break into Josh’s cell failed. In fact, all they succeeded in doing was barricading the Holts and their friends inside because they bent the metal frame of the door so it could no longer open.

JOSH:

I remember them just screaming as they were pounding that wall. Told me that they were going to kill me. That they were gonna throw my blood all over the walls. They wanted me. They wanted to hurt me. And they wanted to show the police that they had me. In their minds, if they had this beaten up American that was bleeding with a knife to my throat, they could get their freedom. All they had to do was take me outside and show them what they had done to me.

The Holts found themselves trapped in a windowless cell as the chaos continued in the hallway outside.

BREAK

BECKY:

Laurie Holt was at work when she first heard about the riot.

JOSH:

She had her boss that just found her in the hallway just screaming and crying. And her boss came up. She says, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” And she couldn’t really talk, but she finally got it out saying that Josh is in danger, they’re going to kill him. So now her boss has my mom’s phone in her hand, and she’s calling all these people. She’s calling Senator Hatch. She’s calling the mayor. She’s calling every single contact that my mom had. And no one’s answering their phone, which is making the situation even harder for my mom. Finally, she dialed one last number. It was Mia Love’s number.

BECKY:

The former Congresswoman from Utah’s fourth district immediately knew the situation was dire. She did her best to calm Laurie while also reaching out to other players behind the scenes.

JOSH:

So, Mia hung up the phone and started calling all of her contacts. And from what she told me, she got ahold of everyone that she could get ahold of in the government, to let them know so that they were aware of the situation that was going on.

BECKY:

Senator Orrin Hatch also started making phone calls.

ORRIN HATCH ARCHIVAL:

We’re doing everything possible to remove him from this dangerous situation. I want the Holt family and all Utahns to know that I’m making every possible phone call, pulling every possible lever and leaving no stone unturned for Josh.

BECKY:

Laurie got in touch with the local media, trying to spread the word about her son’s situation.

NEWS ARCHIVAL:

The Holts’ son Josh posted this distress call from Helicoide to Facebook…”People have taken the entire prison..”

LAURIE ARCHIVAL:

I can’t say that he’s okay. I guess I don’t know.

JOSH ARCHIVAL:

They’re saying that they want to kill me. They’re saying that they want me as their guarante.

LAURIE ARCHIVAL:

If I could change places with him, I would. If I could go there, I would.

BECKY:

Josh didn’t know, couldn’t know, how many people were working on his and Thamy’s behalf.

JOSH:

And I realized now that it probably wasn’t the best decision to call my mom. I probably should have called my dad, but I was a mama’s boy. You know, I always…if there’s any problems that I had in my life I always called my mom. I wanted her, and I felt that she was the person that could protect me and save me in that situation.

BECKY:

But in that moment, trapped in his cell with a mob of angry prisoners outside, no one back in the United States could really do anything — but someone else could.

JOSH:

Luckily, I had made friends, and those friends came to save me.

BECKY:

One of those friends was Colombia, Josh’s roommate from early in his stay at El Helicoide. Colombia had been controversially charged with the murder of a rising superstar in Nicolás Maduro’s political party. The regime painted victim Robert Serra as a martyr for the revolution. Therefore, Colombia occupied a unique place in the jail. He was serving time for a common crime — but one with a potentially political motive.

THAMY:

Este muchacho es detenido…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

This guy was detained with 14 other people. He was the leader. He became Josh’s friend because Josh had been in a cell with him. And this man protected Josh in the middle of the riot because of their friendship.

THAMY:

…[fades in] este hombre protegía a Joshua en medio de este motín. Dijo, “si alguien toca al gringo, esta tocándome a mí.” Lo que decía era ley.

TRANSLATION:

He said, “If anybody touches the gringo, they’re going after me.” What he said was law.

BECKY:

Colombia’s intervention helped calm the tensions and also built a bridge between the two factions of prisoners. They stopped fighting with each other, and united in a common cause — the fight for human rights. Because Josh and Thamy were now willing to get involved, the prisoners decided to use them as leverage.

THAMY:

Entonces, gracias a la protección de Colombia…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

Thanks to the protection of Columbia, we could leave the cell where we were locked up and move to a safer place for our friends, but not for us.

THAMY:

…[fades in] para ellos, pero inseguro para nosotros.

JOSH:

And they were afraid that the Sabine was actually gana come-come through the roof of my cell to get me out of it, because I knew where I was at.

THAMY:

Entonces…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

They moved us so the police couldn’t get Josh. Because the moment the police got Josh or me out of there, the riot was over. The prisoners wouldn’t have anything to negotiate with, and it wouldn’t make sense for them to keep fighting.

BECKY:

The riot dragged on, overnight and into the next day.

JOSH:

Everyone that’s in that prison, especially the political people, we’re doing everything we can to get the knowledge out of what’s going on.

JOSH SOCIAL MEDIA ARCHIVAL:

Hello, this is Joshua Holt, it is two o’clock in the afternoon. This is our second day of the riot. I still have no information on what’s going on…[fades down]

JOSH:

Before you’d be very, very careful with the things that you say, the things that you publish. You wouldn’t ever put videos out, or pictures out. I mean, I always take pictures or videos and send them to my family. But that was some very dangerous to do, because if it was to get into the public, the guards would know that you had a cell phone. Well, now that we’re going through a riot, we knew that they were going to turn the whole side, the whole jail upside down and find everything that they could. So, in our minds, it was we’re getting out, we’re getting in the news everything that we can.

VALLES SOCIAL MEDIA ARCHIVAL:

Mi nombre es Gabriel Valles, soy activista de derechos humanos, secuestrado por el gobierno venezolano…[fades down]

JOSH SOCIAL MEDIA ARCHIVAL:

I have asked my government over and over and over to help me. And from what I hear, all they do is they call Venezuela, and Venezuela doesn’t want to answer.

