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Family of Los Angeles public defender detained in Venezuela: "Time is of the essence"

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Five months after Los Angeles attorney Eyvin Hernandez, 44, took a two-week vacation, he's yet to come home. Now, his family and friends are begging the Biden administration to help after they say he was wrongfully imprisoned by Venezuelan officials near the Colombia-Venezuela border. 

As a public defender, Hernandez has dedicated his life to helping some of the most vulnerable people. Now, he finds himself needing that same level of commitment, but from the U.S. government, his brother Henry Martinez told CBS News. 

Like many Americans, Hernandez was working overtime amid staffing shortages during the pandemic, so in the spring he decided to take a much-needed vacation. As an avid traveler, he booked a flight to Colombia, a country he's visited several times, and was due to fly back April 3. 

Three days before his flight home, he accompanied a friend to the Colombia-Venezuela border for what was supposed to be a quick trip for the friend to get a stamp on her passport, according to his brother. He had no intention of crossing into Venezuela. 

But at the border, things went awry. The two were met by what Martinez said could have been para-military groups or official Venezuelan groups. Hernandez was asked to provide a bribe of $100 –– but he didn't have any cash on him. 

That's when he was "promptly hooded, put in the back of a pickup truck and turned into DGCIM" — the military counterintelligence agency of Venezuela — Martinez said, and charged with conspiracy and association to commit crimes against the state. 

Hernandez's friend was also arrested, and the two of them were brought to a maximum security military prison in Caracas, where they've been for the last five months. Hernandez has had limited communication with his family, according to Martinez. 

Hernandez denied the charges during his first hearing, which was held on Aug. 29 after being postponed multiple times. But so far, there's been limited progress to get him home. 

Now, his friends and family are pleading with the U.S. government to help, doing anything they can to bring attention to the case. 

Hernandez was born in El Salvador. His family fled from the civil war there and moved to Southern California when he was a toddler. Martinez said he and his brother were raised in working-class neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

Eventually, Hernandez went on to receive a bachelor's degree and a law degree from UCLA, and became a Los Angeles County public defender, where he still works. 

Throughout his 15-year career, he's helped countless people who often experience homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse and are some of the most in-need clients. He's served as a mentor, training deputy public defenders and volunteering to help the Latina Lawyers Bar Association – all things Martinez said showcase his brother's immense character. That's why when his community caught wind that he was in trouble, like a real-life George Bailey moment, they rushed to do whatever they could to help him. 

Currently, his friends and family have set up a website and petition to help Hernandez, aiming to get as many people as possible to get the attention of the U.S. government. They say help is limited without an official declaration from the U.S. Department of State that Hernandez is in fact being wrongfully detained, which they have not done. 

A State Department spokesperson confirmed to CBS News the arrest of a U.S. citizen in Venezuela this year and stated the department is in touch with the family and "closely monitoring the situation." 

In response to the status of determination regarding Hernandez's wrongful detention, the State Department said it "continuously reviews the circumstances surrounding the detentions of U.S. nationals overseas for indicators that they are wrongful. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment at this time." 

For now, Hernandez's family has paired up with Bring Our Families Home, a campaign made up of families, including that of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who advocate for the U.S. government to get their loved ones released from wrongful detention abroad. It's "a club nobody wants to join," said Martinez, but the support system has helped Hernandez gain a better understanding of the complicated process his family is going through. 

Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have been strained for years, particularly after current President Nicolas Maduro took power in 2013. He openly opposes the U.S. and regularly criticizes its government and politics, according to the State Department. 

There are at least 10 other Americans being detained in Venezuela and 65 publicly disclosed hostage and wrongful detentions around the world, according to the Foley Foundation

Two Americans were released from a Venezuelan prison in March, Gustavo Cardenas who had been detained since 2017 as part of the Houston-based group of oil executives known as the CITGO 6 and Jorge Fernandez who was arrested in 2021. The release came just three weeks before Hernandez's detention, following a quiet visit to Caracas by Biden White House officials — a first for the U.S. in over 20 years. 

In July, the U.S. State Department warned Americans not to travel to Venezuela, months after Hernandez's detention. In the warning, the State Department said the country could arrest and detain U.S. citizens "without due process or fair trial guarantees." 

Martinez said that in addition to his brother being wrongfully detained, he is concerned about his physical and mental safety in the prison where he is being held after two other detainees attempted suicide. CBS News was not able to independently confirm this; however, Hernandez expressed concern over these issues in a secretly recorded message given to the Associated Press. And the U.N. has issued statements urging accountability for crimes against humanity,  including "arbitrary detentions and torture" in Venezuelan prisons. 

"Time is of the essence," Martinez told CBS News. "It's the leadership in this country that have that power … I need them to act and make this a priority." 

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