'CITGO 6' found guilty and sentenced to cry in Venezuela

'CITGO 6' found guilty and sentenced to cry in Venezuela

Six US oil executives who traveled to Venezuela in 2017 and were arrested on corruption charges have been found guilty, according to a person familiar with the case.

Hopes of families for a quick release for six American oil executives detained in Venezuela for three years over an alleged corruption scheme have evaporated, with a judge finding them all guilty and quickly sentencing them to prison.

CITGO employees Tomeu Vadell, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Alirio Jose Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano and Jose Angel Pereira were sentenced to between 8 and 13 years, the source said.

According to the source, efforts to release the men will continue.

The guilty verdict, which began in November 2017, put a year-old saga to a halt when the men received a call from the head of the Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA and called them for a last-minute budget meeting in Caracas.

When they arrived, armed and masked security agents arrested them on embezzlement charges stemming from a never-executed proposal to refinance some $4 billion in CITGO bonds by offering a 50% stake in the company as collateral.

CITGO said they are "distressed to read about this outcome" and "hope for a resolution that will lead to their prompt release," in a statement issued to report.

The families of the "CITGO 6" — five of them American citizens and all with deep roots in Texas and Louisiana — say the men are being held in inhumane conditions, sharing overcrowded basement cells in a military counterintelligence prison and are suffering severe weight loss in a country plagued by food shortages.

But the case has largely slipped from view as Venezuela has descended further into turmoil and relations between it and the US have been torn apart by the Trump administration's strong backing for opposition leader Juan Guaidó in his battle to oust Nicolas Maduro.

The men began having weekly trial hearings in August after more than two years of detention.

Gabriela Zambrano Hill, the daughter of Alirio Jose and niece of Jose Luis, called the hearings "farcical" and expressed concern about the men's potential exposure to Covid-19. 

Two of the men -- Cárdenas and Toledo -- were released on house arrest in July after a humanitarian visit to Caracas by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and a team of non-government negotiators.

Carlos Añez, Toledo's stepson, had told news report he hoped that the hearing would reach a "favorable and correct resolution" at its end.

In a statement earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for their "unconditional release" and return to the United States.

"These six Americans and their families have suffered long enough; it is time for Maduro to put politics aside and let these families be reunited," he said.

"No one should doubt the President's commitment to bringing home all US citizens held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas."

"Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams, and I will continue to pursue our mission to secure the release of the CITGO-6, and we will do our utmost to achieve that goal," Pompeo said.

This story has been updated with additional information Thursday.

“I believe it’s more important that the light of hope illuminates us,” Vadell wrote. “May the light of hope put an end to the sadness of my family.”

The five other men did not respond to invitations AP made through their lawyers to comment.

Vadell’s daughter, Cristina Vadell, said in a phone interview from Lake Charles, Louisiana, that her father isn’t the kind of person who seeks attention. Rather, he prefers to focus on work and his family.

During his 35-year career with PDVSA and Citgo, Waddell began running a refinery in Lake Charles and then became vice president of refining. He said that the letter attempts to highlight this aspect of his life.

“I think he was willing to take some risks and open some hearts to allow him to come home,” she said. “I think he’s still wondering ‘What happened?’ He went to a work meeting and never came home.”