Venezuela’s trade scheme with Turkey built on a criminal network - Bloomberg

According to investigators from at least three countries, including the United States, Venezuela’s gold and food trade with Turkey has evolved into a complex scheme built on a criminal network, Bloomberg reported on Thursday.

In the aftermath of a failed coup attempt in Turkey, the developing relations between Ankara and Caracas led to a trade scheme over gold and food that allowed the Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro to circumvent U.S. sanctions.

“Venezuela now finds its business partnership with Turkey in the crosshairs of several law enforcement organisations around the world. Investigators from at least three countries, including the U.S., believe Venezuela’s gold and food trade with Turkey has evolved into a multilayered scheme built on a foundation of criminality,” Bloomberg said.

A Colombian named Alex Nain Saab Moran, whom according to investigators in United States is one of the most powerful financial enablers of Maduro’s regime, is believed to be at the heart of this criminal network, Bloomberg said.

Saab’s name appeared for the first time several years ago in relation to the drug trafficking investigations in the United States and Latin America. In recent months, his name reemerged in relation to the gold and food trade between Venezuela and Turkey, Bloomberg said. Four people familiar with the criminal investigations in the United States told Bloomberg that Turkey was being used to launder the proceeds of corruption and to evade U.S. sanctions.

According to Luisa Ortega Díaz, former attorney general of Venezuela who now lives in self-imposed exile in Bogotá, Saab and his associates have moved their base of operations to Turkey, following investigations in Colombia. The gold-for-food system is a multi-country, many-company scheme intended to obscure the flow of money and goods, Bloomberg quoted investigators that work for Ortega in Bogotá as saying.

The gold is shipped to Turkey and converted into cash to pay for food, yet only some food is shipped from Turkey, while much of it is sourced in Mexico. Before it’s sent to Venezuela, its value is inflated, allowing those involved in the scheme to skim money from the transactions, explained Carlos Paparoni, an opposition lawmaker in Venezuela who’s studied payment records, contracts, and corporate documents related to the trade.

The companies Saab has set up for the food contracts have been incorporated in Mexico, Venezuela, Hong Kong, and Turkey, said Paparoni and investigators in Colombia and the United States, according to Bloomberg.

Group Grand, a company set up in 2013 in Hong Kong and moved to Mexico in 2017, transferred a Venezuelan government food contract in April 2018 to an Istanbul-based Turkish company called Mulberry Proje Yatirim AS. Mulberry is represented by people who serve as representatives for other Saab-related companies, a senior government official familiar with an ongoing criminal investigation by Colombian National Police told Bloomberg. A person familiar with the investigations of the U.S. Justice Department said at least one other Saab affiliated company was also handed contracts to supply food from Turkey.

Maduro also took the gold business out of the hands of the state and put it under Saab’s control, Bloomberg quoted a Venezuelan opposition lawmaker as saying. He announced a joint venture called Mibiturven, between state mining company Minerven and a Turkish mining company called Marilyns Proje Yatirim AS, which according to investigators in Colombia and Venezuela is also controlled by Saab and his associated, Bloomberg said.

The U.S. officials are also suspicious of Venezuela and Turkey’s gold deals have been rooted in a preoccupation with Iran and the financing of Middle Eastern terror group, Bloomberg said. Suspicions focus on Tareck el Aissami,  a close confidant of Chávez and Maduro, who according to U.S.officials worked with that groups that were related a larger international money laundering scheme that helped financing Hezbollah.

El Aissami, whom Maduro made his vice president in January 2017, had a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last summer in Turkey. El Aissami and Erdoğan met once more in January, just as the Bank of England froze $1.56 billion of the gold reserves it holds for the Venezuelan regime upon the request of U.S. officials. In March a federal court in New York indicted el Aissami for violating the sanctions the U.S. placed on him in 2017 by chartering U.S.-based private jets to Turkey, Bloomberg said.

“Venezuela and Turkey don’t appear to be backing down. Food bound for the CLAP program has been flowing into the port city of La Guaira, near Caracas, at the rate of roughly eight 10,000-ton shiploads a month, most via three ageing ships owned by the Venezuelan government, according to shipping documents. Most of the food continues to come from the same Mexican companies that supplied Saab’s past shipments. Food from Turkey is in the mix, too; it’s transshipped via the Dominican Republic,” Bloomberg said.