Three years ago, Venezuelan doctor Marco Salmeron seemed to have a good case for asylum in the U.S. Salmeron had fled Venezuela because prosecutors there accused him of human organ trafficking – but they’d provided little if any evidence to back it up. Salmeron called the charge political persecution.
Still, on a September morning in 2016, U.S. agents from the international police organization Interpol showed up at Salmeron’s home in Pembroke Pines. As his wife and two kids looked on, they handcuffed Salmeron and took him to the federal immigration detention center in Miramar.
“They told me, ‘Doctor, we’ve been watching your movements now for a week,’ ” Salmeron recalls. That’s because Venezuela’s authoritarian regime had issued an Interpol Red Notice – an alert calling for Salmeron’s arrest wherever he might be. Suddenly his path to U.S. asylum was derailed.
Many other Venezuelans in South Florida are in the same straits. They say they’re victims of bogus Interpol Red Notices issued by Venezuela’s socialist regime.
“I didn’t think I’d have to work this hard in the U.S. to clear my name and restore my dignity,” says Salmeron, who’s still fighting deportation back to Venezuela.
Many legal experts are confounded too.
“This is just a way Venezuela is persecuting political dissidents and opponents,” says Michelle Estlund, a Coral Gables defense attorney who watches Interpol closely and publishes the online Red Notice Law Journal.
Interpol was founded a century ago and is based in France; the U.S. and Venezuela are members. Estlund says Interpol does play an important role in global crime-fighting – and she thinks it’s aware that non-democratic governments like Venezuela – and especially Russia – are abusing Red Notices.
But she feels Interpol – and U.S. immigration judges and prosecutors here – need to be even more skeptical.
“Interpol allows the same level of credibility for every country – and that defies logic,” says Estlund. “We know that not every country is as responsible with due process rights. Not every country utilizes its criminal justice system properly.”
An Interpol spokesperson told WLRN it cannot comment on specific countries like Venezuela. In an email she said, “Since November 2016, a specialised task force reviews every single Red Notice request.”
But lawyers here fear cases like Marco Salmeron’s are undermining the already difficult asylum process for Venezuelans.
“If he’s returned to Venezuela, he will not have a fair trial and he will be in danger,” says Maria Trina Burgos, a Venezuelan-American attorney in Doral who represents Salmeron and other Red Notice clients.
“It’s not fair to take that Red Notice seriously.”
Here’s how it got to this point for Salmeron: Eight years ago, he treated an army captain named Oswaldo Córdova at his clinic in Valencia, Venezuela. Salmeron suspected Córdova had swine flu, but Venezuelan government rules required him to send the blood tests to a state-run lab in Caracas.
“We waited and waited for the lab results,” says Salmeron, “but meanwhile the patient’s condition worsened.” Two weeks later Córdova died.
Córdova’s family was angry with Salmeron – and even wanted him charged with criminal negligence. But records show the government didn’t deliver the lab results until two weeks after Córdova died – and they confirmed Salmeron’s hunch about swine flu. Any negligence case against Salmeron looked fairly unfounded as a result.
Still, four years later:
“Organ trafficking,” Salmeron recalls. “I said, ‘They’re saying I did what?”
In 2015, Venezuelan prosecutors suddenly charged Salmeron with trafficking Córdova’s organs. Salmeron was stunned – but not really surprised. Nor is Burgos.
“It doesn’t make any sense. But the deceased was from a Chavista family.”
Córdova’s family does have powerful ties to Venezuela’s ruling socialist part, the Chavistas. His brother, Luis Córdova, is a federal judge. Salmeron supports Venezuela’s political opposition. So he claims Córdova’s family got prosecutors to fabricate a charge against him.
Córdova’s family did not respond to WLRN’s request for comment. But court papers show the only basis for the organ-trafficking charge is that Salmeron helped take organ tissue samples for Córdova’s autopsy – as required by law. (And Salmeron insists he only advised the forensic doctors who took the samples.)
All of which, says Burgos, is why “U.S. [immigration] judges have to take into account the bigger picture” regarding Interpol Red Notices like these.
And it appears the U.S. immigration judge in Miami recently did that in Salmeron’s case. He cast doubt on the Interpol Red Notice against Salmeron and indefinitely halted his deportation to Venezuela.
Still, federal immigration authorities are appealing the judge’s order. (Even without Interpol Red Notices, Trump administration policy makes asylum harder to receive than it was in the past.) And even if Salmeron eventually wins U.S. asylum, there’s no guarantee the Interpol Red Notice won’t keep following him.
“They are constantly having to look over their shoulder because of this unfounded Interpol order against them,” says Helena Poleo, a Venezuelan expat journalist in Miami whose father, Rafael Poleo, had to flee Venezuela a decade ago.
Rafael Poleo, then editor of the family’s newspaper, El Nuevo País, made an insulting remark on TV about Venezuela’s authoritarian president at the time, the late Hugo Chávez. That’s not a criminal offense in most democracies. But in Venezuela, “Chávez said himself on national television: 'This guy Rafael Poleo, go pick him up and put him in jail.' ”
Instead, Rafael Poleo received U.S. asylum. But then came the Interpol Red Notice out of Venezuela.
“Every time that my father travels, there is an issue that stems from Interpol,” says Helena Poleo.
DRAGGED OUT OF BED
In 2013 – when Rafael Poleo was visiting Milan, Italy – Interpol agents “went to his hotel room in the middle of the night and dragged him out of his bed and took him to the local police station because they had received a call from the Venezuelan consulate saying he had an Interpol order against him.”
The same thing happened to Rafael in Colombia in 2017. Each time he was released – but Helena says she doesn’t understand why Interpol couldn’t figure out what the Venezuelan regime was really up to.
“To further persecute and show their power of what they can do with an Interpol order,” she insists.
That’s especially true, say lawyers, in cases of Venezuelan officials who’ve broken with the regime – and military and police figures are particular targets of regime retribution.
In October 2014, for example, Venezuelan police had a shootout in Caracas with members of a colectivo. Colectivos are the regime’s paramilitary enforcers, and many if not most have morphed into thuggish criminal gangs. The colectivo involved in the 2014 showdown had even taken three police officers as hostages.
The shootout left five of the colectivo’s members dead. That enfuriated other pro-government colectivos – which then pressured President Nicolás Maduro’s regime to arrest the directors of the police unit involved. One of those police directors was Ramon Poleo.
Ramon Poleo (no relation to Rafael Poleo) feared he faced a kangaroo court trial as well as violent revenge by colectivos. He and his family came to Doral and requested asylum. Then came the Interpol Red Notice from Venezuela to arrest him. He was detained and his asylum was short-circuited.
Ramon Poleo also faced a bias. Most police forces in Latin America have terrible human rights records, and judges and prosecutors in the U.S. are understandably prone to side with their accusers in Interpol cases like these.
As a result, says Ramon, “we’ve made the U.S. judge here aware of what the colectivos really are in Venezuela.”
He’ll face that judge at a hearing next year. And he’ll find out then if that appeal to see the bigger and more accurate picture behind his Interpol Red Notice has paid off.