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Alberta man describes two-month captivity in Venezuela

Three years after being held captive by Venezuela’s military counterintelligence force, St. Albert resident Mauro Castellanos is ready to talk about an experience that continues to plague him with nightmares.

Three years after being held captive by Venezuela’s military counterintelligence force, St. Albert resident Mauro Castellanos is ready to talk about an experience that continues to plague him with nightmares.

A Canadian citizen who has lived in St. Albert much of his life, Mauro knew Venezuela was dangerous when he approached the Venezuela-Colombia border at Cúcuta, Colombia in March 2021.

Global Affairs Canada updated its travel advisory in 2019, warning Canadians to avoid all travel to the South American nation. The Canadian embassy in Venezuela closed that same year.

Once a fairly prosperous country, Venezuela’s economy collapsed shortly after the 2013 election of current President Nicolás Maduro and the ensuing decline of the country’s oil industry, upon which much of the nation’s wealth was based. Since then, more than seven million Venezuelans have fled the country, which has become politically unstable and seen massive growth in violent crime, poverty and gang activity.

Mauro knew of the dangers, but he had travelled to Venezuela many times before. It was also the home of his fiancee and now wife, Betsabe Castellanos.  

The pair, along with Betsabe’s brother, met in Cúcuta on March 13, 2021, one day before the couple’s wedding. They intended to cross the border into Venezuela as a group.

“[The border] was very familiar to me,” Mauro said. “I knew the process. And not only that, I look Latino, so unless I open my mouth … people don’t expect that I’m a foreigner.”

But this time, as the group left the hot and bustling city of Cúcuta and crossed into a neighbouring town on Venezuela’s border, things took a turn.

A group of men in military gear approached and asked Mauro to wait before leaving the border town. Hours passed. Then the men said they had a few questions for Mauro. It wouldn’t take long, but he would need to go with them to another location. He did as he was told.

“I’m thinking, ‘This is overkill, but OK, we'll get everything sorted out,’” said Mauro. “I had a bad feeling when the person in my car told the officer outside at a checkpoint to hold back the vehicle following us, which was my wife and her brother.”

At a military base about an hour from the border, Mauro was handcuffed and asked a series of questions. Did he have any military training? When was the last time he was in the U.S.? What were his political affiliations?

Mauro says he replied with the truth: he was a Canadian citizen, originally from El Salvador, who was coming to Venezuela to get married. He was a real estate agent from St. Albert, not a spy.

But the men didn’t seem convinced. Instead of releasing him, they kept him at the base for almost a week. Then, they shoved him into a van and drove him to a house in the city of San Cristobal. That’s where he would remain for nearly two months.

Imprisoned in Venezuela

A 2022 UN Independent International Fact Finding mission report found the “Venezuelan state relies on the intelligence services and its agents to repress dissent in the country. In doing so, grave crimes and human rights violations are being committed, including acts of torture and sexual violence.”

It reported 122 cases in which Venezuela’s military counterintelligence force, the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM), had tortured, raped or committed “other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” to its victims.

This is the group that Mauro says held him captive. They took him to a makeshift prison inside a normal-looking house in a suburb of San Cristobal.

He recalls that the building was about three storeys tall, and he was kept in a cell on the main floor.

It was a small room, with a cement bunk bed that jutted out of the wall and a broken spring mattress that provided little comfort. The air in the poorly lit space was stale and hot. The room’s single window opened into a kitchen closet, where he could hear staff laughing and pots clanging. He remembers, on one occasion, hearing screams coming from somewhere in the building.

Mauro didn’t know why he was being held. He didn’t know whether his fiancee was looking for him, or whether his family and friends back home knew about his predicament.

“It was just a nightmare,” he said.

He says that he slept to escape the dread. It was the only thing to do.

For about five weeks, the guards didn’t let him leave the room. Eventually, they decided to give Mauro a 10-minute, daily patio break.

“After the second time I refused to go to any more patio breaks,” he said. “Every time I came back, I felt more depressed. It disturbed my psychology, looking at the skies, people walking, staff walking by, and here I am held like an animal.”

