Panama Panama, a hub for chavismo

Panama, a hub for chavismo

In 2019, Venezuelans injected USD $2.811 million in companies at the Isthmus while the number of residents and refugees kept increasing. While most choose it as a getaway to escape hunger, others, are seduced by the financial platform, the real estate projects and specialized services to move money easily. ¿How this country ended up becoming one of the favorite havens of Chavistas?

At almost two hours from Venezuela by air, the same language and the Caribbean familiarity, in the last decade Panama emerged as one of the favorite destinations for refuge, outing and adventure for thousand of Venezuelans.

Even when the Central American country did not take part of the political project called ALBA, born in 2004, or the energy agreement in which ex-president Chávez offered oil with bargain credits (Petrocaribe) they arrived there, moved and passed over thousands of million dollars from Venezuelans, including the State Oil Company (PDVSA).

There were USD $427 million injected in Panamanian companies between 2012 and 2015, according to the information from the General Comptroller of the Republic. At that time, the Bank Superintendence said that Venezuela was on the third place of countries of origin with foreign deposits to the local banking system —around USD $1.400 million in 2015, the amount ascended to USD $2.811 in 2019— and the chamber of construction celebrated the participation of Venezuelans in the real estate sector. This overwhelming avalanche occurred at that time, was summarized by former Mexican president Vicente Fox, when he said: “the best minister of Econony that Panama has had is Hugo Chávez”.

A banker could handle portfolios with USD $500 million, from Venezuelan customers and with the aim to place it around the world”, a local trained financial operator said.

Panama may be a small country, but it enables the access to the financial world, guarantees secrecy and was always seductive for people with risk, power or fortune vocation. With exchange restrictions, a rampant corruption, and the economy on the edge of collapse, chavistas would not be the exception.

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Chavismo INC. identified 242 limited companies in Panama, with 380 links to the plot that involves persons of interest in Venezuela. Eight of those companies were pointed by the United States Foreign Assets Control Office (OFAC) and many others are under judicial investigation in some country in the world for money laundering or bribery. The offshore platform, famous for Panama Papers, was taken in advantage by relatives of heavyweight government officials like Diego Salazar Carreño, front men like Samark López Bello and the first lady Cilia Flores de Maduro family clan. There were banks eager to channel money into real estate or other kind of investments, with no questions to ask and lawyers willing to register societies with the ease of opening a window. Chavismo cliques also found here specialists to launder thousands million dollars from the State without raising any suspicion, just as the case of Matthias Krull, a German banker in the tropic who helped laundering.

This plot started in December 2014.

Venezuela was closing a year signed by violent repression in protests against a regime plagued with problems like food scarcity, insecurity and rampant inflation. In the meantime, while there was a new government assuming the presidency, a new subject of scandal appeared to put in check all presidents on the region, including locals: Lava Jato. Bankers followed the news in which they were pointed as intermediary in payments of bizarre briberies from Brazilian Odebrecht. But one person did not lose sleep at all: Matthias Krull.

Krull was directive of the Swiss bank Julius Baer. From German origin but residing in Panama, he lived as any other European banker: a house in a private super exclusive neighborhood and another one at the beach, golf games, pleasure or business trips in a private jet. From his office in a mirror tower with sea views, he managed a big portfolio of people linked to chavismo and other Venezuelan millionaires, so he reported earnings of several million dollars yearly to the bank.

In December 2014, he started to sketch a network similar to the used by Odebrecht, but with another pattern: the Conspirator 7. The case documents from South Florida District Court, in USA did not identify Conspirator 7 but the description was so precise that international media like Miami Herald published that it was Raúl Gorrín “a multimillionaire owner of a television chain in Venezuela”. Besides being businessman, multimillionaire and owner of a TV chain, Gorrín is also investigated for alleged launder and misappropriation of funds in Spain and Unites States. He never referred to the matter or responded to consultations made by Chavismo INC.  but it is evident, as seen on the file, that there were USD $600 million from PDVSA that had to be camouflaged and Krull got down to work.

 

Matthias Krull, the German banker from the tropic that laundered money from Chavismo while traveling the world. | Photo: Tal Cual.

The first thing he knew was that one of his customers had taken an opportunity. In the troubled Venezuela of that time, with the local currency falling deep and official dollar at a much less value than real market, fraud with exchange operations promised extraordinary earnings. Conspirator 7 saw that with other boli – bourgeois and key officials in Pdvsa.

