A golden exile in Spain has been carried out by Venezuelan businessmen close to the political power and former high rank officials who accumulated great fortunes during the last 20 years of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro’s governments. Many of them are accused of making businesses with oil, with public contracts or with currency operations in an exchange market previously controlled by authorities. Since 2014, with Chávez death, the emigration tendency increased. Many were carrying great fortunes to the European country.
They settled down with aid of investor residence visas, the golden ticket that allows the beneficiary to stay in a country after an investment superior to 500 thousand to two million euros or purchasing a property of 500 thousand euros or more. They did not have the pressure of million Venezuelans who left the country due to humanitarian emergency; they arrived in private planes or discretely in business class.
Chavismo INC. tracked persons linked to chavismo in judicial documents and other public registers in 69 countries. It allowed to build a data base that offers an approximate sketch of their patrimony and relations. A luxury life, investments and bank movements raised, in some cases, the suspicion of Spanish judicial authorities, which initiated nine different investigations for alleged crimes of money laundering, false documentary, fiscal offence, bribery, prevarication, corruption on international economic transactions, disloyal administration, fraud and crimes against Tax Authorities according to the categorization made in the present work.
Only in six of those cases there is a trace followed of USD $30 million from Venezuelan public patrimony, which are compromised. Of 31 societies identified by Chavismo INC., 20 are mentioned on the investigation.
The disembark operation was organized with repeated patterns, in many cases. First was the constitution of imposed societies in Spain and countries with permissive fiscal policies like Panama, but also Switzerland, Cayman Islands, Malta, Liechtenstein, Andorra and Cyprus, among others. Across those societies, they invested in one the most speculative markets: real estate area, specially in luxury neighborhoods, to launder money or to generate profitability, investigators suspect. The modality allowed some to shelter in a high level social life and mingle with Spanish jet set in places like sunny Marbella, neighborhoods like the exclusive La Moraleja or the traditional Salamanca, in Madrid. In many cases, they counted on local lawyer services and accountable advisory, some related to conservative areas.
The initiative of transnational investigation from Transparencia Venezuela, local chapter of Transparencia Internacional, the Latin American platform of Journalism CONNECTAS and the Rebel Alliance investigates (ARI), in which participated journalists and investigators from Venezuela Argentina, Panama, Spain, United States, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Bolivia, gathered information that renders account of the magnitude of chavismo operations inside and outside their country: the gears of Bolivarian capitalism in the world.
One of the persons with a larger list of societies, properties and relations according to the data base is Nervis Villalobos. He was vice-minister of electric energy during Hugo Chávez mandate – between 2003 and 2006 -. He had the key to great public contracts, especially with oil and electric sector. Investigated in USA, Spain, Portugal, Andorra and Venezuela for crimes of money laundering, Nervis is located on the ranking of heavyweights in alleged millionaire bribery routes and consequent legitimation of capitals.
Villalobos settled in Madrid next to his wife, Milagros Coromoto Torres and three children. The family started a luxury life since then and in short time he managed to acquire high value properties, some located in the most expensive places of the country. For his operations, he counted on support from Alfonso Garrido Picón, of B Law & Tax firm, a Spanish consultor specialized in tax advisory. One of the key companies for Villalobos in Spain was Kingsway Europe SL, according to investigations on the European country. Garrido confirmed to Chavismo INC. that he offered the former official services of “accounting management and tax declarations” for that company. “the information regarding rendered services to Mr. Villalobos is now in Spanish authorities hands”, he added in a written message as an answer to our questionnaire.
Through Kingsway Europe SL, Villalobos bought a series of properties, as it is stated in documents of Anticorruption Prosecutor of Spain. This company was financed via a main branch denominated Kingsway LDA, registered on Madeira, Portugal, which has been investigated for launder operations. That way, he acquired two apartments in José Abascal street in 2017, in the opulent neighborhood of Salamanca, each one of them with 300 sq. meters and valued in €1,6 million. That is the most expensive corner of Madrid: the square meter oscillates between 5 and 9 thousand euros. On José Ortega and Gasset 44 street he bought a luxury apartment valued in more than 500 thousand euros, for a relative. Also in 2017, Villalobos bought another apartment valued in €1 million on Barceló street, next to Salamanca neighborhood, according to Prosecutor.
