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Families fight for release of Citgo 6

HOUSTONEditor's Note: The day after this story was published, officials with Citgo released a statement to KPRC. It reads, "Like those gathering in Houston on Sunday, we pray for the safety of our employees, and for their families. As a company, CITGO believes all human rights must be respected. We have met with and continue to provide support to each of the families of those who are detained by Maduro's regime,  including legal expenses, health care coverage and other benefits. CITGO also continues to support the U.S. Government's efforts to secure their release."

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Just before Thanksgiving 2017, six former Citgo executives were summoned to a last-minute meeting in Venezuela.

All six were arrested and remain jailed despite the U.S. government's demands for their release. Initially, family members of the men worked quietly behind the scenes to secure their loved one's releases. Earlier this year, the families decided to break their silence.

"This is all I do, I work to support my family and I work on this at night," said Alexandra Forseth.

For nearly two years Forseth has focused on a single goal, the release of her father, Alirio Zambrano, and his five colleagues — Gustavo Cardenas, Jose Pereira, Jorge Toledo and Jose Luis Zambrano.

"They could die in there, no doubt," Forseth said.

In November 2017, Zambrano, then manager of Citgo's Corpus Christi refinery, and the five other executives were called to a mysterious meeting in Venezuela. Citgo is owned by Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA. At the end of that meeting, Zambrano and his colleagues were arrested. 

"Does anyone else in Citgo know why this meeting was called?" asked Channel 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

"I mean if they know, it's not been communicated to us," said Forseth. "The person that asked them to the meeting was the President of PDVSA, whose actually deceased now."

Forseth said the former president of PDVSA was also arrested and died in police custody.

Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro twice went on TV to claim the men did everything from embezzlement, to refinancing Citgo's debt in a way unfavorable to Venezuela, to being spies. Forseth said the Venezuelan government's accusations keep shifting and no trial date has been set.

"Still to this day we have no idea why they're in there and the Maduro regime has not provided any proof of wrong-doing," said Forseth. "He doesn't deserve it, he's completely innocent and the US government, thank God, recognizes that."

The family has received support from Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

"Sen. Cruz has said Maduro needs to release the CITGO executives, and the new Venezuelan government should work with the United States to secure their safe return. He will continue to support using every diplomatic and economic lever we have to bring them home safely," a Cruz spokesman wrote in an email to KPRC.

"Every day that passes for these families without their loved ones is excruciating. The six men have been held in deteriorating conditions, made worse by the fact the Venezuelan government has denied them a trial and contact with the U.S. State Department. We are gravely concerned for their health and safety as they continue to be used as political pawns by an illegitimate government. We call for their immediate release and safe return to their families in Texas and Louisiana. Until then, we will continue to work with the Administration to ensure these aggressive actions by the Maduro regime are met with the appropriate action," Senator Cornyn's office wrote.

The US Department of State also issued a statement in July reading, "The United States demands that the former Maduro regime release the wrongfully detained "CITGO 6" in Venezuela. These men are suffering serious health conditions and must be released immediately."

Part of the problem with securing the men's release is the US government does not recognize Maduro as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Maduro continues to fend off attacks from political rival Juan Guaidó to maintain control of the country. 

"The fact that the United States doesn't recognize the Maduro government as an official power in Venezuela, just really makes this situation beyond unique," said Forseth.

Forseth said the men are being kept in the basement of Venezuela's counter-intelligence compound. Forseth said the families are having to pay for the men's basic necessities.

"All the basic materials, like a mattress, these special sweat pants, you name it, they don't provide any of that," said Forseth. "We buy their food every day and have it delivered, we've had to hire someone to do that now."

"So essentially the family is having to pay for dad's incarceration?" asked Arnold.

"Oh, absolutely," said Forseth. "We have pretty much exhausted our savings, like trying to maintain everything for them down there."

"Do you believe your father is alive because you are paying?" asked Arnold.

"I believe my father is alive because of the grace of God," said Forseth.

Forseth said contact with her father has been intermittent. Even hand written letters by her father have to be photographed and sent to Forseth because she said her father is not allowed to send mail. 

It is in these writings Forseth finds strength, specifically in the form of her father's favorite doodle; a smiley face. 

That smiley face is now a symbol of the Citgo 6 coalition. Forseth created the coalition to keep the public aware and to keep pressure on our government. More information on the Citgo 6 coalition can be found here.

"When I see this smiley face, I can do it, like I can wake up every day and do this every day and bring him home," said Forseth. 

Still, Forseth said the time apart has been devastating to her sisters and mother.

"My baby-sister had to go her last two years of high school without dad. She graduated, Dad's not here, my sister just had a baby, dad's not here," said Forseth. "My mom and dad have been married for over 30 years and she's having to rebuild her life completely without him, and it's been a living hell, it's been horrible."

The families of these men are organizing a march this Sunday in Houston's Candlelight Park from 9 am to noon. For more information on the march, click here.