Amid Venezuela Violence, Maduro’s Men Put a Gun to My Head. My ‘Crime,’ Journalism.
Swedish journalist Annika Hernroth-Rothstein was robbed, beaten, and threatened with death. Venezuelans live with such terror all the time.
CARACAS, Venezuela—I never knew how slowly time moves as you are preparing to die.
It’s almost as if your world turns into one of those slow motion videos where every frame freezes and starts up again, focusing on random points across a screen that erupts in color and lacks all sound.
I found that out on Saturday in a dirty back alley in San Antonio del Táchira, a small town just by the Venezuelan border with Colombia. My journey there had started 14 hours earlier, as I landed at Simón Bolívar Airport in Caracas and set off on what would be a life altering road trip into noman´s land.
This was to be my second stint in Venezuela. I had previously spent three weeks here covering the growing unrest following Nicolás Maduro’s highly contested election win and the political upheaval that ensued, and now I was returning to cover the opposition’s attempt to bring thousands of tons of humanitarian aid into the country.
It was set to be a standoff. Self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó, who has wide international support, had made the humanitarian aid the flashpoint of a counter-revolution, a drawn out battle between himself and the dictator who was now entering his second term, and political social media was ablaze with theories on what would happen on February 23 as the standoff was nearing its climax.
The 14-hour drive is no joke, as my driver and security guy so bluntly tells me. It takes you through isolated areas that are known to be home to kidnappers, road pirates and desperate gangs trolling the Venezuelan countryside looking for anything they can eat or steal.
I had been warned about taking these roads but given that the Maduro regime had started closing all borders and mobilizing near Táchira I knew this would be my only option if I wanted to witness what I felt could be the beginning of the end of this dictatorship.
So I went, and for 13 hours, the drive was surprisingly uneventful. Then, everything changed.
At first, I see one colectivo driving past us and locking eyes with me out of the passenger side window. I know something is wrong because you never ever see just one colectivo. The late president Hugo Chávez created the “collectives” to defend his regime and they have long since become gangs operating with impunity and terrorizing the public under Maduro. Before I manage to even say the word to my driver there are more of the colectivos, now surrounding our car on all sides.
I remember the next minute as a blur, as we got out and my eyes were drawn to the semi-automatic guns that were hanging across the torsos of the dozen or so men who were standing in a circle all around us. One of them walks up to me, close, and asks ¨periodista¨ and I nod, because I know the connotation of the Spanish word for journalist and what being one can lead to in these parts.
Once I conform, the man starts screaming to the others, letting them know what I am, and the mood goes from bad to worse in one of my uneven heartbeats. They gather around me and scream
“Why are you here?”
“You are ruining this country.”
“You are infiltrating Venezuela.”
“What you are doing is illegal.”
I know I should listen closely to every word but all I can focus on is the guns, now clutched in each man’s hand, and the dark eyes of the man in front of me follow my panicked gaze.
“We will take your contraband.”
My eyes hit from the weaponry to the man and the hand in which he is holding my camera, using the weight to punctuate his words. I see how members of the collectives rummage through my belongings and grab everything and anything of any value from an electric toothbrush and a brand new bra to my laptop, two cameras and a wad of cash I had taken out to pay the men guarding me.
It all disappears into a nearby car and once all my belongings are gone, the collectives can fully focus on their other winnings.
“On the ground! Face down!” one of the men screams at us and we comply, our faces scraping the asphalt as the collectives kick and scream at us. I feel something metallic against my neck and realize what it is in a single, slow thought, as if I was trying to hold off the realization for as long as humanly possible that I now had a gun to my head. Now the time for magical thinking and avoidance was well and truly over. The colectivos seem calmer, debating whether to let us go or take one of us as collateral. They seem to have settled on the latter when I hear screams coming from inside our car.
I look up from the pavement just enough to see one of the armed guerillas holding a piece of paper, waving it at the group before he attacks the driver, kicking him in the stomach and head. ¨Where’s the gun, where’s the gun?” he screams and I realize they have found a gun permit, hiding in plain sight on the windshield. There is no gun.
My driver purposely didn’t bring it as we were crossing state lines and now the Maduro regime’s very own armed guerilla was accusing us of hiding a weapon from them. I knew it was bad. I knew we had a shot at getting let go and just missed it. I knew this was the time to prepare myself for what might come next.
This time they throw us on the ground without any of the quasi political theatrics.
There is no speech about Chávez and Maduro or posturing for effect. This time they throw us on the ground in relative silence and put the guns back on our heads while releasing the safety. I hear the slow clicking of a gun being cocked and what sounds like the ring on a man’s finger closing next to the trigger. I realize that my last minutes in life could end on a back road in Táchira, with a mouth tasting of blood and gravel and a mind racing with questions about who of my loved ones would be the first to find out I had been killed, and how.
The driver is pleading with the collectives, begging them to spare our lives, but I say nothing and I do not shed a single tear. Not because I am tough or unfeeling, but because I am frozen in place, tongue locked to the roof of my mouth and my hands cramping with an explosion of adrenaline.
