CARACAS – The ransom calls began soon after Carlos Marrón learned his father hadn’t returned from his evening walk. The kidnappers wanted to deal with Marrón directly; he hastily boarded a flight from his adopted home in Miami to Venezuela, aiming to negotiate a swift, safe release.
Things didn’t go as planned.
At the airport outside Caracas, agents from a feared state security force detained Marrón. Without any explanation, he said, they rushed him to their headquarters.
Marrón said the interrogation started in a basement holding cell. Agents demanded he confess to operating a website that published the black-market exchange rate of Venezuela’s erratic bolivar for U.S. dollars, something the socialist government considered a crime.
When he denied it, Marrón said, the torture -- beatings and asphyxiation -- began.
There followed two days of intense abuse, the start of nearly two years in the Venezuelan jail, Marrón said. He was charged with financial crimes but never tried; ultimately, he was freed for reasons unclear.
Marrón’s story was cited last year in a United Nations Human Rights Council report that concluded President Nicolás Maduro’s government had committed crimes against humanity -- a conclusion the government denied.
Now, in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Marrón has spoken publicly about his ordeal for the first time. His aim, he said, is to clear his name and expose abuses he witnessed.
“I want the world to know what’s happening in Venezuela today,” Marrón said. “Torture continues under the dictatorship.”
The AP could not independently verify Marrón’s claims, but his name and allegations are included in the Sept. 16 United Nations report. Details he provided the AP match those that U.N. investigators gathered in interviews with him, other former detainees and officers who worked in the detention facility.
Born and raised in Caracas, Marrón practiced law before moving a decade ago to Miami, where he sells real estate and dabbles in show business.
Marrón, 43, said his troubles with Venezuelan authorities stemmed from the website domain dolarpro.com. He’d bought it years earlier as a business prospect, but never developed it.
He said he eventually turned the website over to an associate, who began publishing Venezuelan news and financial information -- including the nation’s black-market exchange rate, which was vastly different from official figures. Critics accuse government insiders of using this disparity to reap huge profits in corrupt business deals.
A 2010 presidential decree made it illegal to publish anything but the official exchange rate, and authorities regularly accused “speculators” of spreading false information for their own personal gain at the nation’s expense.
Hours after the arrest on April 11, 2018, Venezuela’s top prosecutor and Maduro ally, Tarek William Saab, announced on state TV that authorities had captured Marrón — a “financial terrorist” bent on undermining the livelihood of common Venezuelans for his personal gain. Charges, he said, included publishing false information and money laundering.
“Perhaps he’s out to destroy more than 30 million Venezuelans,” Saab said, comparing Marrón’s actions to “mass murder.”
And his jailers treated him as such.
He said they beat him with a metal baton, striking his shoulders, knees and the bottom of his feet. They put a hood over his head and soaked it with water to create the sensation he was drowning, he said.
“They suffocate you until you start to lose consciousness,” Marrón said. “Once they see that you’re fading, they let up.”
In one interrogation session, a jailer asked if his father needed special medicine because he appeared close to death. That’s when Marrón said he knew his father had been abducted by agents to serve as bait to lure Marrón back to Venezuela.
Much later, Marrón learned his father was released from the same jail four days after his own arrest.
While the worst abuse came in the first two days, Marrón said he later endured “soft torture,” confinement in a cramped cell with several other men. They had to defecate into bottles or plastic bags that they could empty every few days. They received little food and drank tainted tap water which caused digestive illnesses. Marrón said he lost 66 pounds (30 kilograms).
Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas deputy director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Marrón’s imprisonment was typical in Maduro’s Venezuela, where civilians are often detained arbitrarily by military intelligence forces and subject to abuse and prosecutions without due process.
He was “a victim of the perverse system that Maduro and his cronies have put in place to silence anyone who publishes information that is critical or uncomfortable for the regime,” she said.
Marrón’s associate, who had worked in Venezuela’s financial sector before migrating to Florida, said she saw dolarpro.com as an opportunity to draw on her network of contacts and publish accurate exchange rates. She spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, fearing for the safety of relatives in Venezuela.
She accused Venezuelan officials of gaming the system. “We noticed that there was a manipulation of the prices,” she said. “The pages that published this information weren’t publishing the actual values.”
Within a few weeks of going live, dolarpro.com quickly grew in popularity along with several others like it, such as bolivarcucuta.com and dolartoday. But she said dolarpro.com never turned a profit.
After Marrón’s abduction, “We decided simply to take down the site, close it and forget about it,” she said. “We never imagined we’d fall victims to such horror and pay the price that Carlos did.”
Critics say Venezuelan officials, battling runaway inflation caused by their own corrupt practices and looking to blame others for the destruction of the economy of their once-wealthy oil nation, frequently target these website operators to silence them.
“Basically, they want to hide how badly they have mismanaged the economy, how bad hyperinflation is,” said Russ Dallen, head of the Miami-based investment firm Caracas Capital Markets. “And if you keep the people in the dark like mushrooms, they won’t know what is going on.”
They do it violently, according to the U.N. Human Rights Council report. It alleges widespread torture and killings by security forces who also used techniques like electric shocks and genital mutilation, forms of abuse Marrón said he didn’t experience.
The General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence, the agency that arrested and detained Marrón, answers directly to Maduro as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the U.N. report says.
Venezuelan officials have rejected the U.N.’s claims, saying it was filled with “falsehoods” written “by a phantom mission directed against Venezuela by governments subordinate to Washington.”
Venezuela’s Ministry of Communications did not respond to an AP request for comment.
Authorities finally granted Marrón a conditional release in January 2020, as tight controls on the dollar relaxed.
Marrón said it remains unclear why officials let him out of jail. He was freed with 13 other so-called political prisoners amid negotiations between Maduro’s government and opposition groups.
Authorities made him surrender his passport and agree not leave the country, but he plotted his escape from Venezuela in coordination with U.S. diplomats in Bogota. He drove across country to the Colombian border, and on foot made his way to meet U.S. officials, who helped him return to Florida and his wife and two children.
In the 21 months that Marrón spent in jail, Venezuela officials had abolished the artificially low official exchange rate and began publishing one closer to the bolivar’s actual street value, which continues to decline in value under the effect of soaring inflation.
The dollar is now accepted in Venezuela by everything from supermarkets to street vendors. Small import shops offer luxury goods at high prices; a bottle of rye whisky costs $200.
But Marrón still faces criminal charges there. And for anyone interested, the dormant domain dolarpro.com remains available for $9,995.
Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP