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Biden admin fails to negotiate release of 3 US vets, 5 other Americans held by Venezuela

A Venezuelan flag is seen during a demonstration to the streets of Caracas, Venezuela on November 30, 2017. (Roman Camacho/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/TNS)
July 01, 2022

A U.S. delegation led by President Joe Biden’s chief international hostage negotiator failed to win the release of any of the at least eight U.S. citizens being held by the Venezuelan government, including U.S. Marine veteran Matthew Heath and two U.S. Army Special Forces veterans

Reuters reported Thursday that Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens and U.S. Ambassador for the Venezuela Affairs Unit Jimmy Story met with Venezuelan officials this week to discuss the release of Americans held in Venezuelan captivity. The visit did not lead to the release of any of the Americans.

The eight Americans being detained in Venezuela include five oil industry executives named Tomeu Vadell, Jorge Toledo, Alirio Jose Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano and Jose Angel Pereira. The five oil industry executives, along with another U.S. executive who was previously released from Venezuela, have been dubbed the “Citgo Six.” The other three Americans include U.S. Special Forces veterans Luke Denman and Airan Berry and Marine veteran Matthew Heath.

Denman and Berry were arrested by Venezuelan authorities in May of 2020 in connection with Operation Gideon, a plot by Venezuelan dissidents and a U.S. private security firm called Silvercorp, USA, to remove Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro from power.

Last year, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he believes Denman and Berry may have been duped when they were picked up by Venezuelan authorities. Richardson has been trying to win Denman and Berry’s release and noted the two were training Venezuelans in Colombia but likely had no intention of trying to invade Venezuela. Richardson noted the two veterans arrived in Venezuela with their passports, in shorts and sandals, unprepared for any sort of fighting.

“More likely, they thought they were leaving Colombia to go back home. They also believed their contract to train Venezuelans was approved by the U.S. government,” Richardson said.

Heath was arrested in September of 2020 on allegations of plotting to attack oil refineries in Venezuela. Heath was also working for a U.S. private security firm, MVM, Inc., at the time of his arrest. Venezuelan authorities said they found a grenade launcher, plastic explosives, a satellite phone and a bag of U.S. dollars in Heath’s possession at the time of his arrest. The Associated Press reported some of its sources believe the evidence against Heath was planted after his arrest. Heath’s family believes he was simply lost in a misadventure while trying to visit friends by boat on the island of Aruba, which is just 15 miles from Venezuela.

Heath has raised allegations of torture against his Venezuelan captors and even attempted suicide two weeks ago. Heath was hospitalized after he reportedly used a piece of broken porcelain to cut his veins in an apparent suicide attempt.

Carstens and Story were primarily focused on Heath’s case during their visit to Venezuela and a source told Reuters that they were allowed to visit Heath in a Venezuelan military hospital.

While Carstens and Story were unable to free any Americans in this latest visit to Venezuela, they did free two Americans — including the first “Citgo Six” member, Gustavo Cárdenas — in March.