The men’s families already feared for their safety.
A pandemic has pushed their worries into overdrive.
The six Citgo executives who have been detained in Venezuela since November 2017 – four of whom have ties to Fort Bend County – are locked in the same cell in a Caracas prison called El Helicoide, according to one of their relatives in the area. The men are all at least 55 years old and have no access to healthcare or running water, which puts them at risk for contracting COVID-19 and developing serious complications from the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus.
Some of the detained men, including Sugar Land resident Jorge Toledo, also have underlying health conditions. His stepson, Richmond resident Carlos Anez, said Toledo has been battling bronchitis.
“I feel like the regime (of Nicolas Maduro) is gambling with American lives at this point,” Anez said. “I’m worried that instead of them being let out, that one or more of them could potentially die in there while this pandemic is going on.”
The other detained men, known as the Citgo 6, are Gustavo Cardenas, Jose Pereira, Tomeu Vadell and brothers Alirio and Jose Luis Zambrano. Five are dual citizens, with Cardenas, Pereira and Jose Luis Zambrano having homes in Katy.
Their relatives say they were called to Venezuela for an impromptu meeting before Thanksgiving 2017 and then arrested by the regime of Maduro. Houston-based Citgo is a subsidiary of Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), a state-run oil and gas company. Relatives of the men say they were accused of trying to make decisions that would financially inhibit Citgo’s parent company and by extension the Venezuelan government.
Anez said the men have yet to stand trial, and he considers the corruption charges bogus. Anez said he was told March 20 by the U.S. Department of State that Maduro will only release the men if U.S. sanctions against Venezuela are lifted.
“That to me means that they’re hostages,” Anez said. “They’re being held for a very particular reason and Venezuela wants something in exchange.”
Tensions between Maduro and the U.S. government escalated Thursday when, according to the Associated Press, the U.S. filed drug trafficking charges against Maduro and 14 other Venezuelan officials and placed a $15 million bounty on the socialist leader. Maduro responded by calling U.S. President Donald Trump a “racist cowboy,” according to the AP.
When asked if they were worried about Maduro retaliating against the U.S. by harming the Citgo 6, Anez and Gabriela Zambrano Hill — the daughter of Alirio and niece of Jose Luis — said the men have been in danger as it is. Hill said she hopes concerns about COVID-19 prompt the men’s release on humanitarian grounds.
About 100 COVID-19 cases have been reported in Venezuela, including four in El Helicoide, according to a Thursday report by Time Magazine.
“This has always been a delicate and evolving situation, and is even more so now in light of COVID-19,” U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, who represents some of the men, said in a Friday statement provided to The Star. “At times, it seems for every two steps forward we take toward their release, we then take one step back. This is extremely frustrating, especially to the families. I will continue to do all I can to ensure their safe return.”
Two of the men’s wives said in October that Citgo stopped paying their husband’s salaries a few months after they were jailed but continued to provide insurance benefits. The wives also said at the time that Citgo started assisting with legal expenses in the spring of 2019.
“Citgo continues to support the U.S. Government’s efforts to secure the release of our colleagues, who have now been detained for more than two years without trial and who face grave risks to their health due to the global pandemic,” the company said in a statement released by a spokesperson. “Citgo believes that the detention of these men violates their fundamental human rights, including the right to due process under law. We pray for their safety, and for their families as they contend with all of the challenges presented by this lengthy separation from their loved ones.”
Relatives of the Citgo 6 were encouraged in December, when the men were granted house arrest after more than two years in jail. But they were scooped up and returned to prison Feb. 5 – the same day Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido was in Washington D.C. as a guest of Trump, who recognizes Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
After that point, Anez said more than a month passed before any of the Citgo 6 relatives heard from the men, who have not been allowed visitors. They have been permitted to make brief phone calls to their families during the last week.
The families arrange to have food, water, medicine and clothing delivered to the men, according to Anez and Hill, who said that is becoming increasingly difficult amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and an oil price war that has led to a gasoline shortage in Venezuela. Anez said the South American country also has implemented many of the same social distancing guidelines as the U.S., so many stores that sell necessary supplies are closed.
Anez and Hill also said their fathers and the other men have been using bleach to sanitize their prison cell, which keeps it clean but irritates their skin and lungs.
“That’s better than getting sick with the virus at this point,” Anez said.
While being imprisoned in El Helicoide puts the men at a higher risk of infection, Hill said she is glad the Citgo 6 are separated from other inmates. And as COVID-19 continues to take a toll on the world, including in Venezuela, she hopes the Maduro regime will be compelled to release them.
In that sense, the pandemic could potentially help her family’s plight. Hill’s father has yet to meet his 6-month-old granddaughter, Iris, who was baptized the day after he was abruptly removed from house arrest.
“I just want my dad home,” Hill said. “Maybe this is what needs to happen so we’ll finally get the chance to get these men home where they belong.”