Nicolás Maduro’s ‘Bag Man’ Released in Prison Swap to Free Americans: Reports

Roughly a dozen U.S. citizens who have been imprisoned in Venezuela are expected to be released, sources told the Associated Press and Reuters.Published Dec. 20, 2023 12:56PM EST Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/ReutersThe U.S. and Venezuela reportedly reached a deal Wednesday to free about a dozen Americans from Venezuelan prisons in exchange for the release of President Nicolás Maduro’s close

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Roughly a dozen U.S. citizens who have been imprisoned in Venezuela are expected to be released, sources told the Associated Press and Reuters.

Josh Fiallo

A “free Alex Saab” poster sits on a table during a press conference in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2src22.

Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Reuters

The U.S. and Venezuela reportedly reached a deal Wednesday to free about a dozen Americans from Venezuelan prisons in exchange for the release of President Nicolás Maduro’s close ally and notorious “bag man,” Alex Saab.

Official word on the prisoner swap has not been released publicly by U.S. agencies, but, citing sources, Reuters and the Associated Press reported Wednesday morning that a deal was reached and the swap was in the works.

Among those slated to be released are two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were involved in an armed attempt to remove Maduro from office in 2019. They both were sentenced to 2o years in prison that same year.

Others who are reportedly set to be freed are Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, Joseph Ryan Cristella, and Savoi Wright—all people the U.S. government declared were “wrongfully detained” by Venezuela.

A prisoner swap the U.S. and Venezuela is not unprecedented. Just last year, the Biden administration brokered a deal in which seven Americans were released—including five oil executives from Citgo—in exchange for two nephews of Maduro’s wife, who were jailed in the U.S. on narcotics charges.

The AP reported that Saab, 51, was been released by U.S. authorities on Wednesday morning. He’d been in custody since 2020, when he was pulled off a private jet during a fuel stop in Cape Verde en route to Iran, where the U.S. alleged he was sent to negotiate oil deals at Maduro’s behest. He was extradited the following year on a charge of money laundering, with U.S. prosecutors alleging he violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in connection with a scheme to pay bribes—allegedly totaling hundreds of millions of dollars—and take advantage of Venezuela’s government-controlled exchange rate.

Mugshot of Alex Saab staring forward, wearing an orange jumpsuit.

Alex Saab’s 2021 mugshot.

Broward County Sheriff’s Office via Reuters

Saab has denied those accusations, and has has claimed he was heading across the Atlantic to buy food and medical supplies—not discuss an oil deal with Iranians. Saab had not gone to trial in the U.S. before his release.

Wednesday’s swap is the latest example of President Joe Biden’s insistence on bringing home Americans who are jailed abroad, even if it means giving up a large concession in return.

Last December, U.S. officials brokered a deal—over the objections of many GOP members of Congress—to free the WNBA star Brittney Griner from a Russian prison in exchange for the release of the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who has been nicknamed the “Merchant of Death.”

More recently, the U.S. unfroze nearly $6 billion in Iranian assets and released two Iranian prisoners in exchange for five Americans who were being held in Iran.

Included in Wednesday’s deal is the planned release of approximately two dozen Venezuelan nationals who were arrested and identified as opposition members to Maduro, Reuters reported.

The wire service added that Saab’s unexpected return to Venezuela “would mark a victory for Maduro,” who has agreed to hold free elections next year so long as the U.S. doesn’t reimpose crippling economic sanctions on the oil-rich South American country.

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