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‘Hope in Darkness’: Cellmate teaches Holt how to work system

Left to right, cellmates Claudio Giovanni Jimenez Gomez, aka "El Buñuelo,", Joshua Holt, and Colombia (Leiver Padilla – accused in the high-profile murder of Robert Serra, a Venezuelan national assemblyman) at El Helicoide. (Holt Family Photo)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – A Utah man who spent nearly two years in prison in Venezuela says he owes his survival, at least in part, to one of Venezuela’s most wanted men.

It’s a new detail you’ll hear for the first time in episode seven of the KSL Podcast “Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story.”

A new cell and new cellmates

Josh Holt, arrested on June 30, 2016, spent the first roughly six weeks of his imprisonment in Venezuela in solitary confinement.

El Helicoide, the prison where he was held on accusations of spying for the U.S. government with his wife, Thamy, is well-known for housing political prisoners: people who were arrested because they spoke out against the Venezuelan government.

Some of the political prisoners there, after learning about the Holts’ arrest, started to lobby for Josh Holt to be moved to a new cell with better living conditions.

Holt was surprised when the guards showed up and told him he was moving.

“At first, I didn’t really know what to expect, because now I’m with other people,” Holt said.

In solitary confinement, Holt was trapped in a cell just slightly bigger than a twin-sized bed where he slept on a pile of rags on the floor.

His new cell was larger – a room about 15 by 15 feet with three twin-sized beds in it. Those beds were already occupied, so Holt found himself on the floor by the wall.

His new cellmates, men named Franklin, Colombia, and Buñuelo, mostly kept to themselves. Holt’s spot on the floor was closest to Buñuelo’s bunk.

At first, Holt said, Buñuelo spent most of his time on his phone.

“And I kind of got a vibe from him at the very beginning that he was kind of on edge,” Holt said.

He learned later Buñuelo was keeping his distance because he wasn’t sure yet if Holt could be trusted – that he wasn’t a snitch.

“And that’s when I found out that he was one of the top ten most deadliest people in Venezuela, and I’m sleeping maybe a foot away from him,” Holt said.

Venezuela’s most wanted

Buñuelo was an alias that translates roughly to “the doughnut” – specifically, a type of fried dough fritter popular in Latin America.

The man behind the alias was named Claudio Giovanni Jimenez Gomez. He was accused of killing a police officer with a grenade then trying to evade capture by holding a woman and her daughter hostage.

Buñuelo was curious about Josh Holt. Who was this guy? Why was he there? How did he learn Spanish?

Holt told him about his Spanish-speaking mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Buñuelo didn’t know what a mission was, so Holt started describing it for him.

“I told him about when you get out into the mission field, after you get done with the MTC – the Missionary Training Center – and you’re out in the field now … and you have a person that’s there with you.

“And that person, we normally call our ‘dad,’ because he teaches us things. And he normally calls us their ‘son.’ And so I just remember, he looked at me and he put his hands on my shoulder, and he
said, ‘Well, then, you’ll be my son, and I’ll be your dad, and I’ll teach you everything there is to know here in prison,’” Holt said.

Life lessons on the inside

Holt said he learned a series of lessons about surviving in prison from Buñuelo.

“He taught me ways to read the guards,” Holt said. “You had to know what was going on with them to know whether or not they were going to come in and raid your cell.”

Another lesson centered on generosity with the people around him.

“He said, ‘What do you do when someone comes up to you and asks you for a roll of toilet paper?’” Holt recalled.

He told Buñuelo he would just tear some off and give it to them. Buñuelo told him that was the wrong answer.

“He goes, ‘Well, that’s one of those things that you have to fight over. Do you want friendship and people that’ll be on your side, or would you rather fight with people because you
don’t want to give them toilet paper?’

And I said, ‘OK. That makes sense.’”

Buñuelo even taught Holt how to fold newspaper to more effectively relieve himself in a cell with no bathroom.

“There’s a thing that they called a boat, and there’s a special way to fold that, so that way, when you go to the restroom, it all stays right there and it doesn’t go off the toilet paper,” Holt said.

Holt’s interactions with Buñuelo also reinforced a lesson he learned from his parents: not to judge a book by its cover.

“And so that’s how I came to know Buñuelo,” Holt said.

“I knew him as just who he was next to me, not the things that he’d done before.”

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