HOPE IN DARKNESS

El Helicoide: a metaphor for a broken country and a broken system

Jun 17, 2020, 12:10 AM
venezuela crisis el helicoide...
The dome of El Helicoide, the prison where many opposition protesters have been held over the years, is visible in the Caracas skyline. Josh and Thamy Holt spent 23 months under that dome as prisoners of the SEBIN, Venezuela's top law enforcement and intelligence agency. Photo: Getty Images

Editorial note: this is the latest in a series of articles related to the KSL Podcast, “Hope In Darkness.” Find all of our episodes and coverage here

A Utah man held in a Venezuelan prison for nearly two years is offering never-before-heard details about the conditions inside El Helicoide. 

The latest episode of “Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story” focuses on the prison itself — a building never meant to hold inmates. 

El Helicoide: a metaphor for a country 

el helicoide caracas

The dome of El Helicoide is just visible on the right side of this photo of Caracas. It was built during the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez starting in 1956 and today is better known as the home of the political police, the SEBIN. Photo: Getty Images

El Helicoide, the infamous prison where Josh and Thamy Holt spent 23 months, is visible from pretty much anywhere in Caracas. A three-sided pyramid with an aluminum geodesic dome, it rises from the barrios of Caracas, a sharp contrast to the colorful and sometimes rickety, sometimes homemade shelters that house some of the city’s poorest residents. 

It didn’t start out that way. Originally, the designers envisioned El Helicoide as a first-of-its-kind drive-in shopping mall. The building’s name comes from its design: El Helicoide translates to The Helix. A road spirals up around the outside of the structure, like a helix.

Shoppers were meant to drive right up to the store of their choice. New York’s Museum of Modern Art featured a model of the building, then still under construction, during its 1961 “Roads” exhibition. Famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called it “one of the most exquisite creations ever to have sprung from the mind of an architect.” 

The mall was the vision of President Marco Perez Jimenez, a dictator who hoped to show off Venezuela’s wealth and power. 

A hint of a sinister future

But the name of the hill on which El Helicoide sits hints at what it would eventually become. La Roca Tarpeya, or the Tarpeian Rock, was named after a site in ancient Rome where executions were carried out. 

A coup resulted in Perez Jimenez’s removal from office in 1958, long before the building was finished. His opponents accused him and his government of improperly funding the developers. The new government refused to allow the construction to continue. The concrete foundation sat, quiet and empty, forgotten, for years. Occasionally, it was used as shelter for people made homeless by natural disasters. 

Eventually, though, government agencies moved in. Among them: Venezuela’s secret police, the SEBIN — akin to a combination of the United States’ CIA and FBI. The SEBIN made its home on the first few coils of the spiral. That once-forgotten place with its never-opened shops became home over time to large numbers of political prisoners: people who disagreed with the Venezuelan government. 

El Helicoide: political prison 

In 2014, the public first became aware that political prisoners were being held at El Helicoide. 

Laura Gamboa, an assistant professor of political science at Utah State University and an expert on Latin American politics, heard a number of stories about the abuses inside. She lived in Caracas while doing research. 

“I know that people who are kept there are more often than not subject to torture and all sorts of mistreatment,” Gamboa said. “We’re talking about active torture, but we’re also talking about isolation for months.” 

She heard stories about guards refusing to allow inmates any exercise time outdoors, or guard refusing family members to visit prisoners. And much worse. 

What few reports came out of El Helicoide from inmates and detainees detailed horrific abuse. Some described being forced to answer questions with bags of excrement over their heads. Others were waterboarded. In a previous episode of Hope In Darkness, Thamy Holt described guards running her fingers into a pencil sharpener to take off her fingernails. 

Inmates also complained the prison did not take care of them, refusing medical treatment and failing to provide access to food and water. 

The worst place for a kidney stone 

Just days after Josh Holt found out he’d have to spend at least 45 days at El Helicoide, he felt an all-too familiar pain in his back and side: a kidney stone. 

