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American arrested in Venezuela just days after Biden administration eases oil sanctions

A California man’s family is pleading for his release after they say he was wrongfully arrested in Venezuela and held for tens of thousands of dollars in ransom just days after the Biden administration eased crippling oil sanctions on the socialist-run government.

Savoi Wright’s Oct. 24 arrest, which had not been previously reported, has become the latest flashpoint in the tenuous relationship between the U.S. and Nicolás Maduro’s government that critics say should lead to a return to sanctions.

But all Wright's family wants is for the 38-year-old businessman to be returned home. They know precious little about the circumstances of his arrest. No criminal charges have been filed, he has not been allowed to see a lawyer and the Venezuelan government hasn’t said where he is being held.

“It’s a nightmare. It’s like you’re watching a horror movie but you’re in it,” his mother, Erin Stewart, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from her Oakland home.

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Wright joins at least seven other U.S. citizens who remain imprisoned in Venezuela. But his arrest stands out because it came on the heels of a politically risky move by President Joe Biden to roll back crippling oil sanctions against the OPEC nation in tandem with an Oct. 17 agreement in Barbados between Maduro’s government and its opponents to hold elections next year.

Almost immediately, Maduro seemed to disavow the deal when the nation’s Supreme Court, which is packed with loyalists, suspended the results of an opposition-run primary won by Maria Corina Machado, a pro-U.S. former lawmaker.

The Biden administration has said it is prepared to reinstate sanctions if Maduro wavers from his commitments, which include reversing bans preventing Machado and others from holding office, and starting to release political prisoners and wrongfully detained U.S. citizens by the end of November.

That position was reaffirmed Friday by the U.S. State Department in response to questions about Wright’s arrest.

“Failure to abide by the terms of this arrangement will lead the United States to reverse steps taken,” said spokesman Matthew Miller.

Former President Donald Trump's administration ratcheted up sanctions on Venezuela in 2019 after accusing Maduro of staying in power through a fraudulent election, and then recognized instead the democratically elected opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president.

Some former Trump administration officials say Wright’s arrest is just the latest example of Maduro acting in bad faith.

“Maduro playing games with American lives is unacceptable,” said Kimberly Breier, a former top U.S. diplomat to Latin America and an architect of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Maduro. “There will be bipartisan agreement in Washington in the coming days that the Barbados agreement, which is just a month old, is finished.”

Added Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy to Venezuela: “Maduro is calling Biden’s bluff.”

The State Department has repeatedly warned U.S. citizens not to travel to Venezuela because of the risk of kidnapping and extortion. Sophisticated criminal groups, sometimes in cahoots with government security forces, target unsuspecting men online or in neighboring Colombia with offers of romance.

Wright appears to be only the second U.S. citizen detained since Venezuela last year freed five oil executives from Houston-based Citgo and two other Americans in exchange for the U.S. government’s release of two nephews of Maduro’s wife who had been imprisoned on narcotics charges.

The 6-foot-10-inch (208-centimeter) Berkeley, California, native and Loyola Marymount University graduate has for more than a decade divided his time between Oakland, Miami and South America while working remotely as a mortgage loan officer, his family said.

“He loved the nomadic lifestyle,” said Stewart, who didn't know her son was in Venezuela until she learned of his arrest. “Everywhere he went he was seen as a gentle giant, and immensely loved.”

Stewart says she has spoken to her son only once since his ordeal began, after family and friends scrambled to pay a hefty ransom to his captors that they could barely afford. Wright recounted how he was stopped by police while in a park with a woman who had drugs on her. His family suspects she was part of a set-up. Later, once police ruled out any criminal wrongdoing by Wright, they determined he had no stamp in his passport and handed him over to immigration authorities for deportation, Stewart says.

It’s unclear what happened next. But other inmates have told his family that Wright is being held in a former textile factory-turned detention center run by Venezuela’s feared military counterintelligence. Scores of former political prisoners have reported being tortured and abused in the facility’s basement, referred to menacingly by guards as the “House of Dreams.”

Stewart says she fears her son is also being subjected to psychological torture. Her son’s health is also a concern due to strict dietary restrictions caused by severe food allergies.

Venezuela’s Attorney General Tarek William Saab didn’t provide any information about Wright’s case.

The other U.S. citizens detained in Venezuela include two former Green Berets — Luke Denman and Airan Berry — who were involved in an attempt to oust Maduro in 2019, as well as three men — Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore and Joseph Cristella — who were detained for allegedly entering the country illegally from Colombia.

Wright’s family is speaking out because they feel the U.S. government hasn’t done enough to free him. After complaining to the FBI that their son was being extorted, they were directed to the State Department, which has limited diplomatic tools to secure the release of Americans in a politically turbulent country where the U.S. Embassy has been shuttered since 2019.

The State Department didn’t respond to emailed questions about whether U.S. officials have raised Wright’s detention with Maduro’s government.

“As Americans, when a loved one is in this horrific situation, you think someone is going to be there to help and when they don’t it’s the worst feeling in the world,” said Moizeé Stewart, Wright’s sister. “It’s sickening that they would throw their hands up in the air and say we have no diplomatic relations with Venezuela so we can’t do anything.”

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Goodman reported from Miami; Tucker from Washington.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/