The justice also turned its eyes into another society denominated Columbus Properties One, which links him to other Venezuelans. Through this, Villalobos also invested in Columbus Hills, in Marbella, the favorite paradisiac destination of Russian, Saudi and British millionaires. Columbus Properties One is a Public Limited Investment Company in the Real Estate Market (Socimi), a real state investment vehicle that enjoys of tax advantages and created by the Spanish government in 2009 to attract capitals in the midst of their crisis. These societies are not supervised by officials from tax authorities but by the National Stock Market Commission, which president is appointed by the government. To Venezuelans related to Columbus Properties One, including the former vice – minister, has a total of 115 properties confiscated.
Villalobos has been in jail twice in Spain and his deportation to USA was approved and then resigned by the National Audience. On the European country, this instance links him to the reception of bribery from the Spanish company Duro Felguera, hired in 2008 to develop an energy complex in Venezuela. The Unit of Economic and Fiscal Crime of the National Police links him to laundering €54,3 million through a complex financial structure with nodes in Spain.
In USA, a Texas tribunal attributes to him the participation in a millionaire scheme of bribery related to the Venezuelan State Oil company Pdvsa operations and more recently the Department of Justice linked him to laundering of assets from drug traffic. In Andorra Principality, a judge mentions him as one of the Venezuelans that participated in movements of more than USD $2.000 million through the local banking system. The plot involves connections with a long list of countries and names close to chavismo, including former PDVSA’s president and Venezuelan ex – ambassador before UN, Rafael Ramírez, and his cousin Diego Salazar.
Villalobos was contacted for this work and he pointed through his communications agents that he already has responded enough before the accusations. In previous declarations he has defended his innocence and argues that his incomes come from advisory activities with customers, mainly Spanish, whom he serviced when he took aside from the Venezuelan government.
Businesses between luxuries
The map of Venezuelans close to power includes Rafael Sarría Díaz. There are registers of companies in Spain that link this businessman, sanctioned by Foreign Assets Control Office (OFAC) from the Treasury Department of USA. The institution identifies him as front man of Diosdado Cabello, number two of chavismo. Among the companies sanctioned by OFAC in May 2018 it is 114020 Corp, a firm settled in Florida that has among their directives his wife, Mireya Carolina Hidalgo de Sarría. That name also appears related to two other companies located in Spanish territory: Galvestown Trade SL and Mazal 17 SL.
Hidalgo de Sarría appears as only administrator of Galvestown Trade SL since November 2019. It was constituted in January that year and its purpose is to do commercial intermediation. Its domicile is a luxury house at Paseo Conde de los Gaitanes in La Moraleja de Alcobendas neighborhood, Madrid. There live, among others, soccer and show business celebrities. According to ranking published by the Spanish tax agency, La Moraleja is the residential area with the largest fiscal income of the European country. Another company registered in France under the name of Hidalgo de Sarría (SCI 3 Avenue Bosquet), also declares as domicile the same address. Chavismo INC visited the address but the person on the intercom did not give any contact information to make questions.
Hidalgo de Sarría also appears as solidary administrator of Mazal 17. On the mercantile register, the company declares to be settled on #6, Orfila street, in a wealthy area in Madrid downtown. However, in this location, there is Hotel Relais and Chateaux Orfila. The investigation team visited the address and employees and manager agreed that there is no other company functioning in that accommodation. Spanish laws do not allow, with no exception, to provide a hotel address as a company office.
Mazal 17 SL operates in the real estate area since 2018, but as the majority of the mentioned companies in this work, it does not have a website or public registers of its activity. It was constituted by a local entrepreneur, who separated from the firm at beginnings of 2019, when Hidalgo de Sarría started as company’s administrator and shortly after Sarría was sanctioned in USA.
On the mercantile information it is explained that the firm owns another company denominated Comercio y Desarrollo 2100 SL, dedicated to tax, legal and economic advisory. It is domiciled in Nogal street, a residential area in Madrid. The persons found in that address do not answer the telecom when this investigation’s team calls. They do not open the door, not even to ask if on the other side of the line there is a potential customer. Besides the secrecy around the visits, it can also be added that its administrative organ is composed by three people who share last name and figure as administrators of more than 535 societies, according to data consulted for this work.
The owner of Comercio y Desarrollo is at the same time the firm of accounting and tax advisory Bergeon Española. Chavismo INC. communicated through phone call with this company to request an email address to send a questionnaire to. They refused to give it or to answer any questions. There was also no way to contact Hidalgo de Sarría to consult about her entrepreneurial activities.
USA authorities identified similar Sarria’s signatures for acquisition of millionaire assets in that country. The businessman had a meteoric career: went from being insurance salesman to be part of Chávez’s security team in 1998 campaign. From there he became a prosperous contractor of the Ministry of Infrastructure, when it was lead by Diosdado Cabello.