“I’d had a kidney stone when I was probably about 16, 17. And I remembered my parents running me to the ER, because they didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what was going on. I just remember having this pain, and I was screaming and crying,” he said.

kidney stone

Kidney stones cause intense pain by blocking the ureter. They can become medical emergencies, especially if the blockage is so large that the patient cannot pass the stone on their own. Photo illustration: Getty Images

In solitary confinement, a cell just barely bigger than a twin-sized bed with a cockroach infestation, Holt writhed in pain. It radiated through his body. He knew he needed medication and access to clean water, but he had neither. 

“They’d give me, you know, a liter bottle of water, and that was supposed to last me a couple of days,” Holt recalled. And in the oppressive heat of the cell, he quickly became dehydrated, compounding the problem. 

He screamed in pain and yelled for a doctor. No one responded. 

“And so, for the next probably week and a half, that’s what it was like. It was just fighting through the pain,” he said. 

Holt can’t remember exactly how long it took to pass the stone; he couldn’t see the sun to gauge the passage of time. But he did eventually pass it. He doesn’t really know how. 

“A lot of people ask, ‘How did you do this?’ or ‘How did you do that?’ But when we go through things — how do we do it? We just do it! Because we have to,” Holt said. 

A country in chaos, a prison in chaos, and a life in chaos. 

Listen to Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story episode 5 below. 

Hope In Darkness releases new episodes weekly on Wednesdays. Subscribe free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts. 

Today’s Top Stories

Hope In Darkness

el helicoide caracas...
Becky Bruce

Utahn who spent two years in Venezuela prison responds to Americans’ release

The Utah man who spent two years in a Venezuela prison, Josh Holt, has mixed feelings about the release of two Americans from that country.
9 months ago
venezuela green berets arrested josh holt help...
Becky Bruce

Josh Holt says he’s working to help two Americans held in Venezuela

A Utah man, Josh Holt, who spent nearly two years in the same Venezuela prison where two former Green Berets are being held, says he's trying to help them. 
2 years ago
josh holt prison release...
Becky Bruce

How Josh and Thamy Holt finally got freed from a Venezuela prison

To this day, the major players involved can't say exactly why Venezuela released Josh and Thamy Holt from prison, but they insist there was no deal made.
2 years ago
josh holt prison riot...
Becky Bruce

New details revealed in the prison riot that threatened the life of Josh Holt

The prison riot that threatened the life of Utahn Josh Holt exposed a sharp divide between political prisoners and common prisoners in Venezuela.
2 years ago
josh holt legal strategy...
Becky Bruce

Hope In Darkness: Faith, serendipity important part of Josh Holt story

The way in which a Venezuelan-born Utah immigration attorney became involved in the Josh Holt case involves multiple leaps of faith.
2 years ago
el helicoide caracas...
Becky Bruce

Evolving strategy and inside connections contributed to the freedom of Josh Holt

The first shift in strategy for Josh and Thamy Holt came because of an important conversation with the warden at El Helicoide prison. It wasn't the last.
2 years ago

Sponsored Articles

Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...
Sorenson

The best tools for Deaf and hard-of-hearing workplace success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...
Macey's

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
christmas decorations candles in glass jars with fir on a old wooden table...
Western Nut Company

12 Mason Jar Gift Ideas for the 12 Days of Christmas [with recipes!]

There are so many clever mason jar gift ideas to give something thoughtful to your neighbors or friends. Read our 12 ideas to make your own!
wide shot of Bear Lake with a person on a stand up paddle board...

Pack your bags! Extended stays at Bear Lake await you

Work from here! Read our tips to prepare for your extended stay, whether at Bear Lake or somewhere else nearby.
young boy with hearing aid...
Sorenson

Accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing

These different types of accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing can help them succeed in school.
Young woman receiving laser treatment...
Form Derm Spa

How facial plastic surgery and skincare are joining forces

Facial plastic surgery is not only about looking good but about feeling good too. The medical team at Form Spa are trained to help you reach your aesthetic outcomes through surgery and through skincare and dermatology, too.
El Helicoide: a metaphor for a broken country and a broken system