Citgo 6: How the US government brought seven Americans home



CNN

On October 1, five of the so-called Citgo 6 were awakened early in the morning in their Venezuelan prison by a guard who told them to “get dressed.”

The men donned their yellow prison suits – “We called it our ‘Minion’ suit,” Jose Pereira said – before being ordered by the warden to change into civilian clothes.

We said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘Okay, because you’re going home,'” Pereira told CNN.

The day would mark the end of a “nightmare” that began nearly five years ago, when six oil executives were lured to Venezuela for what they were told would be a business meeting. before Thanksgiving 2017.

In addition to securing the release of Pereira, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano and Jose Luis Zambrano, the Biden administration would return two other Americans who were wrongfully detained by the US State Department – Matthew Heath and Osman Khan. – as part of the prison reform and regime of embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro.

Almost five years to the day that the “Citgo 6’s” tragedy began, CNN has learned new details about the extensive effort to free the seven Americans and the day they were released,​​​​ as well as requests from a single-person household. at least four US citizens were left.

The October prisoner exchange came after months of negotiations between the US government, led by the President’s Special Representative for Foreign Affairs Roger Carstens, and the Maduro regime, with which the US has no official ties. too.

Carstens had brought home two Americans – the sixth member of the “Citgo 6,” Gustavo Cárdenas, as well as dual Cuban-US citizen Jorge Alberto Fernandez – in March, but another trip in June ended without release of prisoner.

At the end of September, about a week before the exchange, “we realized we might have an opportunity,” Carstens said in an exclusive interview with CNN.

US President Joe Biden had signed the commutation of the sentences of Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas, alleged narco children, who were convicted in a US federal court in 2016 and sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2017 for conspiracy. bringing cocaine into the US.

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With that key element needed for a prisoner exchange, the two sides “showed what we thought would be good,” Carstens said.

“Thursday night, late at night, around midnight, we sealed what would end up being the final deal,” Carstens said.

The US has prisoner recovery plans around the world, and Friday saw Carstens’ team quietly implement the plan in Venezuela. On Friday night, Carstens flew from Washington, DC, to meet with the US government planes, and on Saturday morning, he made a trip to complete the exchange of prisoners, with Campo Flores and Flores de Freitas , two Venezuelans. “narco-nephews,” respectively.

Meanwhile, that Saturday morning, when we returned to Venezuela, “Citgo 6,” they doubted whether they were really going home.

“I was arrested three times at home in five years and I wanted to make sure that the description of home” was my description, “because my home is in the United States, in Houston,” Toledo told CNN.

The men were assured of their release, and were made to fill out paperwork, handcuffed and put in an armored car to the airport. It was there that they saw, for the first time, two other prisoners, Heath and Khan. The seven were loaded onto a small plane, Toledo recalled, and in addition to those bonds, their legs were bound.

Toledo said: “They also wanted to cover our heads, but after “pushing everyone too far back,” their heads remained uncovered.

After a short flight, the plane landed on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Toledo and Pereira told CNN.

Jose Pereira stands in front of his portrait on the wall in Washington, DC, on November 17, 2022.

On Carstens’ plane, one of the two planes that had been sent on the mission, the team was finalizing the final details, such as the exchange process, as is the case with all transition situations. of prisoners, according to emergency plans – although Carstens said. CNN that he was counting on his Venezuelan mediator to get the deal done.

A few minutes after the Venezuelan plane with the prisoners landed – also one of two planes – the first US government plane with Carstens and two children on board it fell.

Carstens recalled: “We made a plan and after that it was just going over the plan in my head, trying to think if I’d missed anything, and then all of a sudden we went down.

“I went out, met my attorney in the middle,” Carstens said. The American ambassador brought his Venezuelan counterpart on board to inspect Campo Flores and Flores de Freitas before being brought to a plane parked at the end of the runway, with seven Americans on board, to conduct a head count. .

“I jumped out of the plane, and everyone was crying and cheering, and everyone was so happy,” Carstens recalls. “I think I said something like, ‘Hello, guys, the President of the United States and Secretary Blinken sent me to bring you home. We take you back.

A group of seven Americans are pictured with their families and officials as they return to the United States after being detained in Venezuela.

Shortly after the number of fighters was counted, the Venezuelans boarded their plane, and seven Americans boarded theirs.

It was like in any movie where you know there’s a prisoner exchange going on. I saw two people going to the jet plane with Venezuelan identification and we jumped into the US plane,” Toledo said. “I didn’t know if I was living real life or if I was part of a Netflix movie.”

“Every time someone passed by, we would give them a big hug, a big kiss,” said Carstens.

A second US plane, which had more medical supplies on board, landed 45 minutes later after being delayed by the storm, giving US officials time to notify the hostages released on what to expect in the coming hours, days and weeks. representative told CNN.

“Right before the planes took off, we got word that the President had called the families,” Carstens said.

Once on the air, State Department officials lent their phones to the men so they could call their families, whom Biden had notified of their release.

“In the beginning it was very difficult to talk to my wife because she was crying. He couldn’t say a word,” Toledo said.

When they arrived in Texas, many of their family members were there waiting.

The meeting was a “magical moment,” Pereira and Toledo told CNN.

While in Texas, the men entered a Department of Defense program known as PISA (Post Isolation Support Activities) aimed at rehabilitating them.

Not surprisingly, after nearly five years away from home, this transition has been a challenge. In addition to the physical, mental and financial hardships of their captivity, they have been through a lot of family time.

Jorge Toledo and his dog after returning to the United States.

“I actually met for the first time, almost for the first time, my two grandchildren,” Toledo told CNN. He is a former marathon runner and is trying to get back into shape for the Houston half marathon in January.

Pereira said she’s “scared to drive” because she’s been away from the wheel for so long, but she’s looking forward to making Thanksgiving — which once marked a painful phase of their lockdown — a fun event again.

“This is something I would not want to happen, even to my worst enemy. Because it is very difficult to return to a world that has completely changed,” said Pereira. This has been like a bomb in my life.

For at least four Americans, however, the nightmare continues. Luke Denman, Airan Berry, Jerrel Kenemore, and Eyvin Hernandez are all incarcerated in Venezuela; Hernandez and Kenemore were recently identified as wrongfully detained by the US State Department.

Carstens, the special envoy, told CNN that the US has “an ongoing dialogue with the other side.”

He said: “So even though we still have work to do, I remain hopeful.”

Family and friends of Hernandez, who has been incarcerated since late March, want to see him released soon. They gathered last week in Washington, DC, to meet with administration and congressional officials, the families of some of the wrongful prisoners – as well as Pereira and his wife – and to ask for help.

Eyvin Hernandez, who has been imprisoned in Venezuela since late March, is seen in this undated photo.

“He doesn’t deserve to be there. We need to bring him home,” his father, Pedro Martinez, told CNN in tears, adding that his son sounded “very weak” in a recent call.

The family shared with the White House a plea from Hernandez himself to Biden, which was recorded privately and sent to his brother in August.

“I have dedicated myself to public service for more than 15 years. I have dedicated myself to helping the poor and working people on the basis that regardless of the mistakes a person makes, they should always be treated with justice, humanity, dignity and respect ,” said Hernandez, a Los Angeles County Public employee. Office of the Protector. Also, no one should be abandoned in their time of greatest need or greatest danger.

“However, I don’t feel like my government feels the same way about me,” Hernandez said.

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