Yellow Ribbon Project

'I Need Help... My Life Is Threatened,' Mormon Missionary Begs from Captivity in Venezuela

A group of Venezuelan political police officers, SEBIN, with their faces covered stand on guard at the main door of SEBIN headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

A Mormon missionary held by Venezuela warned in emotional video that his life was in danger as a prison riot unfolded, and called on the United States to take immediate steps to bring him home.

Joshua Holt, 26, of Riverton, Utah, met a fellow Mormon, Thamara Caleño, 27, online and last year traveled to her home country to get married. The couple settled down in Caracas while waiting for a visa appointment for Caleño and her two young daughters to get approval to come to the United States.

Police raided her apartment on June 30, 2016, claiming they found illegal weapons and that the couple were linked to an opposition paramilitary gang. Thamara’s mother, María Caleño, told NPR that she witnessed the raid and saw police slip weapons into Holt’s luggage before declaring they found the weapons.

A witness told the Miami Herald that police were conducting door-to-door searches when they took issue with Holt filming their activities with his phone. Two hours later, she said, masked officers who may have been military intelligence came back with weapons, “found” the weapons and arrested Holt’s wife as well. Both were finally charged this past December.

Holt posted a short video on Facebook from the El Helicoide prison with din in the background, saying rioting prisoners were trying to get in and “they’re saying that they want to kill me; they’re saying that they want me as their guarantee.”

“I need help,” he said. “I’m calling on the people of America. I need your help to get me out of this place. 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 here.”

Holt posted another video saying that he was OK after the uprising was subdued, issuing another plea to the U.S. government to “please not leave me alone here.”

He further wrote on Facebook, “I am not a political pawn I am a human being a child of God and I just want to live happy with my wife and children. I have NEVER done anything wrong in my life. Please help me!”

Holt’s mother, Laurie, posted later on Facebook that it had “been a long 33 hours.”

“Right now we can say that Josh Holt and Thamy Holt are somewhat in a safe-ish place. They are pretty sure the prison has been taken back. It has been torn apart to the point it is not able to house anyone. They have transported 140 inmates to other prisons. The political prisoners we do not know at this time how they are. I am still nervous and want to know something about Josh’s location,” she said. “But I will take the little bit I can for the time being. Once again thank you all so much for your support and love and prayers. You don’t know how it helps keep our family going. We hope this will all come to an end very soon.”

State Department press secretary Heather Nauert acknowledged Holt’s messages and said that the U.S. government continues “to have serious concerns about the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens who are being held there.”

“The Venezuelan government is responsible for the safety of all detainees in its prison system, including U.S. citizens in detention,” Nauert told reporters Thursday. “We hold the government responsible for their safety and well being. We observe Mr. Holt through his video, and he has confirmed that he is still safe. Last night, our Chief of Mission in Caracas Todd Robinson went in person to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and made repeated requests to the highest levels of Venezuelan government for information about the situation at that prison.”

“Venezuelan authorities refused to meet with our chief of mission at that time. Prior to yesterday’s events, our Acting Assistant Secretary Palmieri called in the Venezuelan Charge once again to ask for the release of Mr. Holt on humanitarian grounds,” she added. “The U.S. Embassy and the Department of State continue to press the Venezuelan authorities for their assurances of the safety of U.S. citizens who are detained in Venezuela.”