Venezuela frees imprisoned Americans, including Citgo executives, in exchange for Maduro family drug smugglers

CARACAS, Venezuela – The Venezuelan government has released seven Americans held in the country, including five oil executives, in exchange for two family members of President Nicolas Maduro who have been imprisoned in the United States on drug charges since 2015.

The swap, the largest arranged by the Biden administration, came after months of secret talks. The president approved the exchange a few weeks ago, according to senior administration officials, but it took time to work through the mechanisms, which unfolded Saturday when planes departed from the United States and from Venezuela carrying the prisoners to an unnamed third country where the exchange took place. takes place.

The exchange underlined the efforts made by the Biden administration since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February to improve fractious relations with Venezuela as an alternative source of oil. in March , US and Venezuelan officials discussed Possibility of easing sanctions on oil exports from Venezuela.

Those released on Saturday were Jorge Toledo, Tomio Fadel, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan. All of them are US citizens except for Pereira, who is a legal permanent resident of the United States.

Fadel, brothers Zambrano and Pereira were employees of Houston-based Citgo who were attending a meeting in 2017 in Venezuela when they were kidnapped by masked agents who broke into their conference room. Heath, a former US Marine Corps corporal, was arrested on what the US called “deceptive” weapons charges in 2020. Khan, a Florida man, was arrested in January.

US outreach to Venezuela strengthens Maduro, marginalizes Guaido

“One never prepares for these things. Tomio Fadel’s daughter, Veronica Fadel Wijeman, told The Washington Post in a letter, stressing that the news came as a surprise to the family. We are very grateful that President Biden was able to bring her home.”

Known as “Drug Brother’s Sons,” Venezuelans Efraín Campo and Francisco Flores, nephews of Venezuela’s first lady, Celia Flores, were arrested in Haiti in 2015 in a DEA drug operation after they attempted to smuggle cocaine into the United States. In 2017, they were sentenced to 18 years in prison after being convicted.

A senior administration official said Biden made the “difficult decision” to grant clemency to the two men.

“Today we celebrate that seven families will be full again,” Biden said in a statement. “To all the families still suffering and separated from their unjustly detained loved ones – I know we remain devoted to securing their release.” Among the detainees WNBA star Britney Greiner and security advisor Paul Whelan, Both are still being held in Russia despite ongoing negotiations for their release.

On Saturday, Iran also released the Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, who was imprisoned seven years ago during a visit to Tehran, and his elderly father, Baqer Namazi, according to what A. Statement issued by the United Nations.

Senior administration officials told reporters that the released “appeared to be stable but clearly happy, very happy to be back home with their loved ones.”

Venezuela issued its own statement shortly after the news was confirmed, saying it had acted for “humanitarian reasons.” The statement also confirmed that “two Venezuelan youths unjustly imprisoned” were released in the United States as part of the talks that began in March of this year between the two governments.

US officials said: “It became clear during the negotiations that the release of Venezuelans was necessary to secure the release of these Americans.”

This appears to be another step toward normalizing years of turbulent diplomatic relations between the socialist country and the United States. In March, two Americans were released after a visit by a high-ranking US delegation to Caracas, the first after the US cut diplomatic ties in 2019 after the administration of President Donald Trump temporarily recognized Juan Guaido, then-president of the National Assembly. president.

However, Guaido has little practical power in the country and little influence abroad. He admitted to The Post in November that if the United States withdrew its support, “it would be difficult for us to confront a dictatorship with these characteristics.”

The opposition, now deeply divided, tried to resume the negotiation process with Maduro’s government on several occasions, most recently in 2021, and was then interrupted by the arrest and subsequent extradition of businessman Alex Saab.

Saab, a Colombian businessman whom the Venezuelan government considers a diplomat, has been extradited to the United States and faces money laundering charges. Since then, Venezuela has invested heavily in his release.

Weser reported from Washington.

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