Reporter's notebook: How a look inside Venezuela's crumbling health care system got me kicked out of the country

How my reporting got me kicked out of the country.

ByABC News
February 14, 2017, 5:57 PM

VALENCIA, Venezuela -- Our hospital source just kept repeating, “There are almost zero antibiotics, no surgical gowns, no internal sutures, no gauze, no hypertension meds, no chemotherapy. Hospitals don’t have bed sheets, food or water.”

There’s no soap. There’s no air conditioning. In short, he said, performing surgery is like practicing battlefield medicine.

We were sitting at a hotel in a country that sits atop more oil than Saudi Arabia -- Venezuela. By all rights, Venezuela should be one of the world’s wealthiest nations. But it’s not.

Just a decade ago, Venezuela was renowned for pumping out oil and 13 titles for Miss Universe and Miss World, for being a plastic surgery mecca and culinary capital. It has since become the world’s worst-performing economy, and watchdog groups say, Caracas the world’s most dangerous city.

The country is so broke that even its hospitals have ceased to function -- which was the reason we were having this late night meeting with a local resident who couldn’t take it anymore.

In order to protect members of my team, I’m not going to mention their names. Our contact told us he’d drive us through the darkened streets to the city’s struggling main hospital. As we navigated the eerily dark streets -- demarcated by hedgerows of trash, he reminded us that public hospitals in Venezuela had been militarized just days earlier.

We knew the government posted guards at the doors -- we were told to keep doctors and nurses from organizing, to prevent the influx of donations (which would have to be handed over to the military) and to keep reporters from wading into the sea of misery inside.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Venezuelan government detained scores of journalists in 2016. This has been a “clear attempt by the Venezuelan government to control the flow of information and to restrict dissent. This has been very problematic for journalists in order to report the news. Venezuela clearly ranks as one of the most repressive countries in the Western Hemisphere.” Venezuela also holds more than 2,000 political prisoners, according to the watchdog group Foro Penal.

Driving up to that hospital, we saw ghostly figures moving zombie-like in the dark. They were spilling out of the emergency room. When we parked on a darkened drive, we saw figures slumped in the shadows. We were told they were family members of those hospitalized trying to sleep in shrubbery and concrete benches.

At the hospital’s entrance, there was a desk with a security guard and a droopy-eyed cop from the National Police -- his 9 mm pistol and extended ammunition clip jutting from his hip. The officer looked like a kid to me, with a mouth full of braces, hair that was spiked and gelled and bad posture. He half-raised an eyelid when I walked past the security check, but otherwise remained statue still.

Inside, it was basically a dormitory for the dying.

We made our way to the pediatric critical care unit. There we found a 4-year-old named Jonaical with a swollen abdomen, whose mother led us to his bedside. He had been waiting for tests for two months, his mother said. In the meantime, she and the other mothers there had to provide their children and themselves with everything but the IV drips. Everything including the bedding.

It wasn’t always this way. Venezuela’s public health system used to provide some of the best free health care in Latin America, beefed up by a small army of Cuban doctors.

After we had spoken to some of the mothers, our guide told us we had to move. On the way out we stopped at the packed waiting room -- full of desperate parents.

One mother kneeled by the inert form of her son, hands seemingly clasped in prayer. Suddenly loud voices broke that pieta -- an officer pointed at me. The security guard made a beeline for me. I flowed with the crowd towards the exit. But another cop had me.

The guards quickly surrounded me and told me to hand over the GoPro camera and my iPhone.

I told them I was shooting a story about sick children but they insisted we come with them.

Clearly me being a “gringo,” as they kept calling me, made them wary. After some time, I was taken outside to a supervisor’s office.

A pickup truck full of additional officers arrived. I was briefly cuffed when they found my mic pack. An officer asked which hand I wrote with -- then cuffed it. They began ordering me to sign a report that they had compiled.

I knew being cuffed was a dangerous sign and demanded a call to the U.S. Embassy. After a quick discussion, they unlocked me.

I later learned it only worked because the system is geared toward denying the detained and the arrested their rights -- meaning they could unlawfully detain someone as long as they didn’t officially “arrest them.” They ordered me onto the flatbed of a pickup and drove me 20 minutes away to police headquarters.

Along with seven cops, I was stuffed into a room. A few officers and I stood. After a couple of hours, one of them brought in a truck dipstick -- yes, the kind you use to check your oil, and began tapping it against his hand.

Yet, I think, this time being a “gringo” may have helped. Had I been a Venezuelan I might have been roughed up or worse.

The officers were obsessed with the gear, the GoPro, my phone and the mic pack. They didn’t know they could easily access the GoPro. I refused to give them access to the phone.

Unlike so many other reporters caught in similar situations, I knew I had the backing of one of the largest news organizations. I had seen the ABC News machine roll into action before on behalf of its other reporters. And I knew, implicitly, that hopefully, in a short while the company would be alerted.

The room was frigid -- because despite it being cool outside, having the AC on full blast was one of the benefits of living in a country where energy is nearly free.

What followed were hours of browbeating and intimidation -- one of the cops that had handcuffed me earlier kept miming clasping one hand over the wrist of his other hand and then wagging his finger at me. He was basically saying, "you’re going to jail."

They kept telling me, 'you are in big trouble.' They would likely have to call SEBIN -- the dreaded secret police -- unless I cooperated fully. But as morning approached their behavior began to change.

