Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for the release of six US oil executives detained in Venezuela as their family members expressed concern for their well-being amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The “CITGO 6” — Tomeu Vadell, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Alirio Jose Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano and Jose Angel Pereira — have been detained in Venezuela without trial since November 2017. On Thursday, the top US diplomat issued a demand for their humanitarian release amid the outbreak of Covid-19 in that country.
“With the Maduro regime now acknowledging that COVID-19 cases are appearing in Venezuela, we are extremely concerned about the risk for the five US citizens and one US resident from Citgo who are currently languishing in the notorious Helicoide prison in Caracas,” Pompeo said in a statement. “These wrongfully detained men all have weakened immune systems due to cumulative health problems and face a grave health risk if they become infected.”
“Seventeen hearings have been cancelled,” he said. “They have already spent more than two years in jail without an ounce of evidence being brought against them; it is time to release them on humanitarian grounds.”
‘We’re terribly afraid of losing one or more of them in there’
For the families of the six, it is a time of heightened anxiety and uncertainty about their loved ones’ health and safety. They have had almost no contact with the men since they were moved from house arrest to prison in early February, just hours after Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido met with US President Donald Trump.
Alirio Rafael Zambrano, the brother of two of the detained men, told CNN that his brothers are “trying to stay healthy of mind, body and spirit.” That is a challenge given the circumstances, particularly amid local news reports of at least four cases of coronavirus in the Helicoide prison. The cases have not been confirmed by the Maduro government and CNN has been unable to independently verify the information. CNN’s requests for comment to the Ministry of Communications in Venezuela and the Venezuelan attorney general have not received an answer yet.
According to some of the family members, it is believed that the six are being held together.
“With as many people in there, if there are cases that are testing positive, a spread would be pretty easy and that’s what we’re all terrified about,” said Carlos Anez, the son of Toledo. “We’re terribly afraid of losing one or more of them in there.”
“There’s not a whole lot of running water in Caracas right now and so that’s affecting them,” Anez told CNN. “They don’t even have water to wash their hands with, so they’re using the bottled water that we take for them to drink to, you know, try to wash your hands and brush their teeth and things like that.”
Anez and Zambrano said the men have requested supplies like Clorox and hand sanitizer, but it’s becoming more difficult to get them to Venezuela.
Veronica Vadell Weggeman, the daugther of Tomeu Vadell, told CNN that “they don’t have a bath, per se.”
“We have someone that brings them portable water that they use with buckets to bathe themselves,” she said. “So that’s extremely concerning to us because, again, hygiene, right? And with this pandemic it’s like, how can they, you know, survive in there?”
Some of the men, like Vadell, have serious medical conditions. His family tells CNN he is in his 60s, has cardiovascular issues and is at risk for reactivated tuberculosis.
Zambrano noted that “when you don’t see sunlight and you’re kept in a place for so many days and weeks and months, you know, your immune system suffers.
“So even though they may not have some preexisting condition, like in the case of my brother Jose Luis, you know, being inside a place like that, that really takes a toll on their immune system.”
“We need them home as soon as possible, before this virus has a serious outbreak within the facility and ends up infecting or killing people in there,” Anez said. “We just we want them home as soon as possible.”