Prisoner swap: Venezuela releases 7 jailed Americans, US frees 2 prisoners

Vadell, Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, and Pereira are 5 of 6 American oil executives known as 'CITGO 6'

ByBetsy Klein, Arlette Saenez and Jennifer Hansler, CNNWire
Sunday, October 2, 2022
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After working quietly for months, President Joe Biden announced the release of seven Americans who have been imprisoned in Venezuela for years.

WASHINGTON -- In a rare softening of hostile relations, Venezuela has freed seven imprisoned Americans in exchange for the United States releasing two nephews of President Nicolás Maduro's wife who had been jailed for years on drug smuggling conspiracy convictions, the White House said Saturday.

"Today, after years of being wrongfully detained in Venezuela, we are bringing home Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath, and Osman Khan. These individuals will soon be reunited with their families and back in the arms of their loved ones where they belong," President Joe Biden said in a statement.

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Vadell, Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, and Pereira are five of the six American oil executives known as the "CITGO 6" arrested in Venezuela more than four years ago. Two Americans who had been detained there, including one of the CITGO 6, were released in March following the visit of two top US government officials to Caracas. Heath, a Marine veteran, was detained in September 2020. Khan has been detained since January 2022.

Biden said the seven Americans would be reunited with their families "soon" as he thanked the members of his administration working toward their release, CNN reported.

"To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones who are wrongfully detained -- know that we remain dedicated to securing their release," he said.

The oil executives were convicted of embezzlement last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities. They were sentenced to between eight years and 13 years in prison for a never-executed proposal to refinance billions in the oil company's bonds. Maduro at the time accused them of "treason," and Venezuela's supreme court upheld their long sentences earlier this year.

The men have all pleaded not guilty and the State Department has regarded them - and the two other Americans freed on Saturday - as wrongfully detained.

The United States freed Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo, nephews of "First Combatant" Cilia Flores, as Maduro has called his wife. The men were arrested in Haiti in a Drug Enforcement Administration sting in 2015 and immediately taken to New York to face trial. They were convicted the following year of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S., a highly charged case that cast a hard look at U.S. accusations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of Maduro's administration.

Both men were granted clemency by Biden before the release.

The administration did not release another prisoner long sought by Maduro: Alex Saab, an insider businessman who Venezuela considers a diplomat and U.S. prosecutors 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 Miami federal court on charges of siphoning off millions in state contracts.

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Their release comes months after a US government delegation quietly traveled to Venezuela in June "for discussions about the welfare and safety of US nationals in Venezuela," a State Department spokesperson told CNN at the time.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the release of the seven detainees and congratulated State Department personnel for "their tireless efforts to achieve this outcome."

"Although we celebrate the release of these U.S. nationals from Venezuela, we still have more work to do. The safety and security of Americans worldwide is my highest priority as Secretary of State, and we will continue to press for the release of all U.S. nationals wrongfully detained abroad," he said in a statement.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.