Suddenly they started talking about a deal. The ringleader of the officers began an hours-long lecture justifying bribe taking. He said that on his $30-a-month salary, corruption was the only way to survive. He had a wife and 2-year-old son. It was hard to make ends meet. He almost fell off his chair when I told him that in the U.S. there’s very little corruption in law enforcement. He also expressed shock at how infrequently (compared to his experience) American officers are gunned down.

In fact, Venezuela is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be police officer. It’s also a place where the vast majority of officers are poor and grossly overworked. One of my guards slept outside the door folded like a laptop, another one passed out on a patch of cardboard on the floor inside the fetid bathroom.

I eventually was made to understand that the various officers concocted this together. They wanted a bribe. They said they could spring me and make all of this go away for $3,000. Then a few hours later it became $5,000 -- a huge amount of money in today’s Venezuela. The price went up because by now it was morning. I heard reveille called outside.

The first reports leaked by police to reporters about 12 hours later, said that we had been robbed and that they were helping us file a report.

They began coaching me -- giving “tips” on what to tell their higher-ups. But it turned out that even the highest ranking officers were in on it, too. At least one of those higher ranking officers even directed them to cook the official documents so that I’d seem less “suspicious.”

Again, the “crime” was trying to tell the truth about the suffering in a country these very officers kept telling us was a hellhole. It was at this point that mug shots were taken.

After an hours-long questioning by the police chief, he ordered a group picture. Assembling all the higher ranking officers and the arresting officers to mug with the “gringo." Then he handed me over to the secret police.

They were far more professional and far more terrifying. They drove me to another base, and kept me waiting for hours.

Like any TV reporter I had been wearing a mic wire. It had been hooked up to the mic pack. Early on that first night, thinking a simple mea culpa and profuse apology would defuse the situation, I had stuffed it into my underwear. But now that I knew the police were handing us over to the SEBIN I feared we’d be subjected to body searches. I had to get rid of the wire. So I asked to go to one of the fetid bathrooms. I stuffed the wire down the gullet of the toilet as far as my hand would reach -- fearing that the plumbing would spit it back up. Luckily, it stayed down.

After 24 hours of detention, I was finally fed at the intelligence base. But right across from the chair where the intelligence agents has deposited me was what the agents called their “dungeon.” It was six feet from the seat I would inhabit for most of the next three days -- it was about 30 inches wide. All I saw were bony knees and hands sticking out. The men slept on mats on the floor, feet to face. The secret police required their families (in a country where food is desperately short) to provide all their meals -- so their food was stacked, stinking in the heat, in the front of the cell.

After that first day, I ate meals in a whitewashed hut next to the “dungeon.” I tried talking to the men -- but was told by our guards to be quiet and keep moving. There is no system of bail in Venezuela. I was told some of the men I saw had been languishing without trial in that dank, dark corridor for two years.

On the second day there, a commissioner reportedly in charge of spying on millions of Venezuelans came in. He didn’t introduce himself, but just started talking to me. He asked if I was CIA, or if I’d ever been a Marine.

My response: "Look at me! I’m 5-foot-8. I’m half a Marine!" They laughed.

He then asked why I was caught snooping around a “sensitive installation.”

“A hospital is a sensitive installation?” I asked.

“It is in Venezuela,” acknowledged the chief candidly, “mostly because of the political situation. There are many forces trying to destabilize this country.”

The agents had pored through my internet and Twitter history. They would come to question me every time they found something new. Perhaps as a form of intimidation, they told me they knew who my mother and father were. They got my mother right but not my father, who died in a 1990 plane crash.

They seemed most concerned by my reporting from other countries -- particularly Russia. The irony is that while I’ve covered conflict zones from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria, in Russia I solely reported on the Olympics.

Clearly, I’m not a spy. And I think after a just a day together the secret police believed that I was who I am: a reporter for ABC News.

Like the vast majority of detainees, I was denied my right to a phone call or contact with the outside world. I was told that if they chose to keep me there indefinitely, they could easily do so. It didn’t require much imagination: since the men in the dungeon sat less than six feet away from me.

I’d heard the horror stories about hundreds of people locked away in the intelligence agency’s dungeons. That’s what they are doing right now to another American -- Joshua Holt. He’s in a jail in Caracas beneath the secret police’s headquarters dubbed "La Tumba," The Tomb.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about being a detainee of the agency whose official role is ensuring the survival of the socialist Bolivarian revolution was the class structure there. The higher ups dressed meticulously in conspicuously branded clothes -- Hugo Boss, Polo and Izod etc. The mid-level guys had brands like Jeep, and Bass Pro shops. The rank-and-file had no brand names.

As ostentatious as their clothes -- their gadgetry. High-level officials all had iPhone7s, which had just come out in the U.S. -- phones worth nearly five times the yearly salary of police.

Some of the young agents tasked with watching me confided that they signed up for the benefits. One had been a physical therapist for five years. Another had finished law school. Everyone told me they needed the perks and the food offered by being part of the elite establishment.

I spent the next 20 hours in Venezuela shuttled from Valencia to the Caracas headquarters of the SEBIN. At one point, I was cuffed for five hours -- partly because the intelligence agents refused to coordinate with the U.S. Embassy.

Finally, I was sent to the arrivals hall with an entourage of 10 officers. I took possession of my passport only when I boarded the plane. I had the clothes on my back, but unlike so many others, I had what I valued most -- my freedom.

Once I got home, I got in touch with Joshua Holt’s mother. She has never stopped fighting for him. February 19th will mark eight months since his arrest and detention.