Venezuela Frees 7 Jailed Americans in Exchange for Maduro Family Drug Smugglers

Photo posted on Twitter on June 18, 2020, by then Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, showing CITGO oil executives Jose Angel Pereira, from left to right, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio Jose Zambrano, standing outside the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, in Caracas, Venezuela. (Posted on Twitter by Jorge Arreaza/Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry via AP File)

CARACAS, Venezuela (The Washington Post) − The Venezuelan government freed seven Americans detained in the country, including five oil executives, in exchange for two family members of President Nicolás Maduro jailed in the United States on drug convictions 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 mechanics, which unfolded Saturday when planes left from the U.S. and from Venezuela carrying the prisoners to an unnamed third country where the swap took place.

Those freed were Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan. All are U.S. citizens except Pereira, a lawful permanent U.S. resident.

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

The two Venezuelan known as the “narco nephews,” Efraín Campo and Francisco Flores, nephews of Venezuela’s First Lady, Cilia Flores, were arrested in Haiti in 2015 in a DEA drug operation after attempting 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 whole once more,” Biden said in a statement. “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.”

Senior administration officials told reporters those released “seemed stable but obviously they’re happy, their overjoyed to be heading home to their loved ones,” they said.

Venezuela released its own statement soon after confirming the news, calling it an act based on “humanitarian reasons.” The statement also confirmed that “two young Venezuelans unfairly imprisoned” in the U.S. were freed as part of talks that started in March of this year between both governments.

“It became clear in the course of negotiations, that the release of two Venezuelans was essential to securing the release of these Americans,” the U.S. officials said.

This appears to be another step toward normalizing relations between the socialist country and the United States. In March, two Americans were freed following a visit to Caracas by a high-level U.S. delegation, the first one after the U.S. cut off diplomatic relations in 2019 after the Trump administration recognized Juan Guaidó as interim president.

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