CARACAS (Venezuela) - An American prisoner in Venezuela will receive U.S. consular officials tomorrow as his first visitors since he was arrested June 30.
On Friday, Venezuelan authorities confirmed U.S. citizen Joshua Anthony Holt, 24, was arrested in late June on charges of illegal weapons possession, marking a new chapter in the diplomatic crisis between Caracas and Washington.
Holt, a former Mormon missionary from Utah, arrived in Venezuela in early June to marry Tamara Caleño, 25. The couple, who met online, wed on June 11 and spent a week honeymooning on Margarita Island. Afterwards, they planned to stay in Venezuela to await U.S. visas for Caleño and her two daughters. But less than a month later, the couple was arrested during a police sweep of their building, accused of owning a cache of illegal weapons. They face up to 12 years in prison.
According to prosecutors, police allegedly found weapons in the apartment Holt shared with Caleño in Ciudad Socialista Caribia, a housing complex inaugurated by late President Hugo Chávez in 2011. Police claim to have found an AK-47 assault rifle, a grenade, an imitation of an M4 assault rifle, cash, passports, computers and cameras.
Rather than jailing Holt in a regular prison, authorities transported him to Helicoide, a prison operated by the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin) where several high-profile political prisoners are also behind bars.
U.S. government sources in Caracas told Univision News that it would be very difficult to bring weapons into the country or purchase them as a newly arrived foreigner in a place without gun stores. His family denies the charges, and insists Holt was framed.
"Due to the history of political prisoners being used as propaganda to promote the Venezuelan government's ideals, and knowing Josh's character, capacity to do good, and inability to do harm, we are thoroughly convinced that the evidence was planted and the process was rigged," says a GoFundMe campaign page the family created. "He has never published nor expressed any desire to conspire against the Venezuelan government. It is disgusting that the Venezuelan government has chosen to use him as a form of propaganda."
Laurie Holt, Josh's mother, told ABC's Utah affiliate that her son is being held in a 6-by-6-foot cell. She met with several congressmen last week in an effort to garner support from the U.S. government.
According to a Facebook page set up by Holt's family, U.S. embassy staff are scheduled to visit Holt in prison on July 12. Holt is the twelfth U.S. citizen known to be jailed in Venezuela, the Miami Herald reported.
Though the U.S. government has yet to make an official statement on the case, this strange incident could heighten already strained diplomatic tensions between Washington and Caracas.
The United States and Venezuela haven't exchanged ambassadors since 2008. President Nicolás Maduro, like his predecessor, often accuses the United States of wanting to overthrow the country in conjunction with the Venezuelan opposition.
Both countries communicate through envoys and in 2014, Venezuela ordered the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats, accusing them of supporting violent anti-government demonstrations. Last month, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon traveled to Caracas, meeting Maduro and other officials, in a bid to thaw relations amid the country's political and economic crisis.
With additional reporting by Rachel Glickhouse