MIAMI (AP) — Six American oil executives under house arrest in Venezuela were rounded up by police hours after President Donald Trump met Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's chief opponent at the White House, according to a family member of the men.
Alirio Zambrano said early Friday that the executives of Houston-based Citgo were abruptly taken from their homes last night by the SEBIN intelligence police. Zambrano, the brother of two of the six detained men, said their current whereabouts are unknown.
Zambrano said he was very worried about his brothers and the other detainees.
“We demand to know they are safe but more importantly their freedom!” he said on social media.
The six men were hauled away by masked security agents while at a meeting in Caracas just before Thanksgiving in 2017. They had been lured to Venezuela in order to attend a meeting at the headquarters of Citgo’s parent, state-run oil giant PDVSA.
In December, the men were granted house arrest, leading to speculation they could be released as Maduro sought to mend ties with the Trump administration, which is pushing for his removal.
The men are awaiting trial on corruption charges stemming from a never executed plan to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50% stake in the company as collateral.
Prosecutors accuse the men of maneuvering to benefit from the proposed deal.
But many believe the men, five of whom are naturalized U.S. citizens and the other a legal resident, are being held as political bargaining chips as relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have deteriorated. They cite as evidence of irregularities the decisions by Venezuelan Judge Rosvelin Gil to postpone 15 straight times a preliminary hearing.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in April called for the men’s release after meeting with family members at the White House.
“We are going to stand with you until they are free and until Venezuela is free,” he said at the time.
It's unclear whether opposition leader Juan Guaidó discussed the men during a visit Wednesday with Trump at the White House. A senior U.S. official briefing reporters in advance of the visit didn't mention the detention.