By Angela French
Ordered departure: It rarely happens, but when it does the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) makes sure it is done right and that everything is locked up tight.
In March, the Department withdrew all diplomatic personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela. As the law enforcement and security arm of the Department, DSS made sure U.S. facilities, personnel and information were secure before leaving Caracas.
“Our focus was getting everyone out safely and securing the U.S. embassy compound,” said DSS Special Agent and Embassy Caracas’ Regional Security Officer (RSO) Patrick Mills. “Throughout the diplomatic crisis, we helped more than 100 employees and family members safely exit Venezuela, plus family pets and even some Canadian diplomatic staff.”
As the RSO, Mills was the senior advisor to the chief of mission on all U.S. law enforcement and security operations in Venezuela. He oversaw the personnel responsible for securing the embassy compound in March. In the final 48 hours, Mills led Special Agents Kareem Parson, Duran Coats and Joel Gomez; Security Engineering Officer Alan Bishop; and 10 Marine Security Guards (MSGs) in shredding stacks of sensitive documents and dismantling and securely disposing of technical security equipment. Thousands of pounds of U.S. government property were ultimately transported out of the country.
“In January, Alan and Security Technical Specialist Nancy Rhodes did the lion’s share of destroying our sensitive equipment and materials,” said Mills.
But everyone felt the mental and physical toll. According to Mills, the team would pack and unpack multiple times a week since they did not know if and when they would have to depart Embassy Caracas.
“When we were alerted that we would be departing Venezuela, we initiated our 72-hour departure plan that was ultimately cut to 48 hours,” said Mills.
The RSO team had been steadily preparing for the March announcement. A large majority—nearly 80 percent—of the diplomatic personnel departed in January when the Department ordered non-emergency U.S. government employees to leave Venezuela. Most of those who remained were members of the RSO shop.
The situation in Venezuela had been deteriorating for some time, and the security crew left at the embassy had time to prepare for a potential departure order. Assistant RSO Kareem Parson, who arrived at Embassy Caracas in July 2018, said the biggest indicator of how the country was doing was the currency.
“One of the biggest security considerations included discussion of the local currency situation,” said Parson. “Every morning, we would ask our local Venezuelan employees what the currency rate was that day.”
According to Mills, the RSO team had been shredding and packing the embassy for 45 days since the first wave of embassy personnel left.
“There were many times over those six weeks where individuals were sleeping, living and eating in the embassy because of the security environment, lack of infrastructure in Caracas or simply because we had to finish the job,” said Mills.
Despite rushing to properly secure the U.S. Embassy compound, the RSO team also helped partners facing similar security issues. For instance, the Canadians also chose to depart their mission in Venezuela and asked the RSO shop for support. Unlike the U.S. Embassy, which had been built strategically on high ground in a more secure area of the city, the Canadian Embassy was located in the thick of the protests and political activities.
“Whoever chose the location for our embassy was very smart,” said Assistant RSO Gomez. “We were able to beef up security and feel safe in our area, unlike some of our partners who were downtown.”
Mills, Gomez, Parson, Bishop and Coats were among the few personnel left at Embassy Caracas in March. Deputy RSO Michele Collins, Assistant RSO Kathleen Rendeiro and DSS Security Technical Specialist Nancy Rhodes were ordered to depart in January. When the decision was announced, they had 72 hours to pack and board a plane.
“When we got the notification, we barely had time to get our work affairs in order, much less pack,” said Collins. “We knew it was possible that we wouldn’t return to Caracas, and we could not bring everything with us.”
Collins and Rhodes packed gear and secured embassy materials all day on Jan. 24 and into the wee hours of Friday, Jan. 25.
“Security technology was extremely busy while we completed the complex evacuation of an embassy within a few hours,” said Rhodes. “While the process generally takes several days, we literally had hours.”
Their work did not leave Collins and Rhodes much time to get home, pack and get to the airport early Saturday morning. Both had little time to plan for what would be waiting in Washington, D.C.
“Late Friday night I asked a friend in the D.C. area to find me a hotel and e-mail my reservation to me,” said Rhodes. “If my friend had not made my hotel reservations, I would have landed with nowhere to go. She was my first boss at the State Department, so she understood the situation.”
When Collins and Rhodes touched down in Washington, the stark reality of their situation hit.
“After three years in warm and sunny Caracas, usually wearing nothing more than a polo shirt and khakis, I boarded a flight in 80-degree weather and landed in 30-degree weather,” said Rhodes. “Thankfully, I did have one jacket with me.”
Collins was not so lucky. “My son and I didn’t have winter jackets. Fortunately, we had friends who helped us out.”
Collins described the whirlwind departure as one of the toughest experiences she has faced in her 17-year career.
“I was in Sri Lanka during the civil war, and even that does not compare to those final hours in Venezuela,” she said.
No one knows for sure when the U.S. mission will reopen in Venezuela. For now, the team and other Department employees that worked at Embassy Caracas are still assigned to the mission and work daily to support it virtually. Some already have their onward assignments, while others are still waiting to see which post they will be sent to next.
While DSS personnel, like their Department colleagues, are not in Venezuela, the organization continues its mission to provide a safe and secure environment for the conduct of U.S. diplomacy at more than 270 locations around the world. Special agents, security engineer officers, security technical specialists, U.S. Navy Seabees, MSGs and other DSS team members work around-the-clock to secure Department people, facilities and information at every U.S. embassy and consulate. No one can predict when a crisis may occur, but if one does, DSS stands ready.
Angela French is a public affairs specialist with the Diplomatic Security Service.