What they did was complicated and complex but it can be simplified as follows: they created an agreement through which a company —Rantor Capital— gave Pdvsa a credit of USD $7.200 million and, six days later, passed the rights of that debt to another company —Eaton Global Services Limited— which charged in dollars at the official exchange rate: USD $600 million, paid through an account in Europe. The plot left more than USD $500 million of earnings, thanks to payment of bribery and, of course, the difference between the official dollar and the real market one. A fraud on top of another fraud. Krull and other money launderers were in charge of camouflaging this money.

Five months after the operation initiated, which became famous with the name given by the case in USA, Money Flight, the conspiration duplicated its activity thanks to that motor and Pdvsa’s gas that did not stop injecting: over USD $1.200 million. Krull then drew a scheme to convert part of that dirty money in one with clean looking. Next to his colleagues, he had the idea to create three strategies: real estate investments, false investment systems and creation of ghost companies, with their respective bank accounts in fiscal paradises and USA. Always with the help of front men.

¿Why all that effort? To transfer funds, the bank requests a justification —for example, payment of a property or equipment purchase— and backup documents. Bribery, earnings produced through a scheme of money exchange to embezzle millions from Pdvsa or fund misappropriation are not a valid justification. Therefore, they invented false investments in false values to simulate a false earning with promissory note purchases, bonuses and complete investment funds, also false. “Krull’s confession document at the Federal Tribunal in Miami says: “False investments with false values are a very convenient justifications because they are more difficult to investigate and verify by a bank (…). It is difficult to determine the real intention of the parties and the fraudulent nature of the investment”, says Krull’s document of confession to the Federal Tribunal of Miami. Furthermore, fraud also included favors to friend banks and bribery to officials to authorize contracts or avoid investigations.

This crime seemed to be perfect until something happened and it got truncated: somebody spoke about it.

In January 2016, a financial operator mentioned in the case as Confidential Source —the Confident— went to a government office in Miami and declared that he had received 78 million euros through a fraudulent loan contract from Pdvsa. One month later he started to record the conversations with others implied on the case. He accumulated more than 100 files in two years and revealed a global plan of corruption of the highest level. The exchange of calls, meetings, handwritten notes, mails, chats gathered on this case reflect all the juggling made to route stacks of money to people politically exposed (PEPs) and a perfect handling on the finances universe. There are also names that appear repeatedly. Businessmen and Pdvsa officials, such as vice-president —Venezuelan Official 1—-, the director of financial planning and the legal advisor. Bankers, financial advisors and professional launderers were also key, next to Krull and the confident, acted as a bloc even when each one of them took care of their own interests —and millions— of a different chief.

Of course, there were front men like Mario Enrique Bonilla Valera. Friend of the first lady’s sons, Bonilla Valera managed to go from Playstation to the succulent universe of businesses fast and easy at the young age of 20 years old. In the case, Krull mentioned him with his friends as “los chamos”: sons of Nicolás Maduro’s wife. Los Chamos appear on the case four times, being the most resounding the “Operation 600 summary”, that shows how the money was distributed: 227 million for a Boli – bourgeois, 68 million for Conspirator and 159 for Los Chamos. 

 

The “Operation 600 summary” shows how the money was distributed: 159 million for Los Chamos. | Source: District Court of USA.

 

The operation shows a common pattern present on other corruption cases in Venezuela analyzed by Chavismo INC.: every chief in charge of a State area – in this case, Pdvsa -, had thousands of millions available that ended up distributed on a group of officials. To move and dispose of that money they associated to other businessmen —such as Conspirator 7— and front men —in this case, Bonilla Valera— with whom developed the scam. Finally they searched for financial operators —Krull or the confident— to launder.

In this move, justice grabbed them. Krull plead guilty conspiracy to commit money laundering and payment of bribery. He paid a bail of five million and was sentenced to ten years of prison on October 29th, 2018.

The Swiss bank director living in tropic had other customers linked to Venezuelan government, some included on the same case and others who came up on journalistic investigations such as Panama Papers. “In Panama, Krull had an important portfolio”, said a banker to Chavismo INC. Another one stated the same affirmation, who added details about that greed without any itchiness or risk measurements: “no one cared where the money came from while it kept coming, not here, not in USA, not in China. If afterwards the warehouses were seized, it did not matter either, the money was already inside”. A consultant that used to share drinks and trips with Krull also stated: “everybody behaved the same way till gringos put their attention on Venezuelans, there Panama took the initiative of stopping the business with Venezuela”.

