Seven Americans detained in Venezuela have been released, the White House announced Saturday.
“Today, after years of being wrongfully detained in Venezuela, we are bringing home Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano, Jose Pereira, Matthew Heath and Osman Khan,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
Five of the individuals released were oil executives who were part of the “Citgo 6” group that was jailed in 2017 after being arrested on corruption charges when they were called to the country for a meeting. Earlier this year, Venezuela released the sixth oil executive, Gustavo Cardenas.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday the release came after “extraordinary efforts and perseverance across the State Department and wider U.S. government for many months.”
Senior administration officials said the Americans were released in exchange for two Venezuelans with ties to President Nicolas Maduro’s wife.
Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas — sometimes referred to as the “narco nephews” due to their relationship with Maduro’s wife — were arrested nearly seven years ago after unsuccessfully attempting to smuggle cocaine into the United States. They had been sentenced to 18 years in prison, until Biden granted them clemency in the exchange.
Officials declined to provide specifics on the negotiations when asked if Biden spoke with Maduro directly to secure the swap, calling the choice to release the two Venezuelans a “painful one.”
Biden spoke with the Americans’ families to share the good news of their release, officials said.
When it came to the swap, officials said two planes carrying the individuals landed in an undisclosed country between the U.S. and Venezuela, and after visually verifying the correct individuals were the ground, they were swapped, and sent home on their respective country’s plane.
All seven Americans are in “stable health,” according to the administration, and have been offered a “range of support options, including medical care.”
Biden expressed his gratitude for the “hard work of dedicated public servants across the U.S. Government who made this possible, and who continue to deliver on my Administration’s unflinching commitment to keep faith with Americans held hostage and wrongfully detained all around the world.”
Amid the good news, Biden also noted there are still many families who have family members detained overseas, recommitting his administration to bring them home.
The Biden administration has been under pressure for months to bring home WNBA star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, both of whom are being detained in Russia. Griner was arrested in February on drug charges and sentences to nine years in prison. Whelan has been detained in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family says were trumped up.
“Today, we celebrate that seven families will be whole once more. To all the families who are still suffering and separated from their loved ones who are wrongfully detained — know that we remain dedicated to securing their release,” Biden said.
A report released this week by the Foley Foundation, whose namesake James Foley was a freelance journalist executed by ISIS in 2014, found more foreign governments — including Venezuela and Russia — are wrongfully detaining Americans and that those cases are taking longer to resolve.
“Nearly half of the U.S. nationals still held hostage have been held for more than five years. While the number of U.S. nationals taken hostage has decreased over the past 11 years, many cases are not being resolved,” the report said, also noting that the number of U.S. nationals who continue to be wrongfully held by foreign governments has increased by 580% over the last decade.
ABC News’ Shannon Crawford contributed to this report.
Source: ABC News