A Venezuelan businessman that was contractor of PDVSA was also on the route of millionaire oil funds of cooperation originated in that country, those are nowadays under the magnifying glass of authorities in El Salvador for alleged money laundering.
His name is José Wilfredo Molina Castrillón. He is 60 years old and partner and legal representative of Nawasaka Resources, a service company for oil industry registered in Panama. The company bragged in its website about the contracting received from PDVSA between 2010 and 2017. Formerly, PDVSA was one of the most important companies in the world, but it has seen undermined its reputation due to multiple corruption cases that proliferated within, specially linked to millionaire networks of bribery payments and capital legitimation.
When he was still benefitted by the Venezuelan public oil contracts, Molina Castrillón was also member of the directive board at the Salvadorian airline Vuelos Económicos Centroamericanos (VECA). He even became the only administrator – owner of the company. It means, he was in charge of managing, representing and responding for the company activities, just as shown in the Commerce Registry of El Salvador to which there was access for this investigation.
In 2017, VECA was declared in bankruptcy, barely two years after initiating its activities with an investment of almost USD $100 million delivered by Alba Petróleos of El Salvador (Albapes), a company controlled by Pdvsa and a local association of majors, which managed in the Central American country more than USD $1.100 million in oil loans from Venezuela and made during governments of the late Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro.
The airline received directly from Albapes USD $60 million and other USD $29,3 million were channeled through an offshore company located in Curaçao, denominated El Día Corporation and whose controlling shareholder was Manuel de Jesús Durán Melgar. He also appears with his signature in formal documentation of the airline. The firm from Curaçao, had Yanet Cornejo as director. She was legal representative of Albapes in 2015. The information was revealed by El Faro digital newspaper, in March 2017.
The millionaire injection of money and the fast declaration of bankruptcy of the air transport company still does not represent enough data for the Public Ministry of El Salvador to include VECA case on the investigation carried against Albapes and other 23 companies favored by loans, under the presumption that they were part of an elaborated network of capital legitimation. According to Prosecutor, all the companies together made transactions of approximately USD $3.243 million, an amount that turned the authorities alarms on. Regarding the airline, the only ongoing investigation refers to occupational liabilities of USD $150.000 that still has not honored former workers, according to affirmations from consulted sources for the present coverage.
Journalistic investigations from communication media like El Faro and La Prensa Gráfica have managed to document persons linked to José Luis Merino, Albapes advisor and leader of Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation, a party that was in power at El Salvador till 2019. They were leading societies that received loans or were linked to speculative real estate transactions. Merino actins are a piece of the puzzle armed by Venezuela with El Salvador, which included millions of dollars in transferences from PDVSA to the Central American country.
Merino was sanctioned in May 2019 by the State Department of USA. He is attributed with deviation of more than USD $400 million to offshore companies. Journalists settled in that country have affirmed that north American authorities suspect a close relation between Molina Castrillón and Merino, therefore he is considered a person of interest.
Chavismo INC. looked for Merino in order to consult about mentioned subject of the present work and a questionnaire was sent through his assistant’s email but there was no answer from him. Organization leaders were asked about the relation between the party, VECA, Albapes and the Venezuelan man: they did not agree to comment or said they did not know him. Molina Castrillón was also searched at the company Nakasawa Resources office located in El Salvador, but no one picked up the phone provided on the website. An email was also sent with a questionnaire but at the end of this edition there was still no answer to the questions.
The case of Molina Castrillón and his connections with VECA, Albapes, Pdvsa and Merino have been documented by Chavismo INC., a collaborative investigation made by Transparencia Venezuela, the Latin American Platform of Journalism CONNECTAS and the Rebel Alliance Investigates (ARI). On the project participated journalists from Venezuela, United States, Spain, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay and El Salvador. The present work has given as result a data base built from the international collection of judicial, executive, parliamentary investigations and denounces related to persons and entities of interest that have had connection with the handling of funds originated in Venezuela during the last 20 years of governments linked to chavismo
A low profile man
Molina Castrillón company, Nakasawa Resources is registered in Panama and domiciled in the first street north 94 of Bella vista, Panama city, since 2001. Its sector is the design, engineering, manufacture and installation of equipment for oil production. It has opened doors in several countries who are dedicated to this area.
Besides that address, the company has register in their website other four addresses around the world including one for Latin America, located in Torre Futura, an important office building in an exclusive area of San Salvador, El Salvador. Other declared offices are located in Miami, USA for north America; China, for Asia and one in Oman, for Midwest.
