Seven Americans were released from prison in Venezuela on Saturday, a senior U.S. official confirmed, in exchange for two relatives of President Nicholas Maduro’s wife. The latter had been incarcerated in the United States for years due to drug smuggling charges.
Five petroleum executives held for over five years were among the Americans who were traded in the greatest exchange of detained individuals by the Biden presidency.
The deputy national security adviser, Joshua Geltzer, expressed his relief and gratitude at the return of the seven Americans who had been unlawfully incarcerated in Venezuela for too long.
It’s an unusual show of goodwill from the socialist leader, who has crushed his domestic opponents and is now trying to repair ties with the United States. The accord resulted from months of secret negotiation by Washington’s chief hostage mediator and other U.S. officials with a major oil producer, which became more pressing when sanctions against Russia pushed global energy prices lower.
Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, and Jose Pereira were released; they are employees of Houston-based Citgo who were lured to Venezuela sometime before Thanksgiving in 2017 to participate in a meeting at the central office of their parent corporation, state-run-oil giant PDVSA. Masked security personnel burst into a Caracas meeting room and dragged them out.
Osman Khan, a Florida man, detained in January, and Matthew Heath, an erstwhile U.S. Marine corporal from Tennessee, were both freed after being detained in Venezuela in 2020 on what the Department Of state has termed “specious” weapons charges.
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The nephews of Maduro’s wife, “First Combatant” Cilia Flores, were freed by the United States. Their names are Franqui Flores and Efrain Campo. In 2015, the DEA conducted a sting operation in Haiti and detained the men, who were extradited to New York to stand trial. The following year they were convicted in a case that drew international attention to U.S. allegations of narcotics trafficking at the top echelons of Maduro’s administration.
Venezuela frees seven Americans imprisoned in the country in exchange for the release of two nephews of President Nicholas Maduro's wife who had been jailed for years by US on drug smuggling convictions
— TRT World Now (@TRTWorldNow) October 1, 2022
President Joe Biden commuted the sentences of both individuals to secure their release.
The Biden presidency has been put under increased pressure to rescue the about sixty Americans it claims are being held hostage or unfairly jailed by hostile foreign nations. Though the United States has focused much of its attention on Russia to negotiate the return of WNBA star Brittney Griner, and also another American, Paul Whelan, the highest number of Americans believed to be used as bargaining chips are being held in Venezuela.
In addition to Khan, at least four other Americans are still being held in Venezuela. These include two former Green Berets who were involved in a botched attempt to unseat Maduro in 2019 and two men who were arrested for allegedly illegally entering the nation from neighboring Colombia.
Alex Saab, an insider industrialist whom Venezuela considers an ambassador and U.S. prosecutors a corrupt regime accomplice, was another prisoner long pursued by Maduro who was not released under the Biden administration. Saab was detained in Cape Verde last year while making a layover en way to Iran, and he is now facing charges of embezzling millions of dollars in state contracts in a federal court in Miami.
In a trial plagued by delays and anomalies, the oil executives were found guilty of theft last year. For an unrealized plan to refinance billions of dollars in bonds held by an oil corporation, they were given prison terms ranging from eight to thirteen years. For what Maduro at the time called “treason,” they received lengthy terms that were upheld earlier this year by Venezuela’s highest court. All three individuals have pleaded not guilty, and the State Department considers them and the two other Americans released on Saturday to have been unlawfully detained.