Venezuela freed seven American prisoners on Saturday in exchange for the release of two nephews of President Nicholas Maduro’s wife that were convicted of drug smuggling in the U.S.
The Americans freed in the exchange include five Citgo employees— Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, and Jose Pereira—who were detained in the country for almost five years.
The oil executives were lured to Venezuela to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the company’s parent, state-owned PDVSA. At the meeting, they were hauled away by masked agents.
They were convicted by the Venezuelan regime of embezzlement after a trial that was marred by delays and irregularities. They were sentenced to eight years and 13 years in prison after Maduro accused them of “treason.”
Also released was Matthew Heath, a former U.S. Marine corporal from Tennessee who was arrested in 2020 at a roadblock, and Osman Khan, a Florida resident who was arrested in January of this year.
The U.S. freed Franqui Flores and Efrain Campo, nephews of Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife. The two men were arrested in Haiti during a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operation in 2015. They faced trial in New York and were convicted the following year of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.
“We are relieved and gratified to be welcoming back to their families today seven Americans who had been wrongfully detained for too long in Venezuela,” said Joshua Geltzer, the deputy homeland security adviser.
At least four other Americans are still detained in Venezuela, including a lawyer from California and a computer programmer from Texas who were arrested in March, and a third man who has not been identified.
“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,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement.