Carlos Añez, 34, says he was upset when his stepfather, and Citgo executive, was called for a last-minute meeting in Venezuela the weekend before Thanksgiving 2017. His stepfather, Jorge Toledo, vice president of supply and marketing at time, would miss his granddaughter's fourth birthday and possibly Thanksgiving if the meeting ran late, as they usually did.
Citgo, based in Houston, is the US subsidiary of the Venezuelan state-owned oil giant Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA. For some of the executives, it was not unusual to travel to Caracas for meetings.
"What was strange was that when he arrived at the airport, all the Venezuelan American vice presidents were there. The others were excluded, "Añez recounted. "
Once in the conference room at PDVSA headquarters in Caracas, armed and masked security agents arrested the men ̵
The families of executives, with deep roots in Texas and Louisiana, were perplexed when later that day, Venezuelan chief prosecutor, Tarek William Saab, announced at a news conference that executives had been detained on charges stemming from a
Since then, the family has been forced to refinance the Citgo's debt. the men are held in the basement of Venezuela's military counterintelligence agency and have described their conditions as human rights violations. At one point, 60 people shared a space meant for 22. The lights are kept 24 hours a day, and they are allowed outdoors for 20 minutes every six to eight weeks.
Until families have been allowed to send food almost a year later, the men's diet consisted of rice and pasta, causing Toledo to lose 50 pounds. Now at 125 pounds, he has chronic bronchitis, pre-diabetes and hypertension that have gone untreated. Phone calls are short and sporadic. Añez said his stepfather and the other detainees have not called home since March.
At home, times are tough. Citgo cut the executives' salaries after six months. Aneez's mother, who takes care of her mother-in-law full time, is now selling her house because she does not have a income.
The deal that never happened
Citgo is Venezuela's largest foreign asset and the eighth- largest refiner in the US Saab, Venezuela's general attorney, accused the six Citgo executives of signing off on a deal to refinance the company's debt with terms unfavorable to Venezuela, and offering Citgo as collateral. The alleged agreement was with the investment fund Apollo Global Management and the Dubai-based Frontier, a company that was working on source deals for Apollo
Documents viewed by NBC News dating back to February 2017 show refinancing negotiations were approved by PDVSA's board. 19659002] But a deal was never signed. In 1967, Saab claimed that the Swiss-based firm Mangore Sarl had acted as an intermediary in the bidding process. the deal and said there was a "presumed" link between the firm and Citgo executives.
A Mangore Sarl company source said, "We worked on a proposal with Citgo's advisor and no deal was reached."
About seven weeks after Apollo declined a deal, the executives were arrested. President Nicolás Maduro called them "corrupt thieving traitors" and said they should go to the worst prison.
The detained include the former Citgo President Jose Pereira and five former vice president of companies: Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Gustavo Cardenas, Jose Luis Zambrano , and Alirio Zambrano
After the detentions, Maduro appointed Asdrubal Chavez, a former oil minister and cousin of President Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, as president of Citgo
The arrests were part of a crackdown at PDVSA that led to the imprisonment of dozens of executives, including a former PDVSA president, Nelson Martinez, who had summoned the six executives to the Caracas meeting.
After more than a year and a half in detention, the six Americans finally had a preliminary hearing. The judge ordered them to trial after they declared their innocence. No date was set.
It was a blow to the families who were hoping for their release. Venezuela has spiraled further into political and economic turmoil.
In February, Venezuela's National Assembly under the opposition leader Juan Guaidó – who US and about 50 other governments have recognized Venezuela's legitimate leader following his unsuccessful attempt to wrest control of Maduro – a new board to run Citgo in a move to protect the country's assets that Guaidó says will be crucial to future economic recovery after Maduro leaves office. Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to "steal" Citgo. Handling the situation with the detainees has become a delicate balance for Citgo's new board.
Complicating the situation, Citgo recently received a petition from the U.S. Justice Department as part of an investigation into corruption in PDVSA. Twenty-one people have been charged, and 16 have pleaded guilty. One of them, and a Venezuelan-American businessman from Miami, admitted bribing and senior Citgo executive.
Some families say they are concerned that Citgo and the State Department may not be doing enough to release the executives. ] Tomeu Vadell with his family on Thanksgiving in November, 2016 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Courtesy Cristina Vadell
Diplomatic relations between US and Venezuela have been torn apart under the Trump administration, and the US Embassy in Caracas has temporarily closed.
A State Department spokesperson said it is gravely concerned about the welfare and safety of these and other U.S.
The spokesperson said the agency is working through third countries to continue their efforts to ensure these individuals' welfare while they remain in prison. The designation of the Swiss as Protecting Power has not been finalized, but Switzerland, as a neutral country, would be able to represent the United States
For the family of Tomeu Vadell, vice president of refining operations at the time, the past year and the half have been rough
Vadell, who is 6 '1', lost 60 pounds while in custody. The family started sending food for a year after he was detained, but he has only regained 12 pounds.