CARACAS, Venezuela – A Venezuelan judge on Thursday found six U.S. oil leaders guilty of widespread corruption and immediately sentenced them to prison.
The so-called Citgo 6 – employees of the Citgo refinery in Houston, which is owned by the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA – was lured to a business meeting in Venezuela three years ago and arrested.
The men – Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Jose Zambrano and Jose Angel Pereira – are both serving more than eight years in prison. Five Venezuelan-Americans with roots in Texas and Louisiana and one are permanent residents of the United States, according to media reports.
Corruption has been a chronic and well-known problem at PDVSA for years and has helped reduce its operations and profits. By arresting the six people, the government of President Nicolás Maduro has cleansed Venezuela’s once-thriving oil industry, built on the world’s largest crude reserves. He later arrested the head of the PDVSA, a former oil minister and dozens more.
Prior to the verdict, one leader, Mr. Vadell, who had been in prison in Venezuela for three years, said in a letter to the Associated Press that he only hoped for a fair trial to clarify his name and leave his family home in the United States. Mr. Vadell’s lawyer maintained that he was innocent of the charges.
Mr. Vadell, 61, said it was particularly painful to be separated at Thanksgiving from his wife, three adult children, and the grandson of a newborn he had never held.
“Before experiencing this tragedy, these holidays were very special periods for our family,” he wrote, saying he embraced the traditional American holiday after working at the Venezuelan-owned Citgo in 1999 from Caracas to La Lake Charles. . “Now they cause me a lot of sadness,” he said.
It was the first time Mr. Vadell or any Citgo 6 had spoken publicly since his arrest.
Mr. Vadell and five other Citgo executives were summoned to the headquarters of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA, the parent company of Houston-based Citgo, as they were told that a budget meeting was held on November 21, 2017. A corporate plane transported them to Caracas and told them they would be home on Thanksgiving.
Instead, a cadre of military intelligence officers crowded the courtroom and took them to jail. Their lawsuit began four months ago and there were closing arguments on Thursday.
Mr. Vadell was held in a dreaded Caracas prison called El Helicoide.
Despite his circumstances, he said, he offered hope for a better future.
“At the trial, the truth proved undeniable,” he said in a four-page, handwritten letter. – It proves I’m innocent.