Till this day, there are no known ongoing investigations against Krull in Panamanian justice. Neither on other cases where there were Panamanian companies involved.

What the Panamanian government did was to react against the Ofac’s attack with chavismo referents: sanctioned 55 officials and some Venezuelan companies. On March 27th, 2018 published the names of natural and legal persons “considered of high risk in matter of Money Laundering”, among which was Nicolás Maduro himself, almighty Diosdado Cabello and first lady Cilia Flores’s favorite nephew, Carlos Erik Malpica Flores. By then, there were already a dozen of companies in Panama orbiting around Malpica Flores.

In 2015, right when Venezuela finished turning into a country where people died by starvation or by bullet and fled in masses —residents in Panama went from a one thousand to six thousand in 2015— the family clan of Maduro´s wife opened twelve societies. Malpica Flores was an absolute and reserved inhabitant of power that had the intelligence of not figuring in any of those juridic structures, but his family still appears; his father appears on three, his sister and aunt appear on the rest. Eleven of those societies were dissolved at the beginning of 2016, after the publishing of journalistic investigations connecting them to the Isthmus. The last society closed on April 13th, 2017.

Malpica Flores was sanctioned by OFAC and the Panama government (see profile and connections here). He was not the only one.

There are businessmen like Gorrín on the list, besides other State contractors pointed as suspicious of corruption, such as the group involved on irregular businesses around CLAP program. There are also public officials and their front men who coincide in both lists: Clinton list and the one of the Public Register of Panama. One of them is Samark López Bello.

Till year 2013, López Bello was not a known name when talking about politics within the Venezuelan power. During that year, he started to appear on few journalistic publications due to alleged links to commercial activities in the country, but his relation with Minister and vice – president Tareck El Aissami went unnoticed. On February 13th, 2017, OFAC pointed him as front man and launderer of El Aissami. At that moment he jumped into world fame.

López Bello is a key leader for El Aissami and he launders all the earning from drug traffic”, said OFAC when announced his inclusion on the list known as Clinton list. Regarding El Aissami, OFAC pointed that “he enabled narcotic shipments from Venezuela (…) as well as drug route control on Venezuelan ports”. He denied everything: “this alleged infamous assault, this villainy from imperialism (…). Accuse us of what you want, we will still be building Bolivar’s dream”, he said through a video on his Twitter account.

Five years before that, in 2012, López Bello took control of a society registered in Panama on 2002: Yakima Trading Corp., also pointed by OFAC. When social capital went over USD $10 million, on October 07th, 2015, they decided to move it to Barbados, as stated in the deed of 12th Notary of Panama Circuit. On the company, registered by Lawyer’s office Vives y Asociados, López Bello shares directive with three other men who accompany him on many other companies around the world, specially in Bahamas, Virgin Islands and, of course, Venezuela. On February 04th, 2012 he opened a twin company where the resident agent and the directive are the same. The lawyer’s office quit on February 14th, 2017, when López Bello links to corruption became public and the society was suspended for lack of activity on October 11th, 2019.

On the Public Register records of Panama, there is not much more detail about the societies but the transnational investigation Paradise Papers contributed with some hints: through Yakima Trading Corp., López Bello signed agreements with Pdvsa. His lawyers said to Armando.info that the society was created for “projects at international level under the name of Profit, but the company never had activity, or bank account”.

 

López Bello operated in Panama for over ten years, but recently attracted attention when OFAC mentioned it. On February 16th, 2017, the Superintendence of Banks sent a circular letter to the financial entities where it was requested to verify if they maintained “contractual relations with their banking entity”, if processes of due diligence were done properly, according to regulation and to give notice if emerged any accounts of banking movements involving him. Due diligence with López Bello evidently failed or his risk profile was ignored. Again, it was not the only case.

Due diligence is a process done compulsorily by banks and lawyers, to get to know the customer and avoid giving legal instruments for money laundering or corruption to exposed persons. It is obligation by law and all swear they accomplish it, but it is evident that they accept to incorporate hundreds of people involved in risky businesses. “till the moment when the gringos turned their heads to Venezuela, bankers and lawyers looked the other way. ¿why? Because what matters is the money that arrives”, said a Venezuelan financial advisor resident in Panama, who saw from the first row the dance of millions from Venezuelan corruption.