PRISONER ARCHIVAL:

Le pedimos a todo el pueblo de Venezuela y de América Latina…[fades down]

PRISONER ARCHIVAL:

We are here fighting for freedom…

PRISONER ARCHIVAL:

El Helicoide, centro de tortura de SEBIN…

JOSH:

That is, stuck here in Venezuela, just because Venezuela and United States aren’t friends. So I have to live, I have to live in this s***. I need the help of my people to come and get me and my wife. Please I beg of you, with all my heart.

BECKY:

And word did spread. The timing may have helped. The Riot began just days before Venezuela was due to have elections. Opposition leaders protested in the streets, at the same time, conditions deteriorated inside El Helicoide.

JOSH SOCIAL MEDIA ARCHIVAL:

There’s nothing that we can do. They don’t follow their own laws. [To prisoner:] How long have you been in prison?

PRISONER TO JOSH: Four years in prison.

JOSH TO PRISONER:

And how’s your trial going?

PRISONER TO JOSH:

It doesn’t exist.

BECKY:

All the while, the political prisoners continued to argue for their freedom, and the common prisoners asked to be transferred to another facility. One where they believed they would be treated more fairly.

THAMY:

Ellos tenían como, un eslogan. “De SEBIN, sales muerto. O no sales.”

TRANSLATION:

They had a slogan. “From SEBIN you leave dead, or you don’t leave.” Because there are people who are there for five years who are technically free, but they’re still prisoners.

JOSH:

After fighting with them for-for a whole day and a half. They were finally given permission to be moved to a new jail. And so, everyone was super excited.

THAMY:

Todos esos presos comunes…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

The common prisoners are put on a red bus and taken out.

THAMY:

Son subidos o montados en un autobús rojo, los tenían afuera.

JOSH:

There were over seventy people that left that day.

THAMY:

[Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATION:

They were so happy because they thought they were going to be taken out of El Helicoide, to be taken to a different jail.

JOSH:

Now we were afraid because we could see the news. We could see that they were covering this. That it was really big headlines there in Venezuela, as well in different countries around the world. And the Venezuelan government actually released some type of news stating that there were people inside of the SEBIN that were armed and that they were gonna have to take care of it. And this had happened maybe six months to a year beforehand where there was a prison riot. A couple people were shot and killed. And the outcome of that riot was basically the police officers all going in and killing every single person that prison.

THAMY:

Al momento que sacaron a todos los presos comunes…[fades down]

TRANSLATION:

The moment they removed all the common prisoners, Josh and I talked as a couple. This isn’t going to come to anything good. But if we keep doing this, what are we achieving? They could separate us. They could send me to a women’s prison and they’d leave you here.

THAMY:

[Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATION:

I shouldn’t have been in that prison. I should have been in a women’s prison. The women who were imprisoned in that jail were there for an important reason, but the only reason I was there was because I was his wife.

THAMY:

Pero la única razón que era en esta cárcel era porque yo era su esposa.

JOSH:

And that was, you know, our biggest fear was that we were going to be separated. One of the biggest blessing that we had was that we were together

THAMY:

[Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATION:

Our lawyer called us. He said, “Look, there’s an offer for you two. If you quit taking part in the riot, I have an offer for you.”

JOSH: 

They told us not to worry that we weren’t going to be separated. That was a promise that-that they were given, and that the only thing that they wanted was for us to basically give ourselves up. And that if we didn’t do that, that there will be repercussions. That they would put more charges onto us. And we knew that when I gave myself up, the only American in there, that there wasn’t going to be nothing to stop the guards from coming in and taking everyone else down. The riot would stop. And so, I remember sitting down with Lorent and Gabo and telling them that. Telling them what our lawyers were saying, the news that they had, and what we had to do. My wife and I were crying. My wife and I were upset. We were sad. We didn’t want to do. We were confused. But we knew for our family’s sake and for our sake that we had to give ourselves up. And most of them understood. I think they all understood, but they were all crying. At the same time, they all knew that we had to do what was best for us. It was a really hard decision to make. We gave ourselves up and weren’t separated.

BECKY:

Josh and Thamy still weren’t free, though the riot was over. They gave themselves up walking outside the prison and handing themselves over to the guards. The guards took them to an office, actually just one floor above Gabo’s cell, where they would spend the rest of their time in prison. Gabo, Lorent and most of the other political prisoners would eventually be released — but not that day. The uprising ultimately failed.

JOSH:

And when we walked outside, we saw all of those common prisoners that we thought were taken to a different jail. And they were all handcuffed, kneeling on the ground.

THAMY:

[Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATION:

Police didn’t take them anywhere. Just twenty or so were taken to another prison. The rest were still prisoners.

THAMY:

Los engañaron.

TRANSLATION:

The police had tricked them. That’s what happened.

THAMY:

Eso fue lo que pasó.

BECKY:

Next time on Hope in Darkness.

JASON:

I remember three or four times when we’ve been told, he’s out. He’s getting out, get ready. And we’re like, uhuh. And then our phone just started going nuts.

BECKY:

Hope in Darkness is written and produced by me, Becky Bruce. Additional producing and editing came from Nina Earnest. Sound mixing by Trent Sell. Our executive producer is Sheryl Worsley. Original theme composed by Michael Bahnmiller. Additional voice work provided by Rebecca Cressman and Alex Kirry. Special thanks to Josh and Thamy Holt and their family for sharing their experiences and story. You can follow us on Twitter and Instagram at Hope Darkness Pod or online at hopedarkness.com and your feedback is always helpful. Drop us a rating or review wherever you listen. Hope in Darkness is a KSL podcast.

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