Venezuela releases 7 detained Americans; US frees 2 prisoners

WASHINGTON – Venezuela on Saturday released seven Americans jailed in the South American country in exchange for the release of two nephews of President Nicholas Maduro’s wife, who were jailed for years by the United States for drug smuggling, a senior US official said.

The exchange of the Americans including five oil executives who have been held for nearly five yearsis the largest trade in jailed citizens ever conducted by the Biden administration.

“We are relieved and delighted to welcome back to their families today seven Americans who have been unjustly detained in Venezuela for too long,” said Joshua Geltzer, deputy homeland security adviser.

It’s a rare gesture of goodwill from Maduro as the socialist leader seeks to rebuild ties with the US after defeating most of his domestic opponents. The deal follows months Back-channel diplomacy from Washington’s chief hostage negotiator and other US officials — Secret talks with a major oil producer that gained urgency after sanctions on Russia weighed on global energy prices.

Those released include five Houston-based Citgo employees — Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and Jose Pereira — who were lured to Venezuela just before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the mother-state headquarters to attend the company’s run-oil giant PDVSA. Once there, they were dragged away by masked security officers who burst into a conference room in Caracas.

Also was released Matthew Heidea former US Marine corporal from Tennessee who was arrested at a roadblock in Venezuela in 2020 on alleged “apparent” gun charges; and Osman Khan, a Florida man who was arrested in January.

The United States Liberated Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo Nephews of “First Combatant” Cilia Flores, as Maduro called his wife. The men were arrested in a 2015 Drug Enforcement Administration stabbing in Haiti and immediately taken to New York to face trial. They were convicted the following year in a highly charged case that scrutinized US drug trafficking allegations at the highest levels of the Maduro administration.

Both men were pardoned by President Joe Biden before release.

The Biden administration has been under pressure to do more to bring home the 60 or so Americans it believes are being held hostage abroad or wrongfully arrested by hostile foreign governments. While much of the focus is on Russia, where the US has so far tried unsuccessfully to secure release WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul WhelanVenezuela has the largest contingent of Americans suspected of being used as bargaining chips.

At least four other Americans remain jailed in Venezuela, including two former Green Berets involved in a 2019 slapdash attempt to oust Maduro and two other men arrested like Khan for allegedly moving illegally from neighboring Colombia had entered the country.

The Biden administration has not released another prisoner Maduro has long wanted: Alex Saab, an insider businessman whom Venezuela diplomats and US prosecutors consider a corrupt regime enabler. Saab fought extradition from Cape Verde, where he was arrested last year during a stopover en route to Iran, and is now awaiting trial in a federal court in Miami on charges of siphoning off millions of state contracts.

The oil executives were found guilty of embezzlement last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities. They were sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison for an unsuccessful proposal to refinance billions of dollars in the oil company’s bonds. Maduro then accused them of “treason,” and Venezuela’s Supreme Court upheld their lengthy sentences earlier this year. The men have all pleaded not guilty and the State Department considers them – and the two other Americans released Saturday – to have been wrongly detained.


Goodman reported from Miami.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Venezuela releases 7 detained Americans; US frees 2 prisoners

Sarah Y. Kim

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