US teacher detained in Libya for 6 weeks is now at home in the US

Fernando Espinoza, 29, touched down at New York’s JFK International Airport on Monday afternoon for a welcome party that included his mother, Sara Espinoza, and executives from the nonprofit Richardson Center who negotiated his return.

“Obviously I made mistakes, but several other parties also made several mistakes, and it just snowballed,” Fernando Espinoza told CNN from the car on the way to his hotel.

Espinoza’s arrival on American soil ended weeks of anguish for her mother, who said she had received very little information on where and why her son, a former deputy. U.S. Navy petty officer, was being held – or when he would be released. His work to secure his release went hand in hand with mounting political tensions as Libya neared what was supposed to be its first presidential election in a decade.

“I just feel happy and grateful that he’s back and that it hasn’t lasted as long as it could have,” said Sara Espinoza.

After CNN published an article last week about his search for answers, Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Murad Hamaima rejected suggestions that Espinoza was missing and said authorities planned to deport him sooner but could not because of Covid protocols.

Espinoza told Libyan authorities he was not vaccinated against Covid-19, so they gave him his first dose and were waiting to give him a second, Hamaima said.

The Libyan Foreign Minister intervened in the affair “to preserve solid Libyan-American relations”, according to a statement from the Libyan government.

Espinoza returned to the United States on Monday via Cairo after showing evidence of a negative PCR test, according to Covid-19 entry rules for those countries.

A spokesperson for the US State Department said officials welcome reports of Espinoza’s release, but “for reasons of confidentiality we won’t go into details at this time.”

A weekend leads to a long silence

Espinoza arrived in Libya in early October to start a new job teaching English at an international school in Tripoli. About a month later, he decided to travel further and hired a driver to take him to the town of Sebha, a nine-hour drive south of Tripoli.

From Sebha, he planned to meet a local guide who would take him to the oasis of Gaberoun, a salt lake with an abandoned Bedouin village about 93 kilometers west of the city. But before he reached Sebha, he was arrested, according to Libyan officials and text messages he sent to his mother.

Espinoza was arrested by the security services for “violation of procedures and presence in areas of tension without obtaining permission”, according to a statement from the Libyan government.

He was released and continued on his journey but was arrested upon his return to Tripoli on November 9, according to friends, who received information from the school.

Espinoza had “violated his visa limitation”, broke his contract with the school and left without telling anyone where he was going, Hamaima, the deputy foreign minister, told CNN on Thursday.

“I don’t think this is acceptable anywhere in the world,” Hamaima said.

Espinoza told CNN he had been questioned about his presence in Libya, including why he left Tripoli to head south.

“They were making a lot of false accusations (against me)… of espionage, covert operations, election interference, things like that. So they really scared me,” he said.

Fernando’s search

At home in Miami, Sara Espinoza worried more and more about the fate of her son.

She made contact with the nearest American embassy – in neighboring Tunisia – and consular officials had their first call there with her son at the end of November. They told Sara that he was fine, that he had asked for his meds and that he wanted the chance to talk to her.

That luck came on December 21, when mother and son were able to talk for three minutes before she was told to end the call, she said. Fernando didn’t look well, Sara said, and he told her, “Most of the time what I do is sleep and cry and pray.”

As it looked like little progress was being made on securing her release, Sara Espinoza turned to the Richardson Center, a nonprofit created by former Congressman Bill Richardson with a solid background in negotiation. release of hostages and prisoners.

The group negotiated the release of Espinoza with the help of the Qatari government, which has close ties with Libya, and US consular officials, the group’s vice president and executive director Mickey Bergman told CNN.

“Each case is unique, of course,” he said. “In this case, we got involved early enough that the Libyan government really wanted to sort it out, so it was easier on that side.”

“We are very grateful to the Libyan government for handling this so quickly and smoothly,” he added.

The Richardson Center executives who helped negotiate Espinoza's release met him at the airport.

Trying to bring him home in the midst of political strife

Sara Espinoza had fought to secure the release of her son as the Libyans prepared to go to the polls on December 24 for their first presidential election since the 2011 revolution that killed leader Muammar Gaddafi. But days to go, the election was postponed due to disagreement over how it should go and which names should appear on the ballot.

The vote is expected to take place in January, but no date has been set.

Espinoza’s detention shows how vital it is for travelers to be aware of local laws and conditions, said Bergman of the Richardson Center. The warning is especially true for former military personnel, he said.

“It is important for Americans – even if they have served in the military before – that they be very, very careful and obey the local laws of the country they are visiting, whether it is Libya, Iraq or anywhere in the world really, because the capacity to protect them is limited, ”he said.

Espinoza said his previous trips to developing countries gave him a false sense of security.

“I’ve become complacent for sure. And I’m a little too comfortable and overconfident in my own ability to take care of myself,” he said. “Obviously this negative event has happened and I’m going to turn things around (and) definitely be a little more careful from here on out.”

Prior to Espinoza’s detention, he and his mother planned to spend the New Year in Tunisia. Now they are staying closer to home for the holidays in New York.