US frees Alex Saab, Nicolás Maduro’s frontman, in exchange for 10 Americans imprisoned in Venezuela

As part of the agreement, Caracas will also extradite a criminal known by the alias Fat Leonard and release 21 Venezuelan political prisoners

mural en protesta por el juicio en Estados Unidos contra Alex Saab
Pedestrians walk near a poster of Alex Saab that reads, “Free Alex Saab. They haven't been able to bend him," in Caracas, Venezuela.Ariana Cubillos (AP)
Iker Seisdedos

In a highly diplomatic operation that puts an end to a years-long judicial soap opera, this Wednesday the United States government freed the Colombian-Venezuelan businessman Alex Saab, an ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who was imprisoned in Florida.

Saab’s release is part of an agreement between Washington and Caracas, by which 10 Americans imprisoned in Venezuela will be released. The South American country’s government will also allow the extradition to the U.S. of a criminal known by the alias of Fat Leonard, will release 21 political prisoners and will revoke three arrest warrants against opponents of the Maduro regime.

Saab had been jailed in Miami since 2021, after he was extradited following his arrest a year earlier in Cape Verde, on the northwest coast of Africa. Saab was wanted by Washington for money laundering, criminal conspiracy, illicit enrichment, and fictitious exports and imports, among other things.

A senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed Wednesday morning that the swap operation “was underway,” and that it included, in exchange for this “act of clemency with Saab,” the release of “10 U.S. citizens fraudulently detained in Venezuela.” According to the official, those Americans were the only ones left detained in the South American country. He did not want to confirm their identities until he had contacted their families.

The pact also includes the extradition of the American Frederick Leonard — better known as Fat Leonard — who, the official said, “is already on his way to a prison on American soil.” The deal also includes the commitment on behalf of the government of Nicolás Maduro to release “twenty Venezuelan political prisoners” from prisons in the country, as well as the opposition leader Roberto Abdul. The director of the NGO Súmate, Abdul played a key role in the recent primary process held in Venezuela and was subsequently arrested by Maduro’s intelligence services in early December. In addition, arrest warrants for three other individuals have been “revoked” as a result of the pact reached between the two countries.

Fat Leonard was wanted by authorities for several bribery offenses involving the U.S. Navy.

White House sources denied that the agreement includes anything related to the sanctions imposed by the United States on the Maduro regime, which were partially lifted last October, when the Biden administration decided to alleviate prohibitions on the oil, gas and gold sectors. The decision to soften the sanctions was in response to the political agreement between representatives of the Maduro government and the opposition’s Plataforma Unitaria to respect the constitutional calendar and hold elections in 2024. The partial lifting of sanctions related to the oil and gas industries was made on a temporary basis, for a term of six months, and will only be extended — the White House warned at the time — if the Maduro government continues to take steps to restore democracy.

“When we have discussed sanctions relief, it has been in the context of ongoing negotiations with members of the Unitary Platform and representatives of Maduro. We will return to those talks after this,” the senior official said.

The operation — the fruit of “many, many months of negotiations” — demonstrates the “unwavering commitment of Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to secure the release of Americans unjustly detained around the world, and to seek a path to a better and more democratic future for the people of Venezuela,” officials said.

Saab was arrested in Cape Verde on June 12, 2020, and extradited to Florida, where he was awaiting trial for alleged money laundering related to the Venezuelan government. In 2019, Saab was blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department, along with his associates and family members, who were allegedly part of a corruption scheme. That same year, in Colombia, his country of birth, he was charged with money laundering (though he had already fled the country in 2018). His business dealings have also been investigated in Mexico.

In Florida, Saab’s defense tried to demonstrate that he enjoyed diplomatic immunity. His legal strategy was based, since his arrest, on showing that he was a “special envoy” of the Venezuelan government and that, therefore, his arrest was illegal. In response, the prosecution provided, in order to dismantle the defendant’s defense, a series of passports and other documents allegedly forged by Venezuelan officials to make it appear that he was a diplomatic representative appointed by Caracas.

During the process, it was also proven that Saab was secretly hired by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2018 to collaborate with the U.S. and provided information about bribes paid to Venezuelan government officials, according to court documents.

When he was arrested, the Maduro regime described his detention as a “kidnapping in complicity with the authorities of Cape Verde, who tortured him and arbitrarily kept him prisoner for 491 days, without an arrest warrant or due process.” This information was attributed to the businessman’s family.

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