The man who guards our doors — and his valiant effort to save his brother in Venezuela

Updated on
Luis Alfredo Velara Mendoza is from Caracas

When Luis Valera is not working, he's trying to get insulin to his oldest brother and trying to feed a family that is stuck in economically ravaged Venezuela. The whole country, he says, is starving.

Phillip Martin/WGBH

So often we pass security guards in hallways or as we skirt pass the front desks of buildings everywhere, exchanging pleasantries but little else. The deeper lives of the people behind those uniforms often remain unknown to the people they are entrusted to protect. So it was with a guard at WGBH, where our newsroom is located.

I knew his name was Luis, but I did not know his story:

“My full name is Luis Alfredo Valera Mendoza,” he told me. 

He’s from Caracas, Venezuela, a city whose troubles hint at the depth of his despair.     

“The whole country is starving.” 

In Venezuela, most store shelves are nearly empty of food and shopping carts serve no purpose. And it gets worse.

Most pharmacies and hospitals are bare of medicine: No aspirin, no Ibuprofen, no prescription drugs, which brings us back to Luis Alfredo Valera Mendoza, separated from his family in Venezuela and feeling helpless to assist the people who need him most — his two brothers, particularly oldest brother Gilberto. 

“My brother is diabetic. And at this point the main medicine that he needs the most is insulin,” said Valera.  

But in Caracas and its environs, with more than 5 million people, essential medicine cannot be found, and if found often cannot be bought. It is estimated that 80 percent of medications for chronic diseases have disappeared from store shelves. The most critical shortages, according to NGO’s, are contraceptives, anti-seizure and high-blood pressure medications, anti-burn ointments and insulin. Mendoza's brother’s extreme diabetes is made even worse by irregular meals that cause his blood sugar levels to spike.

“My brother came to visit me this last Christmas. He was already running out of insulin.”

Gilberto could likely have secured insulin in Boston, but he does everything “by the law,” says Valera, and he did not have a US prescription. At the end of his visit, he flew back to Venezuela without any badly needed medicine.  

“So when he went back home I found out he cannot even get the doses anymore, that’s when I got scared. I talked to him last Sunday and it broke my heart.”

For a full minute Valera was inconsolable.

“It broke my heart because I’m trying to meet with him next Christmas. He told me he doesn’t think he’s going to make it.”

Venezuela-Colombia border

Courtesy of WGBH

So in late July, Valera arranged for friends living on the border of neighboring Colombia to purchase insulin. It took weeks. The border was shut down for a while. 

“I have been trying to get it from the brother friend of mine that lives in San Cristobal. The only way is through his brother. They send someone across the border with Colombia and they buy the medicine there and I’m hoping my brother will get it.  He might get it. He might not, but I’m taking the chance because it’s my brother’s life.”

UPDATE: Last Friday, Valera says, his brother Gilberto got insulin and some other medicines he needed. It made it past thousands of similarly desperate people in dystopian-like Venezuela, some of whom are driven to commit desperate acts. The delivery made it through a dangerous highway, through a 16-hour drive from the border to Caracas.   

Valera knows he is lucky. The danger of crime extends into Caracas, which ranks as one of the most violent cities in the world. Its high crime rate affects mostly the poor and middle class. Wealthy areas are stocked with groceries and medicines and protected by private security guards — like Mendoza. He is stunned by the irony. 

“Obviously there must be some kind of security before you go across these areas, which regular people like my family don’t have the luxury to hire armed security forces in Caracas, only the wealthy people.” 

But Valera does not get into the weeds of Venezuelan politics. His main concern now, only abated temporarily, is his brother’s health and the health of his nation.

“Every day that I eat, I thank God. But I also think about my brothers and I’m sure they’re going through a lot of hell. The world needs to know what’s going on. This is what’s happening right now.”

And with that, Valera continues his nighttime guard duties, checking doors and windows, turning off lights and trying to prevent the worst that could happen in a Boston office building while his mind drifts to the very worst 2,200 miles away.

This story has been updated. A version of this story was first published by WGBH News.

Related: In desperate Venezuela, thieves now hit school cafeterias for food

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