A Venezuelan rascal in the Banco Espirito Santo's corrupt court

In front of the curtain of collapse of the major financial group in Portugal, José Trinidad Márquez, a native of Caracas, offered the stellar performance to his lifetime career of fraud. After swindling the high management of the bank, he’s taken refuge presumably in some part of Spain, where the press baptized him as “the golden middleman” or “the man with thousand faces”. With his well trained routine of a petroleum expert, who offers himself to try and arrange business connections with PDVSA, perfected over the course of more than two decades, he’s earned himself millions of dollars, as well as criminal accusations in various countries.

13 September 2020
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José Trinidad Márquez doesn’t live here: a voice responds as soon as we dial the intercom number of the apartment he used to live in. The concierge also comes out from behind his desk in the lobby as he notices that someone is taking photos of the entrance to the building, the number 77 on Nuñez de Balboa street, in Madrid. With a frugal tone, reserved for people who are not particularly welcome, he assures that the person doesn’t live there for more than a year now.

Nuñez de Balboa street runs parallel to the luxurious Serrano, the Champs-Elysees of the Spanish capital, both being separated by only four blocks of distance. It is the heart of Salamanca, the centric neighborhood of Madrid that’s being gentrified once again with the money brought in by a new wave of wealthy Venezuelan migrants. Up until the surge of the coronavirus pandemic, an apartment in the building on Núñez de Balboa 77 would be worth around two million euros.

But José Trinidad Márquez has already left this part of the city, where the well-off Venezuelans and the most exclusive brands started settling down. Although we could not trace him to try to interview him for this story, one could come to a conclusion that he must’ve had good incentives to leave a location that holds such a privileged life: fresh money to spend and an inquiry from the justice authorities. In fact, his apartment on Núñez de Balboa was raided by petition of the Portuguese judicial authorities.

Overnight, in the eyes of the tribunals and the press in Lisbon, the 66-year old Caracas native has transformed into the most colorful member of the cast of characters involved in the plot of the bankruptcy and intervention of the major Portuguese financial entity, the Espirito Santo Bank (BES). 

This past 15th of July, after six years of investigation, the Portuguese prosecution office finally presented it´s accusation documents regarding the case. The file consists of more than 4000 folios which try to decipher the complexity of the fraudulent tissue that the high management of BES, led by its president Ricardo Salgado – famous in Portugal by the acronym DDT (short for Owner Of Everything in Portuguese) – has thread for years in order to cover up the holes in the bank’s balances. The facts reported by the Public Ministry are succulent, but the narrative can turn a bit tedious in between the details of financial engineering, debt papers operations and corporate governance entities.    

For the laypersons, however, the voluminous file hides eight pages of mischief: the bizarre story of how Salgado recruits, through an intermediary, a professional con man, José Trinidad Márquez, to impersonate a high official of PDVSA for some of Salgado’s colleagues and BES executives, who allegedly came from Caracas to offer the management of the afflicted bank – which by then, March 2014, was already in the final days before the bankruptcy and the quest for liquidity was frantic – to fix a bidding for an investment fund of the Venezuelan state oil company, in exchange for the payment of certain expenses. Márquez played his part to perfection and with the move earned himself a reward of 4,5 million euros, while Espirito Santo didn’t take much longer to definitely collapse in August of 2014.

Within the reach of anyone without strong financial knowledge, reading about this episode is delicious and captivating. It looks like a draft version of a screenplay for a Hollywood film about classic con artists, the likes of 1973 picture The Sting, or the 2013 American Hustle, in which the wit and cleverness the con artists put in play to make their victims fall for the decoy, conquer equally the sympathy of the audiences. Not in vain, the Portuguese press rushed to spread the story in numerous front pages, without pondering that the invisible Márquez – there are barely any photos of him – probably wouldn’t end up looking as appealing as Robert Redford or Christian Bale.

What the Portuguese media overlooked is that Márquez is not only a con artist that has turned deception of people into a way of life. In fact, since the 1990-ies he has accumulated an international criminal record, which now includes Portugal too: he has been trialed in the United States, Spain and Venezuela, at least. In all those jurisdictions he has been sentenced, with awarded prison time in the two latter. He has always come out unhurt. How he manages to serve only short prison terms, go back to his con ways, and maintain a lifestyle of the rich and the famous, just by pretending he is a petroleum expert, constitutes an adventure of more than two decades that can only be explained by a certain resilience founded on a probable pathological tendency.   

Catch me if you can

In January of 1998 El País daily from Madrid included an information in its Local news section titled: “Detained when trying to fraud Astilleros Españoles (Spanish Shipyards) for 250.000 million”. The then reporter of the Spanish newspaper, Jan Martínez Ahrens, with a hint of admiration, follows the adventure and the final capture of the “man with thousand faces” who “without even having finished high school, managed to supposedly make fools out of companies such as Cooper Rolls, from Ohio; Icec, from New York; Intel Chemical Co., from Tulsa, and Lewag, from Vienna”. In the opening paragraphs he baptizes him as The Golden Middleman and when he finally identifies him as the Venezuelan José Trinidad Márquez, he assures that “above all the search and capture warrants for him, he flew from one capital city to the next one offering the big business deal”.

