The recent high-profile prisoner swap between Venezuela and the United States, involving relatives of President Nicolás Maduro, has raised hopes that the two countries can enjoy better ties, just as Colombia is seeking to work with both to tackle organized crime.
Seven Americans were released in Venezuela in exchange for the freeing of two nephews of Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, the White House announced on October 1.
Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, were arrested in Haiti in 2015 by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The two men, commonly known as the Narcosobrinos (Narco-Nephews), were carrying over 800 kilograms of cocaine, which they were reportedly planning to take to New York City. After being sent to the United States, they were sentenced to 18 years in prison for drug trafficking in 2017.
In exchange, Venezuela released five American executives from Houston-based oil company Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s national oil company, PDVSA.
The five were among six men arrested in 2017 in Caracas. After more than two years in prison, they were put on trial for alleged embezzlement relating to a never-executed proposal to refinance $4 billion in Citgo bonds.
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This prisoner swap involved coveted prisoners on both sides, sending a strong message just as Colombia and Venezuela have restored ties and Maduro’s government has agreed to act as guarantor for Colombia’s peace talks with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN).
While Venezuela continues to be a major cocaine distribution hub for Colombian cocaine, the Narco-Nephews do not seem to have been major players in the drug trade. At the time of their arrest, US officials alleged the pair had ties to the Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles), a term used to describe the shadowy groups inside Venezuela’s military that are involved in a wide range of criminal activities. Their own lawyers and prosecutors both stated the men had been in over their heads.
Their case became more complicated with the murders of two witnesses whose testimony was vital to the nephews' indictment. A DEA informant also stated that Campo Flores had trafficked drugs for over a decade.
Instead, it appears likely the freeing of the two men was a gesture by the US toward Maduro.
In exchange, the US obtained the release of five members of the “Citgo Six,” with the sixth being a Venezuelan citizen. While the United States government denounced their trial as “unjust,” InSight Crime has previously reported on Citgo’s complex track record in Venezuela.
Also included in the deal were two American tourists accused of espionage by Maduro. Nonetheless, at least four other Americans remain imprisoned in Venezuela, including two former soldiers arrested in 2020 for allegedly planning a coup against Maduro.
But it appears Venezuela did not get everything it desired from the swap. According to a US official who spoke to the Associated Press, Maduro had been willing to free all the Americans in exchange for Álex Saab. Arrested in 2021, Saab is being held in the United States on suspicion of helping Maduro embezzle hundreds of millions of dollars.
Freeing Saab was never seriously considered, according to the official.