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The 'Citgo 6': family members of U.S. fuel company executives held in Venezuela seek answers

After reports of violence in a military counterintelligence detention center in Caracas, relatives say they have not heard news of their loved ones for more than two weeks.
13 Jul 2019 – 04:54 PM EDT

In photos: the 'Citgo 6'

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The U.S. families of six jailed oil company executives held in Venezuela are demanding to know what has become of their relatives after weekly visits buy their lawyers communications were cut two weeks ago.

It’s been more than 18 months since the six men boarded a corporate private jet in Houston for an emergency budget meeting in Venezuela. The government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro arrested the men, all veteran employees of Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company PdVSA, on what their families say are trumped-up corruption charges.

The 'CITGO 6', as they have become known - Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Pereira, and brothers Jose Luis and Alirio Jose Zambrano - are being held in the basement of Venezuela’s notorious military counterintelligence headquarters (DGCIM) in Caracas.

Until this week, their families got regular word from a lawyer allowed to make weekly visits. But that ceased after reports of a protest by detainees inside the DGCIM that led to a crack down by authorities.

“We are more worried than ever,” said Alirio Rafael Zambrano, 47, the younger brother of Jose Luis and Alirio Jose who are both in their mid-50s “We have no way of knowing what’s happened to them,” Zambrano told Univision. “This is the first time we’ve been unaware of their condition for more than a few days,” Zambrano added.

The men were held for more than a year before their first court hearing in June when the government announced it would proceed with a trial against them for allegedly seeking to swindle the government in a $4 billion debt refinancing.

However, Zambrano says his brothers were not involved in the company’s financial affairs and had been based in the United States for more than 20 years. One brother was a refinery manager in Corpus Cristi, Texas, and the other brother handled human resources and IT. “The charges are really so far-fetched we didn’t take them seriously for a long time,” said Zambrano.

The other four members of the Citgo 6 also held executive level positions. Pereira was president of Citgo, while Vadell was vice president of refining. Cardenas headed strategic shareholder relations as well as government and public affairs while Toledo was vice president of supply and marketing.

The six men are being held in a crowded basement detention facility designed for short-term interrogations, he said. During their first few months conditions were so severe they lacked proper nutrition, suffered drastic weight loss and developed health problems, including high blood pressure and glaucoma. They complain of lack of access to fresh air or sunlight for weeks.

In a photo snapped clandestinely with a cellphone last month and provided to The Associated Press, the men look gaunt, like prisoners of war with sunken eyes and cheeks.

But conditions improved after relatives were able to visit them and they were allowed to arrange for daily food rations. “They were in much better shape physically, though you can imagine their mental conditions is not so great after such a long time,” said Zambrano who is a New Jersey-based oil trader.

No access

U.S. consular officials have been denied access to them in jail because Venezuela does not recognize their dual American nationality.

The State Department said on Friday that it had “received numerous conflicting reports regarding the welfare and whereabouts of the wrongfully detained ‘CITGO 6’ in Venezuela, and we insist that the former Maduro regime provide an immediate update on their condition.”

The Trump administration this week imposed sanctions on the DGCIM following the suspicious death in its custody of a Navy Captain, Rafael Acosta. Announcing the sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the U.S. government was “committed to ending the former Maduro regime’s inhumane treatment of political opponents, innocent civilians, and members of the military in an effort to suppress dissent.”

A few days before his death, Acosta was seen publicly in court showing signs of physical abuse, hunched over in a wheelchair and unable to speak.

On July 5, 2019, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report that detailed methods used by the DGCIM to extract information and confessions, intimidate, and punish detainees. Earlier reports by the Organization of American States and Human Rights Watch, among other organizations, have also detailed the DGCIM’s brutality and use of torture.

Zambrano suspects the Citgo 6 are being used by the Maduro government as scapegoats for massive government corruption within PDVSA. As a result of the political and financial crisis the government has mortgaged Citgo’s assets to borrow money, including using it as collateral on a $1.5 billion loan with Russian oil firm Rosneft.

The political situation has only gotten worse in recent months after fraudulent elections led the U.S. and dozens of other western democracies to declare the Maduro regime illegitimate in January. The Trump administration is now pushing to unseat Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, including sanctions against the state-run oil giant PDVSA that effectively block American companies from buying Venezuelan oil.

That leaves Houston-based Citgo’s future is up in the air. As a large refiner, shipper and retailer of Venezuelan gasoline and other petrochemicals, it supplies thousands of branded gas stations across the United States. It cut ties with PDVSA in February to meet U.S. sanctions and many of its expatriate Venezuelan employees have returned to Venezuela.

The families of the Citgo 6 are upset with the company over the way it has handled the case, saying it has not done enough to stand up for its own employees.

Citgo issued a statement this week saying it was “deeply concerned about our former executives who are detained in Venezuela.” It added: “We pray for their safety and for their families who desperately wish to hear from their loved ones.”