WASHINGTON (AP) — Venezuela released seven Americans jailed in the South American country on Saturday in exchange for the release of two nephews of President Nicolás Maduro’s wife, who had been jailed for years by the United States on drug convictions, a senior official said. American official. .
The exchange of the Americans, including five oil executives held for nearly five yearsit is the largest trade in detained citizens ever made by the Biden administration.
“We are relieved and pleased to welcome back to their families today seven Americans who have been unjustly detained for far too long in Venezuela,” said Joshua Geltzer, deputy national security adviser.
It is a rare gesture of goodwill on Maduro’s part as the socialist leader seeks to rebuild relations with the United States after defeating most of his domestic opponents. The deal follows months of secret channel diplomacy by Washington’s top hostage negotiator and other US officials — secret talks with a major oil producer that took on added urgency after sanctions on Russia put pressure on global energy prices.
Among those released are five employees of Houston-based Citgo, Tomeu Vadell, José Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo and José Pereira, who were lured to Venezuela just before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the company’s parent company, the state. -Run the oil giant PDVSA. Once there, they were dragged away by masked security agents who stormed a Caracas conference room.
so drop something matthew heatha former US Marine corporal from Tennessee who was arrested in 2020 at a roadblock in Venezuela on what the State Department has called “hoax” weapons charges, and Florida man Osman Khan , who was arrested in January.
United States released Franqui Flores and his cousin Efrain Campo Nephews of the “First Combatant” Cilia Flores, as Maduro has called his wife. The men were arrested in Haiti in a Drug Enforcement Administration raid in 2015 and immediately taken to New York for trial. They were convicted the following year in a highly charged case that cast a harsh look at US drug-trafficking allegations at the highest levels of the Maduro administration.
Both men received clemency from President Joe Biden prior to release.
The Biden administration has been under pressure to do more to bring home the estimated 60 Americans it believes are being held hostage abroad or wrongfully detained by hostile foreign governments. While much of the focus is on Russia, where the US has so far tried unsuccessfully to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul WhelanVenezuela has had the largest contingent of Americans suspected of being used as bargaining chips.
At least four other Americans remain in detention in Venezuela, including two former Green Berets involved in a botched attempt to oust Maduro in 2019, and two other men who, like Khan, were detained for allegedly entering the country illegally from neighboring Colombia.
The Biden administration failed to release another prisoner long wanted by Maduro: Alex Saab, an insider businessman whom Venezuela views as a diplomat and US prosecutors facilitate the corrupt regime. 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 federal court in Miami on charges of siphoning off millions in state contracts.
The oil executives were convicted of embezzlement last year in a trial marred by delays and irregularities. They were sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison for a never executed proposal to refinance billions in oil company bonds. Maduro at the time accused them of “treason,” and Venezuela’s supreme court upheld their lengthy sentences earlier this year. All the men have pleaded not guilty and the State Department has deemed them, along with the other two Americans released Saturday, wrongfully detained.
Goodman reports from Miami.