Americans swapped for Maduro ally, Venezuelan fugitive land in San Antonio

US, Venezuela swap prisoners: Maduro ally for 10 Americans, plus fugitive contractor ‘Fat Leonard’

SAN ANTONIO – Six Americans who were imprisoned in Venezuela landed in San Antonio at Kelly Field Wednesday night as part of a high-profile prisoner swap between the U.S. and South American country, government officials said.

Americans Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, Joseph Cristella, and Savoi Wright boarded the plane to Joint Base San Antonio airport earlier Wednesday, according to CNN. Jason Saad and Edgar Jose Marval Moreno joined the four others.

The group is among 10 Americans freed in the prisoner swap between Washington, D.C. and Caracas. The Americans were deemed wrongfully imprisoned by the U.S. State Department.

They were taken to Brooke Army Medical Center for evaluation.

ABC reports the remaining four Americans released by Venezuela, including ‘Fat Leonard’ Francis, are traveling on a separate aircraft and landing in an undisclosed location in the U.S.

U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales issued the following statement on the hostage release:

“Today, Americans who were wrongfully detained in Venezuela were released, and have arrived safely back on U.S. soil. Among them were Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore, and Joseph Cristella, who had been wrongly imprisoned in Venezuela since last year by the Maduro regime. Last week, I sent a letter with bipartisan support alongside members of the For Country Caucus urging the Biden administration to secure their release as soon as possible. I am grateful Eyvin, Jerrel, Joseph, and the other American hostages who were detained have made it home safely.”


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 return 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 Biden administration's boldest move yet 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 White House agreed to suspend some sanctions, following a commitment by Maduro to work toward free and fair conditions for the 2024 presidential election.

Maduro celebrated the return of Alex Saab as a “triumph for truth” over a U.S.-led campaign of lies, threats and torture against someone his government considers a Venezuelan diplomat who was illegally arrested on a U.S. warrant.

“President Biden,” a defiant Maduro said with Saab at his side for a hero's welcome at the presidential palace, “Venezuela stands strong, following its own model. We won't be anyone's colony.”

The release of Saab, long regarded by Washington as a bagman for Maduro, is a significant concession to the Venezuelan leader. Former President Donald Trump's administration held out Saab as a trophy, spending millions of dollars pursuing the Colombian-born businessman, at one point even deploying a Navy warship to the coast of West Africa following his arrest in Cape Verde to ward off a possible escape.

U.S. officials said Biden's 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 had been seen as untradeable.

The 10 Americans released include 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,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.

The agreement also resulted in the return to U.S. custody of Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian owner of a ship-servicing company who is the central character in one of the largest bribery scandals in Pentagon history.

But the exchange, a major U.S. concession, angered many hard-liners in the Venezuelan opposition who have criticized the White House for standing by as Maduro 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 industry following promises by Maduro that he would level the playing field for the 2024 election, when he's looking to add six years to his decade-long, crisis-ridden rule. A Nov. 30 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.” Republicans, echoing the sentiment of many in the U.S.-backed opposition, said Saab's release would only embolden Maduro to continue down an authoritarian path.

“Disgraceful decision,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

The U.S. sanctions remain suspended 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.

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 Eyvin Hernandez, 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.

The U.S. has conducted several swaps with Venezuela over the past few years, including one 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. Like that earlier exchange, Wednesday's swap took place on a tarmac in the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Saab, who turns 52 on Thursday, hugged his wife and two young children as he descended the staircase of a private jet at the Simon Bolivar International Airport. Also present to welcome him was Venezuela's first lady, Cilia Flores.

It was a stark reversal from the scene on another tarmac, in Cape Verde, where he was arrested in 2020 during a fuel stop en route to Iran 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. Saab was also sanctioned for allegedly running a scheme that allegedly 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.

After his arrest, Maduro's government said Saab was a special envoy on a humanitarian mission and was entitled to diplomatic immunity from criminal prosecution under international law.

Joseph Schuster, a lawyer for Saab, welcomed his client's reunion with his family. "We are also very happy for the American citizens who will be able to rejoin their families for Christmas,” he said.

There was no mention of Saab's past secret meetings with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In a closed-door court hearing last year, Saab's lawyers said that he was for years helping that agency untangle corruption in Maduro’s inner circle and had 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 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.

“What happened to the separation of powers?” said Juan Cruz, who oversaw the White House’s relations with Latin America while working at the National Security Council from 2017-19. “Normally you would have to wait a defendant to be found guilty in order to be able to pardon him for a swap. This is an especially bad precedent with a Trump 2.0 potentially around the corner. It invites winking and nodding from the executive.”

But Biden administration officials say securing the freedom of wrongfully detained Americans and hostages abroad requires difficult dealmaking.

Making this deal more palatable to the White House was Venezuela's willingness to return Francis.

Nicknamed “Fat Leonard” for his bulging 6-foot-3 frame, Francis was arrested in a San Diego hotel nearly a decade ago as part of a federal sting operation. Investigators say he bilked the U.S. military out of more than $35 million by buying off dozens of top-ranking Navy officers with booze, sex, lavish parties and other gifts.

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 from Caracas and has been in custody since.


Tucker reported from Washington and Garcia Cano from Caracas, Venezuela. Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo and Jim Mustian in New York, Julie Watson in San Diego and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

About the Authors

Kolten Parker is Manager of Content and Coverage at KSAT. He moved into the role in 2024, after five years of leading the digital team. Kolten is an award-winning journalist and a proud Texas State Bobcat. He's a triathlete who loves the outdoors and sports. When not working, he likes to hang out with his wife and travel.

Recommended Videos