The two eldest daughters of one of the six Citgo employees currently imprisoned in Venezuela have criticized the company for largely ignoring the family's pleas for help and said its corporate leaders should take action to try and get all of them home safely.
"It's been a nightmare," Gabriela Zambrano-Hill said of the time since her father, Alirio Zambrano, 55, was arrested the weekend before Thanksgiving 2017 during an emergency business trip.
Alirio, vice president and general manager of the refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, and his brother, Jose Luis Zambrano, vice president of shared services, have been imprisoned in a basement holding cell in conditions that have the family fearing for their overall health. Also imprisoned are Tomeu Vadell, vice president of refining and former general manager of the Lake Charles refinery; Gustavo Cardenas, vice president of shareholder relations, government and public affairs; Jorge Toledo; vice president of supply and marketing; and Citgo's President Jose Angel Pereira. Alirio spent 15 years working at the Lake Charles refinery before moving to Corpus Christi.
Gabriela's sister, Alexandra Zambrano-Forseth, said Citgo officials have refused to meet with the family "since day one." She said Citgo's lack of response or action shows its "complete and inhumane treatment of our family." As of Monday, Citgo officials could not be reached for comment.
Alexandra said Citgo should work with federal officials, including U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that have been actively involved with trying to free the prisoners.
"There's really no excuse for Citgo to not be collaborating fully like any other American company would," she said. "I believe a lot of companies that, if they had the same thing happen to their people, have entire task forces designated to their safety (and) well being."
Gabriela and Alexandra are demanding action from Citgo representatives, especially since Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido appointed a new "ad hoc" board of directors for Citgo in late February. Guaido is trying to overturn Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose government is responsible for arresting the six Citgo employees on corruption charges. Alexandra said the family recently emailed and sent letters to Luisa Palacios, newly-appointed Citgo board chairwoman, but has received no response.
"Now that there's new leadership affiliated with Guaido, we are asking (Citgo) to espouse justice and human rights and stand up for your own employees," Gabriela said.
"We can only speculate that any lack of action would be due to legal advice they are receiving," Alexandra said. "It makes no sense to me why they would act like this."
The family provided an undated letter sent by Citgo last year that stated Alirio's pay had been suspended, with no explanation as to why. Alexandra said their mother had to rent her house to make ends meet. She said the family has spent its life savings on legal fees in Venezuela, along with providing Alirio with food, clean water and medication.
Alexandra said she went to the Corpus Christ refinery last May to meet with human resources and find out what Alirio's benefits would be.
"The refinery manager came out and basically asked me to leave the property," she said.
Health and safety
Gabriela said Alirio has lost at least 50 pounds since being imprisoned, despite the family's attempts to provide him with food, water and medicine. She said he has chronic hypertension, and a lack of medication has created vision problems for him.
"The conditions in the basement are so terrible that he has been ill several times," she said.
Alexandra said a family member who lives in Venezuela told them there were times Alirio had bronchitis and cysts. The family tried to get a court order for him to be hospitalized, but it was rejected. Gabriela said court orders are now required to provide prisoners with food and water.
Gabriela said the family reached out to Citgo in August "begging for help." Alexandra provided a written response from Germaine Turner, general manager for Citgo's human resources department, that stated Citgo is not "in a position to provide assistance" and directed them to contact United Healthcare's Global Services Unit.
"I've never heard anything more heartless in my life," Alexandra said.
Alexandra said three lawyers employed by Citgo who were communicating with the Zambrano family were fired a few weeks after the employees were imprisoned. The attorneys have not had any further contact with the family.
The conditions in the basement have made communication difficult. Gabriela said they haven't spoken on the phone with Alirio in several weeks. Incoming phone calls are often unpredictable and can range from 30 seconds to a few minutes.
Gabriela said Citgo has not offered any materials that would prove the six Citgo employees are innocent of the corruption charges.
Alexandra said the families of those imprisoned have all been communicating regularly.
For now, the Zambrano family said they will continue to hold Citgo officials accountable in getting all six employees released.
"You're operating in our communities and you're treating people like this," Alexandra said.
Gabriela asked residents in the community, along with local officials, to help bring attention to the crisis. She suggested Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter could be saying, ‘Hey, you guys operate in my city and you have two people that are basically from Lake Charles. This is wrong. You can't do this.'