Jailed Citgo executives in the dark between the turbulence in Venezuela

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HOUSTON (AP) – A weak voice comes through the cracked telephone line. On the other hand, Tomeu Vadell, speaking from a military counterintelligence prison in the capital of Venezuela, asks his daughters in Louisiana whether they have gone to church and says that he plans to spend his Sunday with push-ups to keep his body and mind intact.

The conversation ends abruptly after two minutes, causing Cristina and Veronica Vadell to wonder when they will hear from their father, who, together with five other executives from the Houston-based Citgo, has been imprisoned for 15 months in what their families say. higher costs for corruption

"He always tells us that they can take away his freedom, but never his dignity," said 27-year-old Cristina, who followed in the footsteps of her father and is an oil engineer in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where she is the largest part of her has lived. life.

While the Trump government is making efforts to dismiss Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the fate of the so-called Citgo Six – five of them, like Vadell, hampers American citizens with deep roots in Louisiana and Texas. Ad does that of the American company they worked for, which is an important prize in the power struggle between Maduro and a rival recognized by the US as the rightful leader of Venezuela: Juan Guaido.

Their families complain that the men are being held in inhumane conditions, sharing crowded basement cells that have been built for 22 people with almost four times that number of prisoners. They say that the crowds require people to sleep on the ground sometimes and not have access to fresh air or sunlight for weeks.

Vadell's family says he has lost more than 60 pounds due to malnutrition. In a photo that was snatched from a mobile phone last month and provided to The Associated Press, he looks like a prisoner of war with sunken eyes and cheeks, a green army jumpsuit hanging on his thin frame.

Their case shows no sign of progress. A preliminary hearing has been postponed 12 times for an apparent reason, causing families to ask themselves if their loved ones are being held as pawns in a political negotiation with high stakes. The next hearing is Wednesday.

"The situation, as volatile as it is now, brings more uncertainty," said Cristina Vadell. "We can not predict the future, we do not know what will happen, but I know that my father will stay strong and we will not give up before we have brought him home."

The family saga started in the weekend for Thanksgiving in 2017, when Vadell and the other executives received a phone call from Nelson Martinez, then head of the Citgo parent, the Venezuelan state oil giant PDVSA, with the request that they would travel to Caracas for a charge. minute budget meeting.

The group flew on a corporate jet. They include Vadell, vice president of refining; Gustavo Cardenas, head of strategic shareholder relationships, as well as government and public affairs; Jorge Toledo, vice president of delivery and marketing; Alirio Zambrano, vice president and general manager of the Corpus Christi refinery in Citgo; Jose Luis Zambrano, vice president of shared services; and Jose Angel Pereira, the president of Citgo.

What happened next brought the serene life of the families to a higher level. A group of armed and masked security officers flew into a PDVSA conference room and arrested all six executives. Hours later, Maduro's attorney general on state television appeared with charges for misappropriation as a result of a proposal to refinance approximately $ 4 billion of Citgo bonds by providing a 50% interest in the company as collateral.

"He left on Monday and he would return on Tuesday", said Vennell & # 39; s wife, Dennysse. "He went to a meeting and never came back."

Then Maduro accused them of "treachery," though they were not accused of that crime.

The arrests began with a purging in the oil industry of Venezuela that a few days later Martinez, the PDVSA head and a former oil minister among dozens of others saw imprisoned. Instead of Martinez became Asdrubal Chavez, a cousin of the late president Hugo Chavez and closely ally of Maduro, Citgo president. In December, Martinez died in custody, which further troubled the families of Citgo employees.

Citgo, which controls about 4 percent of US refining capacity, has barely supported prison guards despite a safeguards agreement requiring it to act on behalf of the men, said Citgo's current employee, who, on condition of anonymity, punished for fear to be by the company. In the months that followed Citgo also ended their salary, the employee said.

"The only communication I had with Citgo when this happened was that they called me not to go to the media and that they would go to any house to pick up the company cars," said Maria Elena Cardenas, whose husband was one of the is trapped.

There is now a fight at Citgo headquarters, the employee said, due to US sanctions against PDVSA last month, effectively blocking American companies from buying Venezuelan oil, where payments are being diverted to a blocked account controlled by Guaido, the US and dozens of other countries recognize the interim president of Venezuela. Most employees loyal to Maduro have left, while every reference to PDVSA has been scrubbed from the facilities of the company, along with portraits of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.

Maduro has sworn to protect Citgo against seizure, saying that it is of the Venezuelan people. His Attorney General filed a complaint last week against the new PDVSA and Citgo Boards appointed by Guaido.

The US firmly sticks to all attempts they have made to help the men.

US consular officials have repeatedly been denied access to them in prison because the Vienna Convention does not oblige Venezuela to recognize their dual American nationality. US officials have expressed concern about diplomatic notes and meetings with the Department of Foreign Affairs, said an American official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not competent to discuss the matter.

State Secretary Mike Pompeo, when asked about the case in an interview on February 6 with Fox Business Network, said only that "anywhere an American is wrongly held, in this case by the criminal Maduro, the United States Government. States are incredibly focused on getting their release. "

Some family members wonder whether the US could do more.

Venezuelan human rights groups do not include the men among the nearly 1,000 people who are classified as political prisoners, and the silent approach contrasts sharply with the very public diplomatic blow that secured the release last year of Joshua Holt, a Utah man who was being held for more than two years in a Caracas prison on weapons charges that were also seen as fake. A Venezuelan official who regularly denounced complaints in the US in the Holt case said the Americans were largely silent about Citgo's employees. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

"We are grateful for the people who continue to help us, but we are not convinced that the American government is taking these Americans into account when making policies towards Venezuela," said Veronica Vadell.

For Maria Elena Cardenas the time runs out.

Her 18-year-old son, Sergio, suffers from a rare metabolic disorder that has impeded physical growth. Since his father's arrest, he has been screaming panic attacks and at night. The two recently traveled to Caracas at great risk to Sergio's health for a two-hour visit to the prison to calm the teenager's nerves.

& # 39; He should not be in jail. He should be home with his, his family, "the younger Cardenas said, his voice trembling with emotion. "He is the bravest person I have ever known, he is the greatest father in the world."

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Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman reported this story from Caracas, Venezuela, and AP writer John L. Mone reported in Houston.