Molina Castrillón appears as executive president of Nakasawa on the company website. A year before, according to Panama registers, he also had the position of legal representative. He entrusted in his wife, the Salvadorian Carmen Elena Clautier, three important positions at the directive board: president, secretary and treasurer. On top of that, she also was recently added as the person in charge of public relations and the companie’s communications.
Till the first days of September, the company exhibited the information of its PDVSA contracts on the Spanish version of the web site. After Molina Castrillón was contacted by Chavismo INC. the project list was erased. The eliminated documents left record that the first Nakasawa contracts with Pdvsa dated from 2010. Most of them were for sale, installation and inspection of furnaces and vapor generators, also known as “steam generator”. Besides that, pipes and other equipment for oil projects at the Maracaibo Lake and the Orinoco Oil Belt were sold. The Orinoco Oil Belt is the largest oil reserve in the world. The most recent contract with Pdvsa was from 2017. It consisted on the sale of 28.000 feet of “vacuum-insulated pipes”, a kind of pipe used to isolate gases with vacuum, then taking it to the tanks where it is refined.
Nakasawa contracting with Pdvsa included equipments for vapor injection.
Molina Castrillón also appears as owner of a company nominated Giusseppe Molinari Entreprises LLC, that declares having made exports for private companies and for Venezuelan government. In its description, it states that since 2001 (same year in which Nakasawa was created) it is dedicated to commercialization of alimentary raw materials such as tomato paste, sugar, frozen chicken, powder whole milk and extra virgin olive oil.
Molina Castrillón appears also registered before the El Salvador Treasury Department as importer of used vehicles, between January 01st, 2012 and December 31st, 2017. Even though he is endorsed for vehicle importation, the register does not specify the kind of automotive entered to the country or information about the entrepreneur, such as its own business address. It only details that during 2017, 40.124 vehicles were imported at national level.
His wife also appears as legal representative of other companies in El Salvador, like Holi S.A. de C.V. and Karmensa S.A. de C.V. both are dedicated to purchase and sale of movable and immovable property. This last has even declared before the Commerce registry the same address of Nakasawa office in El Salvador, it means, the space in Torre Futura, San Salvador.
A questionnaire was sent by email for this work, but there was no answer at the end of this edition.
From flying high to ruin
Molina Castrillón arrived to VECA airline in 2015, according to documentation on the Commerce Register of El Salvador. The company was created in 2013, although formally initiated activities at the end of 2014. It was officially presented in April 08th, 2015 in an act to which attended high officials of the economic cabinet and Merino himself in representation of Albapes. Only 24 months later, the company declared its bankruptcy. At the moment of the bankruptcy declaration, the leader of FMLN was already presented, baldly, as a commercial advisor of the company.
None of the former employees forgets the role of Merino, but Molina Castrillón is remembered more diffusely. “We never met him in person. Some of us only listened about him as a directive living in Miami”, said one of the sources consulted that did not want to have his name published because he is still waiting for VECA to pay owed salaries since 2017 bankruptcy.
A Molina Castrillón sister in law, María Eugenia Clautier Laínez, also had responsibilities on the airline. She occupied the function of sole alternate administrator of the company till august 2016, a function to which she quit then. Her presence is not remembered by the workers.
VECA’s story has not stopped generating attention due to the destination of the millions of dollars invested on the project and to the fact that even the liabilities of more than 200 workers have not been honored. Chavismo INC. contacted some of these former airline employees, who assured that till august this year they are still waiting for a payment of their salaries and compensations. Several even give the money for lost.
When its existence was public, forecasts were promissory. Edgar Hasbún, the first executive president of the company, declared to El Diario de Hoy in October 2013, that the initial investment to create the company was USD $100 million, all of it from “own capital” and that it was obtained “through a fund created by foreign and local investors”, from which Hasbún did not reveal any names. After Hasbún, the presidency moved to the Venezuelan German Campos, an university teacher, with public profile in his country for having been director of a public opinion study firm. Later, names like Molina Castrillón and Durán appeared.
VECA’s first flights were made with rented airplanes, two Airbus 319. Their distances were short. All of them within central America and its prices were the lowest of the market then, between USD $150 and 250. That transformed it in a difficult competitor for bigger airlines and with longer distances, normally criticized for having too high rates.
Although Hasbún denied in a first moment that Alba Petróleos of El Salvador was linked to VECA’s project, with the passing of months the conglomerate started to receive money through fiscal paradises, just as shown in El Faro in its investigations. All the money received through VECA did not stop the bankruptcy two years after its official launch. “VECA will affront a restructuration process in its business model. There are financial problems that we must solve. Because of that there is an airplane already returned and the same will be done with the other unit”, said Merino to the communication media on January 17th, 2017, when the reasons why VECA was closing operations were announced.
