The following excerpts are from an article by JENNIFER HANSLER published by CNN on August 4, 2019.
When Tomeu Vadell, an American oil executive, was summoned to Venezuela for an emergency work meeting the week before Thanksgiving 2017, his wife said she urged him not to go.
"He was really overworked and tired," his wife Dennysse Vadell recalled. "He just said -- this is how good a person he is -- he just said, 'Well, this is the first time I have to make a trip in this new position that I have, I can't just say that I can't go.'"She said neither he nor their family suspected what would happen next.Tomeu Vadell and five other Citgo executives -- Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Alirio Zambrano, Jose Luis Zambrano and Jose Angel Pereira -- were arrested and detained on corruption charges. Citgo is the US subsidiary of the Venezuelan oil and natural gas company PDVSA.
"We had no idea that something like this would happen and I'm still today thinking, how is this possible?" Dennysse Vadell said in an interview with CNN. "It's worse than a nightmare."
That was more than 600 days ago, and the six executives, nicknamed the "Citgo 6," remain in one of Venezuela's most notorious detention facilities. They have yet to stand trial and were only granted a preliminary hearing in June. Following their arrest, embattled President Nicolas Maduro said that they would be tried as "traitors."
"These are people born in Venezuela, they're Venezuelan and they're going to be judged for being corrupt, thieving traitors," Maduro said in a televised address in November 2017. Five of the six men are US citizens; one is a US legal permanent resident.
Efforts by the US government to free the men have been unsuccessful and complicated by the precarious political situation in Venezuela. While the Trump administration has stepped up its public advocacy on the case, the Vadell family said they are concerned that not enough is being done to secure Tomeu Vadell's release -- and they are worried about how much longer he can stand to be imprisoned. "It's worrisome for us because we're not getting any younger," Dennysse Vadell said. "The way they treat them is very bad. It's like the mental torture. It's not good for him."
Tomeu Vadell will turn 60 in mid-August and had some ongoing health problems prior to his detention, the family said. Cristina Vadell, one of his three children, said that her father is "working on making sure he's strong, mind, body and spirit."
"That's like his mantra. And knowing him, he's persevering in a way that I can't even understand or imagine, but the body still has physical limitations," she said in a recent interview with CNN.
He has lost so much weight, the family said, that Dennysse, who has been married to him for more than 30 years did not recognize him on the first of two visits she made to Caracas.
"I went inside this big room where there were about 10, 12 detainees and I went in and was looking around for my husband. I didn't recognize (him), it was until he went, 'Hey Dennysse, I'm here,' when I knew it was him," she recounted.
"I had to swallow hard not to show my shock to my husband because truly it was horrible," Dennyssee Vadell said, noting that he had lost "60 pounds" and that his hair had been shaved. "I felt him when I hugged him and it's heartbreaking."
The General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) -- the agency where the Citgo 6 are being held -- has "been responsible for arbitrary detentions, ill-treatment and torture of political opponents and their relatives," according to a recent United Nations report.
That report found that DGCIM "routinely resorted" to torture practices "including electric shocks, suffocation with plastic bags, waterboarding, beatings, sexual violence, water and food deprivation, stress positions and exposure to extreme temperatures" in order to "extract information and confessions, intimidate, and punish the detainees."
On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the US was designating Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala, the commander of DGCIM, and his immediate family members for his "involvement in gross violations of human rights." They will be ineligible to travel to the United States. The US sanctioned both the agency on July 11 and four DGCIM officials on July 19 for the torture and death of Venezuelan Navy Captain Rafael Acosta Arévalo.
"Our main concern is his health and his safety and it just seems like such a volatile place right now we just don't know what to expect," Cristina Vadell said.