Sarría had in total 15 properties in Florida and New York under his name and through three companies. Short after, a luxury jet, camouflaged in a Florida hangar and valued in USD $20 million was seized. One of Sarría’s brothers, Edgar, has a firm in Spain: Panazeate SL. It was equally included on the OFAC list, but it is not active (see profile and Rafael Alfredo Sarría Díaz connections here).
OFAC attributed at least a decade of work in representation of Cabello’s interests. He is considered a conductive thread in activities that go from appropriation of State funds to drug traffic, a charge repeatedly and emphatically denied by Cabello. The chavista leader was also sanctioned in the same round with Sarría Díaz.
Even though Cabello does not have companies in Spain, Luisa Ortega Díaz, who claimed titularity in the function of General Prosecutor in Venezuela, accused two family members of the leader in 2017 of receiving bribery for over USD $100 million from Brazilian constructor Odebrecht, through a company registered in Spain. The constructor denied the accusation, as well as Cabello.
With the same discretion of Sarría’s surroundings, emerges a firm dedicated to values and other assets intermediation, owned by Amir Nassar Tayupe, lawyer of the Colombian businessman Alex Saab Morán. According to USA government he is involved in a network to deviate over USD $350 million from Venezuela. Armando.info’s portal investigations have been key to show up Saab Morán’s operations. He is considered front man of Maduro and has been involved in questioned activities, specially imports of food to Venezuela and also other areas like gold and construction.
The company linked to Nassar Tayue is Nanko Capital, created in 2012. The lawyer appears as unique administrator and it has its offices in one of the most expensive areas of the Spanish capital, Conde de Aranda street. This firm has not had commercial activity, in accordance with the Public Register documents. However, the Spanish Anticorruption office inquires if the lawyer has acted as Saab Moran ‘s front man and moved money through diverse international trust funds, according to sources consulted for this work.
Armando.info’s investigation also established that Nassar Tayupe was directive of the Panamanian company Global Food Trading, which exported to Venezuela more than USD $125 million in agricultural products. Álvaro Pulido’s son was also leading the company. At its moment, the lawyer admitted to be part of the company but cleared that after his incorporation there were no new State contracts made. He is also owner of properties in USA and firms in Panama. A questionnaire about those subjects was remitted to him but it was not responded at the end of this edition.
High profile connections
Luis Carlos De León also chose Spain as refuge. He is an ex-official of the National Electric Corporation and Pdvsa, condemned in USA after confessing his participation in a network of briberies linked to the state oil company. He stayed in the European country till his detention in 2017, thanks to investigations of another case of illegal payments allegedly made to Venezuelan officials by the Spanish contractor Duro Felguera. He was not processed in Spain for this case but was extradited in order to put him under a Texas tribunal orders. Finally, he was sentenced. In both the case aired in USA and the one heard in Spain, Nervis Villalobos is also accused.
De León’s wife, Andreína Gámez Rodríguez has been related to millionaire flows of money: this year in New Zealand, assets for more than USD $17 million were frozen. In Spain, Gámez Rodríguez is linked to a real estate company registered in Madrid under the denomination Sansobino 1977 SL, of which she is the only administrator. The company dedicates to real estate and is located in Mediterráneo Avenue in the Spanish capital. José fraga was one of its representatives, he was one of Popular Party (PP) founders, minister during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, deputy and senator until he died in 2012. A prominent figure of the Spanish conservationism. A written consultation was remitted to Fraga for this work, but it was not answered and the same did De León’s lawyers, to whom a questionnaire was sent.
Businesses also put big Spanish companies on the same picture, pointed for illegal financing to PP and bribery in Venezuela. It happened with Constructora Hispánica, which took part of the consortium to which Chávez’s government granted rehabilitation works of Metro de Caracas Line 1 in 2008. The Spanish consortium was also integrated by CAF, Dimetronic and Cobra, from ACS Group, property of Florentino Pérez (president of Real Madrid) and by two companies of Carlos Luis Aguilera, a retired captain who worked till 2002 as director of the Direction of Intelligence and Prevention Services (DISIP) former name of the National Bolivarian Service of Intelligence (SEBIN)
Venezuelan government reimbursed USD $1.850 million for works, at least 4,8% of it went to commissions and bribery, according to the Spanish anti – laundering service. It is presumed that part of it was used to pay Aguilera’s advisory. Meanwhile, Constructora Hispánica financed the ‘B box’ from PP, according to the judicial documentation of Bárcenas and Gürtel cases. A written consultation about the charges was remitted to the retired captain, who promised to send answers but beyond the proposed limit date by the journalistic team. Days after the given prorogue, there was no response, not even at the end of this edition. Likewise, a consultation was sent to the communications agency of Florentino Pérez but no answer received.