VECA came out of market with debt around USD $800.000 for the airplane´s rent with which they operated, without paying salaries, benefits or employee compensations. Only on fees of the Salvadorian Institute of Social Security, the airline retained from its employees a total of USD $151.238, that was never paid as it should.
“A bunch of vices started inside this company that did not allow its development. On the contrary, it gave hints that something wrong was happening there”. Those were the explanations given by Manuel Durán, VECA’s shareholder, offered to his employees during the operations closure, according to a note published by La Prensa Gráfica on March 07th, 2017.
The same journalistic note also reveals that VECA had a loss of USD $16,2 million and that was never able to find a point of balance to operate. “technically, financially talking, we are a failed company. The idea here is to see how we can get out of it. ¿Can we? Yes, but it will not happen tomorrow or at the end of this month”, said Durán.
A paralyzed investigation
On May 31st, 2019, two years after the closure of VECA, the General Prosecutor of the Republic of El Salvador made a seizure of 23 companies related to Alba Petróleos conglomerate, under suspicion of creation of a network of money and active laundering. The same day, FMLN, party linked to Pdvsa and Albapes, left the Executive Organ after two consecutive periods and left the position to the recently elected Nayib Bukele.
Salvadorian Public Ministry affirms that between 2010 and 2019 the society Alba Petróleos of El Salvador made millionaire transactions, which turned the alarms on regarding money laundering for two important reasons: the first is that the transactions between the companies involved “do not justify in conformity to the nature of the business, because those have been conceived with the aim to receive and deviate funds to different people from the final benefitiary”.
The second, is the lack of knowledge of the origin of most resources that were deposited in bank accounts and the destination given to that”. In this last point stands out the fact that Alba Petróleos made donations during the investigated period of about USD $12,8 million, an amount that exceeded the generated utilities. “The society has given more money than the generated in benefit of the same society”, says the Prosecutor on the report to which Chavismo INC. had access for this note.
Although VECA is not in the list of the raided companies by the prosecutor a year ago, the airline did receive money from Alba Petróleos through triangulations and also affronted a demand of its former employees for appropriation or retention of labor dues. About this accusation the Prosecutor raided the airline offices in March 07th, 2017. Ex – employees contacted for this investigation say that at that moment the collective demand and a negotiation process started, to which VECA representatives compromised, but till today, three years later, only few have received the debt money.
The raid occurred in May 31st, 2019 happened a week after USA Department of State included José Luis Merino, one of Alba Petróleos legal representatives, on the black list of investigated officials for corruption in El Salvador and central America. The United States authorities considered at that moment that Merino contributed with the deviation of USD $400 million through a series of false companies to “offshore” accounts based in Panama and other façade companies.
Chavismo INC. looked for the version of the Salvadorian Prosecutor in order to update the advances on the investigation against Alba Petróleos after the raid in May 31st, 2019, but it was not possible to have information under the argument that it is an ongoing case.
One of the prosecutors who participated on the raid just said, under anonymous condition, that the money and active laundering unit keeps analyzing everything raided and that there have been delays due to changes on the personnel for those labors. The same source did not rules out that as the findings are investigated, it is possible that new names and companies linked to the corruption scheme come up.
A nexus beyond money
Alba Petróleos was born as a mixed economy society. 40% of its share belonged to the Intermunicipal Energy Association for El Salvador (ENEPASA), a society formed by 19 Salvadorian municipalities that were conducted by FMLN. The other 60% belonged to PDV Caribe, a Pdvsa branch was created to manage the agreements of cooperation in central America and the Caribbean. Audits made to PDV Caribe and which were revealed on the investigation Petrofraud, led by CONNECTAS in alliance with other four communication media on the region, showed disorders on the administration of the agreements Petrocaribe and Alba.
On the investigation it was also revealed a series of property transactions made in El Salvador that involved Alba Petróleos of El Salvador, which became a great hypothecary loan officer.
The relationship that ended with the creation of the mixed binational company began to take shape around year 2006 with the approach of the Venezuelan government, at that time still under the direction of Hugo Chávez. It took force when FMLN arrived to the Presidency, most of all from 2014, with Salvador Sánchez Cerén, one of the main leaders of the left – wing party. Nexus derivated in an entrepreneurial handling, today under the Prosecutor magnifying glass, in an investigation of which few progresses are known, although on the matter to continue investigating.