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The King Midas of the Clap Business Lays His Hands on the Gold of Guyana

Multiple indications suggest that Colombian entrepreneur Alex Saab, one of the largest suppliers of the food programs of the Government of Nicolás Maduro and target of the police investigations of several countries, participates in the opaque exchange of precious metals for consumer goods established between Venezuela and Turkey. The new president of the state company Minerven being a former employee of his, is just one of the clues.

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A presidential decree of July 20, 2018, formalized the appointment of Adrián Antonio Perdomo Mata as president of the Venezuelan General Mining Company (CVG Minerven), the state company in charge of exploring, exploiting and processing gold from the Guayana mines, south of the country.

A month later, on August 31, another decree by President Nicolás Maduro authorized the creation of Mibiturven, a joint venture between Minerven and a company with a Turkish registry, named Marilyns Proje Yatirim.

Although not evident at first sight, both decisions are connected with Alex Saab Morán, the Colombian entrepreneur whose business with Venezuela ?especially his participation in the importation of supplies for the program of the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP)?is currently investigated by the authorities of several countries.

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Perdomo Mata, the new president of Minerven, was a director of a company related to Alex Saab, Trading Energy and Coal (Trenaco), registered in Caracas in October 2014 and dissolved two years later. Perdomo Mata held the position of "general assistant manager" of that mirror company of the Colombian Trenaco, also liquidated, the head office of which leads to Switzerland. Being a stranger in the oil sector, in August 2015, it obtained a contract with Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) that was later dissolved for 4,500 million dollars.

Saab never appeared in the company's records, but a Reuters investigation revealed that he “was in full control of Trenaco” after reviewing "internal correspondence" and "Whatsapp audio files with Saab's participation." In addition to this information from the news agency published in July 2016, there are now other clues that reaffirm the relationship between Saab and Trenaco.

The Caracas headquarters of Trenaco, where he was general assistant manager of the current president of Minerven, is in the same business tower Centro Galipán in El Rosal, east of the capital, where the office of Fondo Global de Construcción (Global Construction Fund) is located. With this structure, seven years ago Alex Saab - together with his partner Álvaro Pulido Vargas, also Colombian- began his career as a contractor of chavism by signing a millionaire agreement in the Miraflores Palace for the construction of prefabricated homes. This is ruled out as a simple coincidence when verifying that both companies registered the same telephone number in the National Register of Contractors (RNC). "Thanks for calling Fondo Global de Construcción. Your call will be answered soon," repeats an answering machine before an endless musical thread that stops any possibility of asking about that relationship.

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Another link between the president of Minerven and Alex Saab is evident in the commercial registry of Istanbul, the main Turkish city. Marilyns Proje Yatirim, the company handpicked by President Maduro to create the joint venture Sociedad Anónima Minería Binacional Turquía Venezuela (Mibiturven), recorded there two telephone numbers. No one answers them, but they are the same used by Mulberry Proje Yatirim, another piece of the business plot with which Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido Vargas hold the power of the sale of food for the CLAP state program since late 2016.

Perdomo Mata, in addition to president of the state-owned Minerven, is listed as president of Aleaciones Metálicas del Pacífico, a Panamanian firm created on August 5, 2015, where he shares the board with Amir Nassar Tayupe, Alex Saab’s lawyer in Venezuela, who is representing him in a lawsuit against four journalists of Armando.info. This company was registered with a capital of 10,000 dollars, and one of its purposes is to "develop production and marketing of semi-finished and finished, hot rolled, cold and coated, long and flat steel products, and in general, the construction of physical infrastructure, technical assistance and technological development, particularly in cases of use of iron, steel and other metals, and especially those specific to the steel, industrial and mineral activity in general, as well as related and complementary activities including the export, import and marketing of products that the company extracts, produces or acquires from other sources."

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The Turkish Path

The shadow of Alex Saab in the mining business and its relationship with Turkish companies occurs just as Nicolás Maduro seems to be focused on a simultaneous effort to entrust foreign partners with the rare and precious mineral deposits of the so-called Orinoco Mining Arc, and close relationships with the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, an alliance of states that support each other in circumventing Washington's financial sanctions.

It does not seem a coincidence that, after the visits of several Venezuelan ministers to the Eurasian country in recent months, Turkish products began to appear in the CLAP boxes. Furthermore, at the same time, the shipments of tons of Venezuelan gold began to be dispatched to Turkey in an exchange barely explained by the authorities.

"It is an agreement established between Turkey and the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV), which is basically for the refining of gold," Víctor Cano, Minister of Mining Development, told Reuters last July in response to accusations by opposition members of the parliament, regarding the nature of the business. "It is not smuggling to Turkey. There are agreements entered into by between the BCV and Turkey," he insisted when questioned about the exploitation of the so-called Mining Arc, an area of ??nearly 112,000 square kilometers in southern Venezuela. Nicolás Maduro aims with its exploitation to find increasingly urgent revenues in the face of the collapse of the oil industry, the traditional provider of currency for the Republic.

Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary for terrorist financing of the US Treasury Department, this week described the swap between the two countries as a "looting" and reported that 21 metric tons of gold left Venezuela in recent months. "We have seen Turkish companies replace many of the food companies that made incursions into the corruption related to the CLAP food boxes program," the Associated Press (AP) reported.

According to the Greek mythology, the kingdom of Midas ?the monarch who died of hunger after taking his prodigious capacity to turn everything he touched into gold to the absurd? was in the territory of the present-day Turkey. Alex Saab, precisely found a new formula in Turkey to camouflage his trading operations in food sales for the CLAP until then centralized in Group Grand Limited, a company incorporated in Hong Kong, whereby he achieved at least two contracts with the Venezuelan Government of around 700 million dollars for the supply of food, mostly purchased in Mexico, and another three with the Ministry of Health for around 200 million dollars for the sale of medicines from India.

On October 18, Mexican authorities pointed to the corporate network entwined from Group Grand Limited to buy "low quality" products in that country and export them to Venezuela with "overpricing." But Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido Vargas already had another firm in Istanbul, Mullberry Proje Yatirim.

In mid-October, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin had warned in a communication about the secrecy of the Venezuelan authorities when exporting their minerals, mainly to Turkey. For Minerven workers, the operation of Marilyns Proje Yatirim - with which Mullberry shares a telephone number - is uncertain. "There has not been an aggressive investment plan, but the Turkish company is giving the money, and they make the decisions," says a source linked to the state. "The financial muscle comes from the private part," another worker agreed.

Marilyns Proje Yatirim owns 45% of the shares of Mibiturven, the joint venture created by presidential decree. In recent years, the operation of the state collapsed to the point that, to date, the facilities of four of the mines under its responsibility are mostly flooded due to lack of sump pumps.

The trace of the Turkish mining company is ghostly. The record of Istanbul also shows that it has a mirror company in the United Kingdom named Marilyns Capital Limited and in which Lorenzo Antonelli, a young Italian of 25 years, appears as director. The company's website was created on June 21, just two months before reaching an agreement with Minerven for the exploitation of Venezuelan gold. "We are a company engaged in the exploration, extraction and transportation of gold and precious metals, committed to good practices and our customers. Our commitment is to fulfill and deliver 100% quality products," affirms the website, which does not show the company's background in the area.  

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The workers of Minerven said that the collection of gold from the small-scale mining was interrupted a few weeks ago due to the restructuring undertaken by Perdomo Mata. "Gold is not being collected, they are making a full restructuring (...) The information is very secret and the sale to the BCV has not been opened," says a worker of the state company, who asks to remain anonymous, as María de Los Ángeles Ramírez Cabello from Ciudad Guayana reported for this release.

Additional Clues

The trace of Alex Saab in the gold business could be added to the many activities that are now under the scrutiny of judicial and financial authorities of several countries. One of them is the operation behind the purchases for the CLAPs in Mexico; another, the obscure management of the textile company Shatex in Colombia, a case for which arrest warrants have already been issued against him and some of his relatives.

Shatex was investigated by Colombian authorities on suspicion of money laundering and fictitious exports and imports, among other irregularities. The lawyer representing Saab in Colombia, Abelardo De La Espriella, denied in early October that he was under investigation, but days later, the police stopped the accountant and the fiscal auditor of Shatex. In the statement, his defense counsel also informed that Alex Saab was "in Venezuela working and fulfilling his business commitments." Some sources confirm that they have seen him in his office at Centro Galipán in Caracas, far from his luxurious apartment on Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris or the mansion he has in his native Barranquilla.

The Colombian press has described him as "the man of Maduro", something that his personal friend and former Colombian senator, Piedad Córdoba, also seems to believe. "Saab is well positioned in Venezuela and does not need me, because he talks easier with Maduro than anyone," he told El Tiempo de Bogotá. Ironically, last year the entrepreneur said to that newspaper: "I do not know President Maduro. I just met him in a couple of ceremonial acts."

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The storm unleashed around the man from Barranquilla even forced the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, to justify the diplomatic passport granted to the entrepreneur. He assured that it would be revoked if he is accused of any crime, and described him as a construction entrepreneur, who is in charge of a chain of supermarkets.

In reality, Browne referred to the CLAP Stores, a franchise that emerged from the state plan in the old premises of Abastos Bicentenario, the broken public network, which is on behalf of Alex Saab  managed by Carlos Rolando Lizcano Manrique, an entrepreneur born in Cúcuta, and Betsy Desirée Mata Pereda, with the company Salva Foods 2015. Both are also behind L&L Inversiones, a company incorporated in last year’s August in Caracas aimed to "treat, purchase and sale precious metals." Another indication of Saab's link to the mining business?

Note: María de Los Ángeles Ramírez Cabello cooperated with this report from Ciudad Guayana.