The United States freed a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in exchange for the release of 10 Americans imprisoned in the South American country and the extradition of a fugitive defense contractor known as "Fat Leonard" who is at the center of a massive Pentagon bribery scandal, the Biden administration announced Wednesday.
The deal represents the U.S. government’s boldest bid to improve relations with the major oil-producing nation and extract concessions from the self-proclaimed socialist leader. The largest release of American prisoners in Venezuela’s history comes weeks after the Biden administration agreed to suspend some sanctions, following a commitment by Maduro and an opposition faction to work toward free and fair conditions for the 2024 presidential election.
The release of Alex Saab, a Maduro associate who was arrested on a U.S. warrant for money laundering in 2020 and long was regarded as a criminal trophy by Washington, is a significant concession to the Venezuelan leader. U.S. officials said the decision to grant him clemency was difficult but essential in order to bring home jailed Americans, a core administrative objective that in recent years has resulted in the release of criminals who once once been seen as untradeable.
The deal also guarantees the release of 10 Americans who had been held in Venezuela, including six who have been designated by the U.S. government as wrongfully detained.
"These individuals have lost far too much precious time with their loved ones, and their families have suffered every day in their absence. I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more," President Joe Biden said in a statement.
One of those prisoners is Eyvin Hernandez, a Los Angeles County public defender who had been imprisoned in Venezuela since March 2022. Hernandez was on vacation in Colombia when he joined a friend on a trip to the Colombian-Venezuelan border to resolve a passport issue involving the friend's stay in Venezuela.
At the border, Hernandez and his friend were intercepted by what has been described in various reports as either a paramilitary group, a gang or official Venezuelan forces. Hernandez and his friend were eventually turned over to Venezuelan security forces and jailed in a maximum security prison in Caracas.
Hernandez was accused of criminal association and conspiracy, which are punishable by up to 16 years in jail in Venezuela.
Among the Americans behind bars in Venezuela are two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were involved in an attempt to oust Maduro in 2019. Also detained are Jerrel Kenemore and Joseph Cristella, who were accused of entering Venezuela illegally from Colombia. More recently, Venezuela arrested Savoi Wright, a 38-year-old California businessman.
In exchange for the release of Americans, the United States agreed to release Alex Saab, a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Saab had been awaiting trial on money laundering charges.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (2nd-L) speaks next to Colombian businessman Alex Saab (R) upon his arrival at the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas on December 20, 2023. (Photo by Federico Parra / AFP) (Photo by FEDERICO PARRA/AFP via G
Venezuela’s government described Saab as "a victim" of "illegal detention" and characterized his release as a "symbol of victory" achieved through the country’s "peaceful diplomacy." The government, in a statement, urged the U.S. to remove all sanctions against Venezuela.
The agreement also will result in the extradition of Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian owner of a ship-servicing company in Southeast Asia who is the central character in one of the largest bribery scandals in Pentagon history.
The 6-foot-3 Francis, who at one time weighed 350 pounds and was nicknamed "Fat Leonard," was arrested in a San Diego hotel nearly a decade ago as part of a federal sting operation. Investigators say he and his company, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, bilked the Navy out of more than $35 million by buying off dozens of top-ranking Navy officers with booze, sex, lavish parties and other gifts.
The case, which delved into salacious details about service members cheating on their wives and seeking out prostitutes, was an embarrassment to the Pentagon.
Three weeks before he faced sentencing in September 2022, Francis made an escape as stunning and brazen as the case itself as he snipped off his ankle monitor and disappeared. He was arrested by Venezuelan police attempting to board a flight at an airport outside Caracas, and has been in custody since.
The exchange would also be seen as a major U.S. concession to Maduro, likely angering hard-liners in the Venezuelan opposition who have criticized the White House for standing by as the leader of the OPEC nation has repeatedly outmaneuvered Washington after the Trump administration’s campaign to topple him failed.
In October, the White House eased sanctions on Venezuela’s oil, gas and mining industries but threatened to reimpose the restrictions if Maduro, by Nov. 30, did not live up to his promise to pave the way for free and fair elections next year. He is seeking in 2024 to add six years to his decade-long, crisis-ridden presidency. That deadline has passed and so far Maduro has failed to reverse a ban blocking his chief opponent, María Corina Machado, from running for office.
Biden told reporters earlier in the day that, so far, Maduro appeared to be "keeping his comment on a free election."
But days after Maduro’s negotiators and the U.S.-backed opposition agreed to work on electoral conditions, the country’s high court, stacked with Maduro loyalists, suspended the opposition’s entire primary election process. The attorney general opened criminal investigations against some of the organizers. Maduro, National Assembly leader Jorge Rodriguez and other allies insisted the balloting was fraudulent and challenged the participation of more than 2.4 million voters.
The U.S. sanctions remain eased as part of the deal announced Wednesday. It also requires Maduro’s government to release 21 Venezuelans, including Roberto Abdul, who co-founded a pro democracy group with Machado more than two decades ago, and dismiss three arrest warrants.
The U.S. has conducted several swaps with Venezuela over the past few years. The most notable was a deal in October 2022 for seven Americans, including five oil executives at Houston-based Citgo, in exchange for the release of two nephews of Maduro’s wife jailed in the U.S. on narcotics charges.
Saab, 51, was pulled off a private jet during a fuel stop in Cape Verde en route to Iran, where he was sent to negotiate oil deals on behalf of Maduro’s government. The U.S. charges were conspiracy to commit money laundering tied to a bribery scheme that allegedly siphoned off $350 million through state contracts to build affordable housing for Venezuela’s government.
Saab was previously sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for allegedly running a scheme that included Maduro’s inner circle and stole hundreds of millions in dollars from food-import contracts at a time of widespread hunger mainly due to shortages in the South American country.
Maduro’s government has argued that Saab is a Venezuelan diplomat who is entitled to immunity from criminal prosecution under international law. But his defense attorneys said last year in a closed-door hearing before his arrest that Saab had been secretly cooperating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. They said he was helping the DEA untangle corruption in Maduro’s inner circle and agreed to forfeit millions of dollars in illegal proceeds from corrupt state contracts.
But the value of the information he shared with the Americans is unknown; some have suggested it may have all been a Maduro-authorized ruse to collect intelligence on the U.S. law enforcement activities in Venezuela. Whatever the case, Saab skipped out on a May 2019 surrender date and shortly afterward, he was charged by federal prosecutors in Miami.
Meanwhile, millions of Venezuelans who have chosen to remain in their country continue to live in poverty. The minimum wage is about $3.60 a month, just enough to buy a gallon of water. The low wages and high food prices have pushed more than 7.4 million people to leave the country.
The deal is the latest concession by the Biden administration in the name of bringing home Americans jailed overseas, including a -high-profile prisoner exchange last December when the U.S. government — over the objections of some Republicans in Congress and criticism from some law enforcement officials — traded Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA star Brittney Griner.
The swaps have raised concerns that the U.S. is incentivizing hostage-taking abroad and producing a false equivalence between Americans who are wrongfully detained abroad and foreigners who have been properly prosecuted and convicted in U.S courts. But Biden administration officials say securing the freedom of wrongfully detained Americans and hostages abroad requires difficult dealmaking.
"Reuniting wrongfully detained Americans with their loved ones has been a priority for my Administration since day one. As is the return to the United States of fugitives from justice," Biden said.