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story.lead_photo.caption A police officer in La Parada, Colombia, patrols Tuesday near a bridge that connects Colombia and Venezuela.

HOUSTON -- Six executives from the Houston-based Citgo oil company, five of them Americans, have spent 15 months jailed in Venezuela on what their families say are trumped-up corruption charges.

As President Donald Trump's administration plunges headlong into an effort to unseat Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the fate of the six lies in the balance. As does that of the U.S. company they worked for, which is a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-run oil giant PDVSA -- a major prize in the power struggle between Maduro and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.

The men's case shows no sign of advancing. A preliminary hearing has been postponed 12 times for little apparent reason. The next hearing date is today.

The jailed men's saga began the weekend before Thanksgiving in 2017, when the executives got a call from Nelson Martinez, then head of PDVSA, asking that they travel to Caracas for a last-minute budget meeting.

The executives flew out on a corporate jet. They are Tomeu Vadell, vice president of refining; Gustavo Cardenas, head of strategic shareholder relations as well as government and public affairs; Jorge Toledo, vice president of supply and marketing; Alirio Zambrano, vice president and general manager of Citgo's Corpus Christi refinery; Jose Luis Zambrano, vice president of shared services; and Jose Angel Pereira, the president of Citgo.

When they arrived for the meeting, armed and masked security agents rushed into a PDVSA conference room and arrested all six executives. Hours later, Maduro's attorney general appeared on state TV announcing charges of embezzlement stemming from a proposal to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering up a 50 percent stake in the company as collateral.

Then Maduro accused them of "treason," though they have not been charged with that crime.

The arrests kicked off a purge inside Venezuela's oil industry that a few days later saw Martinez, the PDVSA head, and a former oil minister among dozens others jailed. In Martinez's place, Asdrubal Chavez, a cousin of the late President Hugo Chavez and close ally of Maduro, was named Citgo president. In December, Martinez died in state custody, further alarming the families of the Citgo employees.

Citgo, which controls about 4 percent of the U.S.' refining capacity, has provided almost no support to the jailed executives despite an indemnity agreement that obligates it to act on the men's behalf, according to a current Citgo employee speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of being punished by the company. In the ensuing months, Citgo also terminated their pay, the employee said.

A battle is now raging at Citgo headquarters, the employee said, as a result of U.S. sanctions on PDVSA last month that effectively block American companies from buying Venezuelan oil, diverting any payments into an escrow account controlled by Guaido, who the U.S. and dozens of other countries recognize as Venezuela's interim president. Most of the employees loyal to Maduro have left, while any reference to PDVSA has been scrubbed from the company's facilities, along with portraits of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.

Maduro has vowed to defend Citgo from seizure, saying it belongs to the Venezuelan people. His attorney general last week filed criminal charges against the new PDVSA and Citgo boards appointed by Guaido.

The U.S. is keeping a tight lid on whatever efforts it has undertaken to help the men.

American consular officials have been repeatedly denied access to them in jail because the Vienna Convention doesn't obligate Venezuela to recognize their dual American citizenship. U.S. officials have raised concerns in diplomatic notes and meetings with the Foreign Ministry, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the case.

Separately, a Venezuelan official said Tuesday that the country is banning sea trips to and from three Dutch Caribbean islands -- a region that has been linked to efforts to undermine Maduro by sending emergency aid to the South American nation.

The indefinite shutdown of the "maritime border" applies to commercial and fishing boats between Venezuela and the islands of Curacao, Aruba and Bonaire, said Falcon state Civil Protection Director Gregorio Jose Montano.

It comes as Guaido has been rallying international support for his challenge to Maduro. Guaido has called for international emergency aid for Venezuela, including from Curacao, about 40 miles from Venezuela.

Maduro vows to block the aid, saying it's part of a U.S.-led coup. Dutch officials have said they're opening Curacao as a hub for emergency shipments.

Information for this article was contributed by staff members of The Associated Press.

A Section on 02/20/2019

Print Headline: Citgo execs in limbo in Venezuela

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