Opening a society in Panama is legal and hiding money in fiscal refuges is not always a crime. Some people declare their fortunes to the tax authorities and do their part of the deal, but where there is a corruption case, almost always there is a company, or account, or trust fund established in s fiscal paradise. Just as López Bello ones.

The data tracked by Chavismo INC. shows that in the great majority of power tumbles in Venezuela to remain with slices of public money, there always was a Panamanian society behind. Former vice – minister of energy, Nervis Gerardo Villalobos Cárdenas —requested by justice in several countries, of course due to bribery and money laundering— appears as directive of Pomerol Investments Group S.A. and linked to several more (see profile and connections here). Juan José Levy, the Argentinian businessman who went from being a retailer of laboratory products to be a powerful provider for the Venezuelan Government, is linked to Sunblaze Foundation and used Mossack Fonseca services. The platform included even the very own son of Hugo Chávez: on the payment of bribery from Lava Jato, Odebrecht deposited to publicist Joao Santana USD $35 million on the Panamanian society Shellbill Finance S.A. to prepare his electoral campaign.

Panama city bay, expanded thanks the real estate boom, in which Venezuelans had a fundamental role. | Foto: Roberto Quintero.

There are more than one hundred fiscal refuges in the world. Chavista power laid hands on most of them. Dreamy islands like Seychelles and Bahamas, colonies of some powerful country, such as British Virgin Islands of United Kingdom or states like Delaware and Nevada in USA. Sovereign nations like Switzerland and Panama.

All of them allowed its protected to enclose their privileges: not paying taxes, no rendering accounts, avoiding controls in their countries, besides moving dirty money. On this chavista plot, there is a perfect example to show how it was used: the Private Bank of Andorra (BPA) case.

The facts happened between 2004 and 2016, it involves hundreds of million dollars from Pdvsa, a skein of limited societies in Panama and bank accounts associated in the principality of Andorra. This network, investigated and exposed by Spain and Venezuela authorities has Diego Salazar Carreño as one of the main actors, a Venezuelan with eccentric tastes like recording a bolero album or expending 6 thousand euros sitting on a Paris bar. That is not the reason what made him participate in this matter but his relationship with whom commanded Pdvsa during ten years: he is cousin of Rafael Ramírez.

What Salazar Carreño did, among other cooperators and officials from the oil company —always according to the judicial registers— was to charge bribery for public contracts and, in order to not to leave any traces, the payment was done in bank accounts in Andorra, under the name of Panamanian societies.

That way, these men connected strings between points like Malta, Andorra, Panama and China, just as perfect machines, till they had an entangled spiderweb of countries, with names like Highland Asset Corp., registered in Panama on April 20th, 2007 —and file number AD66 0006 0008 2512 0026 9407— an account in Andorra under the name of that society -, through where the money circulated which origin was that dollar expeller oil tank called Pdvsa. Two billion euros travelled through 37 accounts under the name of 13 Panamanian accounts, to integrate bribery payments to the legal market and close the circle of crime. Also, through them they bought properties for more than USD $20 million dollars.

The companies formed a network in which it was observable a triangulation in regards of partners, directors, goods and actives handled (…) the citizens act on those companies as partners, then they pass the share package to another company in which they are also partners, and continue selling the shares between them (…). It circulates inside the companies, pass them from one company to another, and to the personal patrimony of the partners, then finally return from a different company or any other partner. With this they managed to cover or dissimulate the origin of funds and assets”. It was exposed by the Supreme Court of Justice of Venezuela based on reports from police and the Unit of Financial Intelligence of Andorra, among others.

The case is being investigated in Venezuela, Spain, United States and Andorra. Salazar Carreño was detained in Venezuela in 2017 after being accused by Nicolás Maduro’s Prosecutor of money laundering. Salazar Carreño’s lawyers said to Chavismo INC.  that “there is no judicial procedure in which it is pointed that any bank account linked to Mr. Salazar Carreño had received funds coming from Pdvsa”. Venezuelan justice affirmed that he is linked to a criminal network that laundered over USD $1.400 million in illegal commissions in exchange of Pdvsa contracts. His cousin Rafael Ramírez, also pointed by those events, has defended his own innocence and his relative’s one. Ramírez was one of the closest collaborators of Chávez. He is now confronted with Maduro.

Despite all the evidence, in Panama there are no known investigations that involves public money from Venezuela. The Anti – corruption prosecutor is investigating a case where there is a Venezuelan woman, but it is linked to Ecuadorian money: Petroecuador. That is another benefit of the Hub.

 

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