HOUSTON — Eight Citgo executives boarded a plane Nov. 21, 2017 at Sugar Land Regional Airport for an emergency budget meeting in Venezuela.
Six of the executives have been in a Venezuelan detention center for more than 400 days.
The government of President Nocolas Maduro is holding what has become the Citgo 6 on charges of embezzlement and corruption stemming from a $4 billion agreement to refinance company bonds.
The six detained executives are: Jorge Toledo, vice president of supply and marketing, Tomeu Vadell, vice president of refining, Jose Pereira, president, and brothers, Jose Luis and Alirio Zambrano, who served as vice president of shared services and general manager of Corpus Cristi refinery. Vice President of Legal Affairs, Edoardo Orsoni and vice president of finance, Calixto Sanchez were also on board the plane; however, they were not detained.
On the 443rd day of their fathers’ imprisonment, three families broke their silence in hopes of finding a solution.
“I miss him playing with his granddaughters,” said Carlos Anez. His father, Jorge Toledo. “That was part of his routine on the weekend, throwing them up on his shoulders.”
“I miss all the good time we have,” said Joao Pereira, Jose Pereira's wife. “I miss all the special moments we have as a family.”
“We’ve always done so many things together,” said Tomeu Vadell’s daughter, Cristina Vadell. “I’m a bit of a daddy’s girl you could say.”
Occasionally, the fathers can call home. They ask for their families to send food and medicine to their windowless cells. For their first 10 months detained, their diet mostly consisted of rice and pasta.
“When he left here he was about 176 pounds,” said Anez. “A committed marathon runner and I know at his worst point he has dipped below 130 pounds.”
“It doesn’t matter how strong you are in mind, body and spirit,” said Vadell. “If you aren’t getting fresh air and in crowded quarters, that’s not acceptable. I’m concerned about his health, he hasn’t seen a doctor this whole time.”
In 2017, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, Tarek William Saab, described the Citgo executives as facilitators of U.S. and international pressure on the countries oil sector, “putting risk at Citgo’s assets while obtaining personal benefits.”
In a televised address, President Nicola Maduro said, “While I’m working hard every day, there’s a group of bandits (Citgo 6) stealing from the people. What’s that called? Treason.”
Families of the detained men say the Venezuelan government hasn’t provided any proof. Their Venezuela lawyers say the men’s preliminary hearing has continued to be postponed and cancelled for various reasons.
On Jan. 24, the families suffered another blow. President Maduro ordered the closing of Venezuela’s embassy and consulates in the United States and severed diplomatic ties with the U.S. over the U.S. recognition of Maduro as the country’s leader.
“We are out of options and we are desperate, and we need the help of our leaders,” said Anez.
Citgo failed to return KHOU’s phone calls seeking information about what the company is doing to help.
Rep. Pete Olson's office declined to comment publicly on the situation, citing its sensitive nature.
Texas Senator John Cornyn’s office said, “Sen. Cornyn’s office remains in regular communication with the families of those detained and has held numerous meetings and briefings with the State Department and FBI regarding their detention.”
A spokesperson for Sen. Ted Cruz's office said the senator would continue to work for the safe return of the Citgo employees to the United States.
"The CITGO executives have been detained on baseless charges and subjected to harsh imprisonment for over a year by Maduro's illegitimate regime," the spokesperson said. "Sen. Cruz has been working persistently to secure their release, and it is well past time that happens."
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