HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A Houston oil executive held captive for more than five years sat down with ABC13 about the unimaginable conditions and how he managed to survive.
The image of holding onto his wife and family is what kept Jose Pereira alive. On Oct. 1, the moment he dreamed of became a reality when he was reunited with his family after years of being stuck in a cramped Venezuelan prison, night after night, deprived of food and water, wondering when he would be free.
"This has been kind of a miracle because all these five years, every day we were thinking, 'When would be the day we would see our families?' Every day we prayed for that," Pereira said. "When it happened, it was surreal."
In 2017, Jose Pereira worked for Houston-based Citgo as the interim CEO when he and five other executives flew to Venezuela for a business trip. It was there when they were arrested for embezzlement and sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges they have always denied. The group became known as the Citgo 6.
The first of the Citgo 6 was brought back earlier this year, and just a few weeks ago, the remaining men were released to Texas in a prisoner swap. President Biden declared the men as wrongfully detained.
When police barged into their meeting in Venezuela, Pereira said he and the others figured they would explain this was a mistake and it would be resolved.
"When we understood what they were accusing us of, we said, 'This is a mistake. Nothing happened here.' So, we really thought we were going to go to the judge, explain that, and go back," Pereira said. "That was not the case. We were clearly bargaining chips and a political pawn."
Soon, the men realized they would have to learn how to survive. In their first year, the men were separated and put into isolation.
Pereira was thrown into a dark cell with another member of the Citgo 6, Gustavo Cardenas, whom ABC13 also previously spoke to.
"They call it 'the submarine' because it looks like some kind of vessel without no room, no window, no nothing. They kept us there for almost one year. Starving, no running water, no fresh air, nothing. We were totally isolated," Pereira said.
Pereira said they were barely given food or water for years, but as the years went on, they were allowed to have people drop food in prison.
"Barely any food," Pereira said. "And when I saw barely any food, the other guys lost like 60 pounds. I lost 120 pounds."
Pereira said none of the men were ever physically tortured, but that was something he witnessed with other prisoners.
"They were always treating you in a way you felt like you were an animal," Pereira said.
After the first year, the men were reunited and put in a tiny cell with only three beds.
"I think my closet was bigger," Pereira said. "It was maybe a little bigger than this table. Can you imagine staying here for years? Six people."
Pereira said the men banded together like brothers, and they all decided they would not let this break them, with one mission in mind: to be reunited with their families.
"We said, 'Hey, this is not going to break me,'" Pereira said. "This is not going to break me. We decided to be safe in spirit and body."
The men decided to make the most of their space, something Pereira said kept them sane.
"We are kind of living in a closet, and we manage because the six of us have years of working in the oil industry, Pereira said. "We have crisis management experience. If we don't want to drive ourselves crazy, we have to manage the situation."
"So, we handled our space, even if we were in a tiny space. When I was having breakfast, for example, you tried to have breakfast in a relaxed way, and the others in their beds," Pereira said. "When I finished, the other came here. That kept us kind of sane because we could manage that. We survived."
Pereira said there was never a moment when the men lost hope that they would see their families again.
"We never lose hope, by the way," Pereira said. "Never. Never. For me, family is everything. The six of us had the same feeling. The most important (thing) for us was seeing our family."
Small glimpses of humanity were seen from within the prison walls on even the darkest of days.
"One of the guys could smuggle a small Bible, you know, a pocket Bible," Pereira said. "So, he smuggled the small Bible, and we begin to read that Bible during the night with a small candle. We were reading the Bible, and one of the guards, one day, he caught us reading the Bible, and we thought that the guy was going to punish us. And the guy said, 'No, no, no, continue reading. You're doing good' OK. So, one or two days after, the guy came with a prayer Bible and gave it to us, a real Bible. And he said to us, 'Pray for me.' Wow. So, we said, 'Wow.' And that guy allows us to begin to read the Bible. And let me tell you, that became a kind of church. So, we really realized that God is here."
Their prayers would finally be answered nearly five years since they were arrested.
"'Take that off. Put on your best clothes. You are going,'" Pereira recalled. "I asked him, 'Where are we going?' He said, 'You are going home,' and we were in shock. We saw we were going to the airport. So, when we got there, an airplane was waiting for us. So, when we went inside, we said, 'Oh, this is happening.' But they waited until the last minute. They took us as a prisoner because they put us in handcuffs, and our legs were tied tight, and they wanted us to put on some masks."
The men landed in St. Vincent, and then they were taken on a plane to San Antonio, where their family members gathered, waiting to embrace each other after years of wondering when they would see each other again.
"That was a huge moment," Pereira said. "There were like 50 people, and it was amazing how everybody gathered together. We stayed hugging. I don't know how long. It was really emotional. Everyone's families were there."
Pereira's 3-year-old grandson, whom he met at the airport, was proof of how long he was held captive.
"I have never met him. He has never met me," Pereira said. "But my daughter-in-law always showed him photos of me. So, when he saw me, he said, 'Hey, grandpa,' He ran to meet me, and it was a very emotional moment."
The men were brought to a medical center in San Antonio to be examined before returning back to their families. It was the first hot shower Pereira said he had had in years.
"The first day I went to the shower, I stayed like half hour there," Pereira said. "The nurse said, 'Hey, mister, are you good?' I said, 'I'm good. Give me more time.' One thing I learned is there are little things, like seeing the sun and the moon, that everybody takes for granted. The first time I saw the moon in five years was in San Antonio a few days ago."
Pereira wants his story of survival and how they leaned on hope and never lost faith to inspire others, no matter their situation.
"You know, any situation in your life can be bad," Pereira said. "You can lose your job, a house, you can go bankrupt, and you can lose a car, your family, or money. So, you have two choices: you can look at something very bad or a situation that can give you an opportunity. We decided to do it that way, looking at it as an opportunity. So, my message to people is even in the worst situation, look at it as an opportunity and never lose hope and never lose faith."
He also wants to help spread awareness about Americans wrongfully detained. According to the James W. Foley legacy foundation, there are currently 55 publicly disclosed cases of hostages and wrongfully-detained Americans.
"We want to remind the government that we have to bring them back as soon as possible," Pereira said. "It's something that has to be known because many Americans don't know this is happening. Maybe you will go on vacation, and you are having a very awesome vacation, and something goes wrong, and you can go to jail without reason, only because you are American."
There were two other Americans in a cell next to the Citgo 6, according to Pereira.
"They were our neighbors," Pereira said. "So, I want their families to know, don't lose hope. It's going to happen for you."
He and his wife opened a bakery before he left when he was planning his retirement, and now he intends to make up for lost time and go back to normalcy.
Although he admits, he isn't sure what that will look like yet.
As for when the Citgo 6 will be reunited, Pereira jokes they are tired of each other, so they are going to wait a bit.