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Venezuela frees jailed Americans including Citgo execs in exchange for Maduro family drug smugglers



This is a developing story and will be updated.

CARACAS, Venezuela – The Venezuelan government has released seven Americans detained in the country, including five oil executives, in exchange for two family members of President Nicolás Maduro jailed in the country. America for drug offenses since 2015.

The swap, the largest arranged by the Biden administration, came after months of secret negotiations. The president approved the exchange a few weeks ago, according to senior administration officials, but it took time to work through the mechanism, which took place on Saturday as the plane left the US and from Venezuela was carrying prisoners. to an unnamed third country where the exchange took place. .

Those freed are Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan. All are US citizens with the exception of Pereira, a lawful permanent resident of the United States.

Vadell, the Zambrano brothers, and Pereira are Houston-based Citgo employees who were attending a meeting in 2017 in Venezuela when they were apprehended by masked agents who burst into their meeting room. . Heath, a former U.S. Marine Corporal, was arrested for what the United States calls “speculative” weapons charges in 2020. Khan, a Florida man, was arrested in October. January.

Two Venezuelans known as “drug nephews,” Efraín Campo and Francisco Flores, grandsons of Venezuela’s First Lady, Cilia Flores, were arrested in Haiti in 2015 during a DEA drug operation after attempting to trying 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 once again,” Biden said in a statement. “To all the families who are still grieving and separated from their loved ones who are being wrongly detained – know that we remain dedicated to securing their release. for them.”

Senior administration officials told reporters that those released “appear to be stable but they are clearly happy, overjoyed to be home with their loved ones”, they said.

Venezuela issued its own statement shortly after confirming the news, calling it an action based on “humanitarian reasons”. The statement also confirmed that “two young Venezuelans unjustly imprisoned” in the US have been released within the framework of negotiations that began in March this year between the two governments.

“During the course of the negotiations, it became clear that the release of the two Venezuelans was necessary to secure the release of these Americans,” US officials said.

This seems to be another step in the process of normalizing relations between the socialist country and the United States. In March, two Americans were freed following a high-level US delegation’s visit to Caracas, the first visit after the US severed diplomatic ties in 2019 after the Trump administration recognized Juan Guaidó as president. provisional system.

Viser reports from Washington.

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