Before the Americans held in Venezuela for years were released Saturday, some of their U.S. relatives had gotten calls that morning from families of other inmates in the Venezuelan military prison — telling them they had heard the American men had been freed.
After almost five years, the families in the U.S. didn't know what to think.
“We had heard rumors before that let us down, so we didn’t really think anything of it,” Carlos Añez said in an interview Monday. His stepfather, Jorge Toledo, was one of five Citgo oil executives released over the weekend after having been held in Venezuela since 2017. Originally there had been six executives imprisoned known as the "Citgo 6," but one was released in March.
But then, around 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Añez got a call from the State Department asking the family to jump on a call in 15 minutes. Once all the families were on the call, Añez said, President Joe Biden announced that all the former prisoners were on a plane on their way back home and would land in San Antonio.
After they got the news they had long hoped for, the families scrambled to get to Kelly Field in San Antonio.
“We met my dad and everybody else at a hangar," said Añez, who lives about three hours from San Antonio. "There were lots of tears at first, and then the atmosphere was just so amazing. Everybody was so happy.”
Toledo and the other Citgo employees who were released — Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio José Zambrano and José Pereira — were arrested just before Thanksgiving in 2017. Citgo, based in Houston, is the U.S. subsidiary of the Venezuelan state-owned oil giant Petróleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA.
The men had been called for a last-minute meeting in Venezuela. Once they were in the conference room at PDVSA headquarters in Caracas, armed, masked security agents arrested them.
On Saturday, aside from his father, “most of them I was meeting for the first time," Añez said of the other recently released prisoners, "and yet I felt like I knew them and they knew me. We’ve had this sort of relationship from far away for five years.”
The families were able to spend about 30 minutes with the men, who were then taken for medical checkups at a hospital, where they remain.
“It was very emotional and something I had dreamed about for years,” said Toledo’s wife, Carmen Molinos, who spoke briefly to NBC News on Monday as she gathered clothes and shoes to take to her husband at the hospital.
How it happened
Añez said guards told his father and the other prisoners Saturday morning to gather their belongings because they were going for an interview. It wasn’t until later that they found out they were being taken to the airport to go home.
His father told Añez they boarded a plane belonging to PDVSA and were flown to St. Vincent and Grenadines. The prisoner exchange took place there, and then they boarded a plane for San Antonio. Once the plane was in the air, Biden announced to the families in the U.S. that their loved ones were returning home.
Alirio Rafael Zambrano, the brother of released prisoners Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio José Zambrano — two brothers share the same first name — said he was visiting his parents in Houston when he got a call from the State Department on Saturday.
One of his brothers later called him from the plane. Zambrano went to the airport with his parents, who are in their 80s, and the wives and children of his brothers met them there.
His brother Alirio met his two grandchildren for the first time when they arrived in San Antonio.
“It was emotional. We embraced,” Zambrano said. “I said hello to all the families and hugged all the other released prisoners.”
Zambrano said someone from the State Department addressed everyone, and then the national anthem was played.
The seven imprisoned Americans were swapped for two nephews of President Nicolás Maduro's wife, who had been jailed in the U.S. for years on narcotics convictions. Franqui Flores and Efrain Campo were arrested in Haiti in 2015 in a Drug Enforcement Administration sting and convicted in New York the next year.
Former Marine Cpl. Matthew Heath was also released. He was arrested in 2020 at a roadblock in Venezuela. Osman Khan of Florida, who was arrested in January, was released, as well.
All the men were deemed wrongfully detained by the State Department.
A source familiar with the discussions between the U.S. and Venezuela said the offer for the prisoner exchange was on the table for a few months. U.S. representatives visited Caracas in June for talks with Venezuelan officials when the Maduro government made the offer.
In an email response to NBC News, a State Department spokesperson who declined to comment on operational details stated that “securing their release and reuniting them with their families has been a top priority for this administration, and we have engaged on the issue of wrongful detainees at every opportunity to release them as soon as possible.”
“The safe return of these seven U.S. nationals was the outcome of tough negotiations,” the spokesperson stated.
The recently released Citgo executives had been jailed in Venezuela on corruption charges stemming from a never executed deal to refinance Citgo’s debt.
At least four other Americans remain in prison in Venezuela. Two Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were arrested in 2020 in connection with a botched raid aimed at ousting Maduro, remain in prison.
The Biden administration has been under pressure to bring Americans held overseas home, particularly since the detention of WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia. She was sentenced to nine years in prison after a Moscow court convicted her on drug charges.