Lives of nobles
Among the Venezuelans that emigrated to Spain, there were cases of whom managed to approximate to the Spanish jet set: stands out businessman Alejandro Betancourt and banker Víctor Vargas. The first is what in Venezuela is know as “bolichico”, a young person of high class family who saw himself benefitted by millionaire businesses with Venezuelan government. He was one of favorite Chávez’s entrepreneurs, he granted 12 millionaire contracts to him, in order to build electric power plants for costs superior to €1.300 million. The PDVSA agreements granted to Derwick Associates multiplied his incomes.
A Betancourt cousin, Francisco Convit Guruceaga, was pointed in the Money Flight operation developed by USA prosecutors, for defalcation of USD $1.200 million to PDVSA. Convit Guruceaga was linked to another conspirator who has not being officially identified in the case even though both are commonly called “bolichicos”. USA communication media have affirmed also that Betancourt is being investigated for another scheme of capital legitimation. In virtue of that process, his bank secrecy was lifted from his accounts in Switzerland.
A Derwick version was registered in Spain under the name of Derwick Associated International SL. Later the company changed the name to Compañía de Inversiones Agrícolas Trieste. According to mercantile documentation, the main activity of Trieste is the cultivation of grapes, for which it has received several public grants from the Ministry of Agriculture of Castilla La Mancha government, the region where it develops. But, more than anything, the company was used to acquire properties, such as an apartment of two million euros in the neighborhood of Salamanca, Madrid and the farm El Alamín, located south of Madrid and with an extension of 1.600 hectares. This last had a cost of almost 23 million euros and Spanish authorities investigated the transaction due to an alleged money laundering, according to information from Spanish El Confidencial, a newspaper.
Betancourt also invests in the real estate area, through Guanabana Real Estate SL. The company was created in 2010 and its still active for legal effects although its social domicile is unknown: at the beginning of 2019 its address changed but the new location still has not being remitted to the Spanish Mercantile Register. In its administration council is present Betancourt’s mother and José Alfredo Blanco, a low-profile Spanish businessman that frequently appears on administration councils of family companies.
Nonetheless, Betancourt is known is Spain for being partner of the sunglasses brand Hawkers. It is a well-recognized brand around the world, which started as a small startup and in 2015 sponsored Los Ángeles Lakers, an important franchise inside NBA professional basketball league. In 2016 Betancourt entered as shareholder and funding partner in Hawkers through the company Saldum Ventures, of which he is president and advisor. Betancourt is also related to other companies as Zigor Corporation, dedicated to the electric area in which he was advisor in 2016 and 2017 and with the investment trust fund O’Hara in 2016 (see Betancourt’s profile and connections here).
The relationship between the Spanish aristocracy with Venezuelan fortunes has another example in Víctor Vargas’s family case. He is a Venezuelan businessman, owner of the Financial Group Banco Occidental de Descuento (BOD) and one of the heavy weights of the Falciani list that revealed names of great evaders with accounts on the Swiss bank HSBC. Till few years, only the most exclusive circles and frequent assistants to private clubs of the Spanish aristocracy knew the relation between the Borbons and the banker’s surroundings.
Vargas presumed before The Wall Street Journal that his children had “never flew in a commercial flight”. In Venezuela, he is known as ‘the red banker’ and one the most graced by chavismo, till the point that his fortune trebled after Chavez’s arrival to power. In exchange, the banker supported the Venezuelan government (with both Chávez and Maduro) in their economic decisions. He is also father in law of Luis Alfonso de Borbón, aristocrat, Spanish businessman and great – grandson of Alfonso XIII (grandfather of King Juan Carlos) and Francisco Franco. This family connection has led him to occupy the presidency of the patronage of Francisco Franco National Foundation.
Luis Alfonso Gonzalo Víctor Manuel Marco de Borbón y Martínez-Bordiú, also known as ‘Prince Borbón’ is the heir and aspirant to the Throne of France. He is also vice – president of BOD, a bank owned by his father in law, Victor Vargas, who left in the lurch thousands of people that trusted him after bankruptcy of Banco del Orinoco, a branch of BOD located in the Netherlands Antilles. A nobility story that has part of its history in the Venezuelan of chavismo.