The two crazier collectives are trying to press the boss of the group to shoot us, but from what I hear and understand there’s disagreement between them and an argument breaks out while I wait to have my fate decided on by heavily armed men in balaclavas. Then it happens. The boss yells, “You have five seconds before you die,” and my driver pulls me up by the arm and pulls me toward the car as the collectives start counting.
They start shooting into the air and I am trying to get into the backseat with legs that have almost liquefied from terror. We speed away, saying nothing, hearing gunshots from behind ricochet against the road.
A few minutes later, we realize that we’re not out of the woods, but have rather driven straight into the jungle, as a family of four flag us down while we speed down a gravel road. Colectivos they say as we pass and my driver slams the break, backing up into the family´s farmhouse driveway. There are collective gangs downhill, they tell us, and I realize that we are stuck between two options for death with little but naked sky and exposed roads between them. I want to cry but I can’t.
I can’t because this is far from over.
We hide the truck inside the shed located just outside the farm and in there we see four other people who also were caught in the crossfire. When I step out from the car I make a sound, like an animal whose paw was stepped on, a cry from the depth of me that lasts for no more than a few seconds. I hear the gunshots from downhill and uphill and the shots echo between the mountains, creating an endless stream of sound that shakes the tiny structure we are standing in. My body starts shaking and I know it is adrenaline leaving my body but I still feel ashamed to lose my cool while we are all still fighting to make it.
We stand there, huddled together, for almost two hours, making sure that neither cars nor people are visible from the street. It’s an odd lull in the chaos, despite the gunfire on all sides. There are holes cut in the wall of the shed and I look out across the barrio below where smoke is rising from the scene of the confrontation and I think to myself that this is a movie, a scene most perfectly directed, where colorful houses are layered along the hillside and morbidly painted with dust and blood.
But it’s not a movie. It’s the here and now and my driver tells me that we have to make a move before the sun sets over Táchira. Once it does, we will have no recourse and be sitting ducks for the murderous squads going house to house in search of periodistas.
We form a caravan, led by two brave men on motorcycles, and we make our move. There is absolute silence in the car as we climb down the hill and strangers are helping direct us, telling us where to go and where there are colectivos. Three minutes into the ride, I see the scene of the clash.
A woman has been shot through the cheek and is hanging from the back seat of a land rover. Two men are standing, staring out into nowhere, bleeding from the head and arms. I don’t want to watch it but it’s everywhere around me, the violence and bloodshed the colectivos have caused as they rounded up the opposition. I say nothing, but inside I am praying wordlessly and seeing images of those I love scattered through my mind like a kaleidoscope.
We drive in silence for 30 minutes until we reach the town of San Cristóbal. There, we find a hotel and as soon as we enter, I realize that we have just exited a warzone. All the guests of the hotel seem to have lived through the same nightmare and we greet each other with nods, careful not to speak and break down in front of each other.
I see someone I recognize from my time here in Venezuela, a member of the national assembly whom I interviewed a few weeks ago. We lock eyes and despite having been near strangers before, now we embrace, bound together by this experience.
I don’t remember how long I sat in that lobby, just staring at the people passing by. It could have been an hour, a day or a lifetime, but once I came to I went to the bar and joined the others, drinking and debriefing the day. We have had similar experiences, some hit by tear gas and others, like me, by violence and near death. What we all have in common is that we went peacefully to the border and were met with methods of war. We saw the face of the Maduro regime and felt the hands that do its bidding.
We left for Caracas the next day, after spending two hours searching for fuel on the black market. The secondary car we had, filled with extra fuel and provisions, was stolen by the colectivos along with all my belongings. The trip back, all 12 hours of it, is spent holding back tears that burn at the back of my throat. I want to get to Caracas so I won’t have to sit with the memories of what happened. I want to forget about the cold steel, the warm asphalt and the chilling realization that in the hands of these regime henchmen, my life is worth a little less that nothing.
Days have passed and I am not traumatized but I am also not the same as I was before this happened. Having lived, I am thankful for the experience, as absurd as that sounds. I now understand what Venezuelans are living through. Not for one day, as was the case for me, but for years and decades, suffering under violence and terror that steals not only lives but also robs a people of the hope that the country they love can ever be any different.
When I think of that day a year from now, I hope that I will not focus my thoughts on the colectivos. Instead, I will remember the family that stopped us on that hill, risking their lives to save ours, and the strangers that guided us to safety despite owing us nothing. This story belongs to them, not to me, and the pain I felt that day is nothing compared to the hardship that they continue to live through.
Days have passed and I may be different, but Venezuela remains the same. Nicolas Maduro has asserted his power and, through violence, terror and extrajudicial arrests of opposition and journalists, shown the world just how far he is prepared to go to stay on top. Bad has turned to worse and Venezuelans are waiting, breathlessly, for whatever comes next. For me, a few days have passed. For Venezuela, time stands still.