It was on the first patio break that he saw something that disturbed him deeply: a prisoner in the cell next door. Mauro had spoken with the young man in the neighbouring cell but had not seen the living conditions to which the youth had been subjected. The cell was about four feet high, and four feet wide, Mauro said. For weeks, the prisoner, who told Mauro he was a Colombian military member and dual Venezuelan/Colombian citizen, had been forced to sit on a chair in the miniature cell, unable to stand or move around. He was handcuffed, and his head was covered.

Mauro believes the young man was eventually taken to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital and the final destination for many political prisoners.

“That's where my trauma started coming from,” he said. “I was scared that they’d do something like that to me.”

Finding a way back from Venezuela to Colombia

After about five weeks, Mauro was allowed to make a six-minute phone call to Betsabe. She told him to be patient and stay calm.

Betsabe had searched San Cristobal until she found the vehicle that took her boyfriend from the border. It was parked outside the building where Mauro was imprisoned. Eventually the DGCIM confirmed that he was being held at the facility because they suspected he was a terrorist.

Betsabe found a lawyer and contacted the Canadian embassy in Bogota, Colombia, but the embassy could not do much to help a captive in Venezuela, Mauro said.

The lawyer helped Betsabe inform the military that Mauro was imprisoned. “We needed to bring it in the open to the courts,” Mauro said.

Betsabe also contacted some of Mauro’s friends and family in Canada. A friend from St. Albert sent her money to pay for Mauro’s legal bills.

Mauro heard only bits and pieces about the work happening on the outside to secure his freedom. Some days he didn’t believe any of it.

“A day passes, two days, so you kind of start losing hope,” he said.

About six weeks into the ordeal, Betsabe told him a judge had ordered the DGCIM to set him free, but a general with the military group did not want to release him.

The DGCIM suggested that a few payments would secure Mauro’s freedom. Betsabe didn’t believe them.

Betsabe's family and friends begged her to pay the DGCIM. But she was steadfast: one payment would only lead to another and another, possibly extending Mauro’s confinement.

Mauro also asked her to pay off the DGCIM. Betsabe lied to make him feel better.

Today, Mauro believes that Betsabe’s manoeuvring saved his life.

Freedom at the border in Cúcuta

On May 13, 2021, Mauro was escorted to a hearing with an independent military panel, where he was told he would be released.

“I did not believe it. I thought it was a trap or something,” he said.

Late in the evening, a group of men returned him to the border crossing where he had been taken captive.

Betsabe had learned her fiance would be released, and she went to wait for him at the border. Mauro remembers the couple slept in a cell inside a Colombian immigration office.

“Columbian immigration, I told them what had transpired, and they said, ‘You’re lucky to be alive,’” he said.  “It wasn't until I was in Colombia, with my future wife that I sat down outside on [the sidewalk] and I had a very profound, good cry.”

Mauro had lost about 12 kilograms. Only a week before his release, he had considered taking his life.

Returning to Canada after imprisonment in Venezuela

Recently, speaking to the Gazette inside a St. Albert cafe, Mauro and Betsabe shared tears retelling their story

They also shared letters written to one another while Mauro was held captive. The letters contain Bible verses and prayers.

Mauro produced a certificate of release saying he was acquitted of the “alleged commission of the crime of illicit immigration and illegal human trafficking.”

He says he didn’t know about the human trafficking charges until the DCGIM gave him the document. He suspects they made the charges up on the day of his release.

Finally, they shared photos of their wedding. It happened on May 25, less than two weeks after Mauro’s release. They had the ceremony in Cancun. Mauro is noticeably thinner in the photos.

Mauro said it has taken him years to tell his family and friends the details of what happened to him. Sharing his story is now part of the healing process.

“It's like a switch, on and off,” he said. “Just like that, one moment my life changes … You appreciate your life a little bit more.”

“I’m just very grateful to have another chance at life.”

The Gazette reached out to Global Affairs Canada for information about how frequently Canadians encounter similar situations abroad and what the government can do to help, but they declined the Gazette’s request for an interview.

“The Government of Canada advises all Canadians to avoid all travel to Venezuela due to the significant level of violent crime, the unstable political and economic situations and the decline in basic living conditions, including shortages of medication, gasoline and water,” Global Affairs Canada said in an email.

Canadians in need of emergency consular assistance should contact Global Affairs Canada's 24/7 Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa at any time: 

Full details on services available and the different ways to contact Global Affairs Canada are available at: https://travel.gc.ca/assistance/emergency-assistanceim



About the Author: Riley Tjosvold

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