Back in those days Márquez used to pretend he was either the vice-president of Pdvsa, Pablo Reimpell, the second in charge after Luis Giusti, or as an emissary of Reimpell himself. In that capacity, with the assistance of forged documentation – after his arrest, when raiding the room he used to stay in at the traditional hotel Plaza Princesa, close to La Moncloa, they found paperwork and seals with the mark of Pdvsa and the Venezuelan Ministry of Energy and Mines – he managed to persuade the Astilleros Españoles (Spanish Shipyards) company, at the time a mixed venture whose specialty was the construction of tankers, that he was facilitating the acquisition of 26 ships for the value of 1.65 billion dollars: a dream contract. To make sure that the Spanish company does get the order, Márquez asked for an 800.000 dollars commission for himself.

Márquez presented a forged check issued by swiss bank UBS to his Spanish negotiating partners, for the value of 30% of the total amount of the contract as a guarantee, and the operation was closed with a word bond.

At the moment the executives of Astilleros Españoles haven’t entrusted anyone the due diligence task to investigate their counterpart, that maybe would have let them find out that, just a couple of months prior, in October 1997, Vitol, the largest independent petroleum trader on the global markets outside of the state companies and the mythical seven sisters, had just introduced a lawsuit against José Trinidad Márquez in a Miami tribunal. The company, of Dutch origin but with a legal personality in Switzerland, demanded a 3,75 million dollars compensation from Márquez for “breach of contract”.

Picture: Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

According to the lawsuit introduced before the 11th Tribunal in the Civil court of Miami-Dade County, in Florida, between the months of May and June 1996 Márquez has deployed a modus operandi which in time will be established as a sort of watermark of his subsequent set-ups: he had said that, because of his contacts in the Venezuelan oil company, he was in a position to negotiate a contract in which Pdvsa would ship 120.000 barrels of crude daily to Vitol, in a stable manor and with favorable conditions. He had shown Pdvsa credentials and he even went to meetings accompanied by some supposed executives of the Venezuelan company, which at the end won over Vitol’s confidence. The company agreed to sign a contract with Márquez and pay him a commission of 5 million dollars. On the 5th of June 1996, Vitol transferred 3,75 million dollars to an account in the name of José Trinidad Márquez in the swiss bank Vonbotel, an entity that would curiously be mentioned years later in press versions as one of the pipelines of chavismo black money laundering. This quantity was only the first installment of the fee promised to Márquez, as the entire amount would be completed when Vitol received the first shipment, something that, as expected, never came to happen.

At the time Márquez had his yacht La Marquesita (Little Marquise), baptized with the same name as the house he used to live in years before in the exclusive southeastern Caracas neighborhood of Cerro Verde, moored in a Miami marina. This fact and some other relations that Márquez kept with Florida motivated Vitol to lodge the lawsuit precisely in Florida’s jurisdiction, where by motion of the defense the process was ascended to the Federal Court of the Southern District. Márquez, on the other hand, had his residence fixed in Houston, Texas. Luxurious offices in the NationsBank building in the city were part of the paraphernalia José Trinidad Márquez had constructed in order to show off a patina of credibility to his petro trader facade.    

None of this was known by the authorities of Astilleros Españoles at the time of arranging the payment of an 800.000 dollars commission for Márquez, a sum for which he would secure an order of 26 tankers for Pdvsa. But the suspicion wouldn’t leave them in the lurch. They noticed in Márquez a certain rush to sign, as well as some “suspicious commentaries”, according to a story by El País. So, they reached out to the Pdvsa hierarchy, the company for which they had previously built four tankers.

Márquez almost got away with his play. Captured and referred to the prosecution office on 23rd of January 1998, he still had some mitigating circumstances playing to his favor, that would eventually lead to a more lenient sentence from the Spanish judiciary: he hadn’t cashed in the commission to complete the felony and he also didn’t have previous criminal record. Spain decided to deport him to Venezuela, where other dues with justice were waiting. 

Internship in El Junquito

The only photograph of José Trinidad Márquez one could find in the archives for the purpose of this report was published on the second page of Siete Dias (Seven Days), the Sunday supplement of the El Nacional daily from Caracas, in it’s 23rd of August of 1998 edition. He can be seen in what appears like the surrounding area of the headquarters of the former Policía Técnica Judicial (Judicial Technical Police or PTJ; today known as Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation Force – CICPC; equivalent to a police unit assisting the public prosecutor office in other countries), on the centric Plaza Carabobo of the Venezuelan capital. Thick black mustache, designer round-shaped glasses, double-breasted jacket in dark fabric that could be linen: anyone would take him for a high management executive of one of the State’s companies. He is surrounded by a fence of TV news microphones and tape recorders that reporters use to gather his statements. Although his name will again reappear in media, maybe this is the only time his face illuminates the prime time on TV screens (something without a doubt inconvenient for his trade as a con artist).

As it happens, when Astilleros Españoles inquired Pdvsa about the credentials Márquez had shown them at the beginning of the year, other stories involving the character surfaced to the ground. The most important being: he was wanted by the justice in Venezuela to answer accusations of issuing checks without funds, benefiting as a functionary – hence the penal charges – and the use of fake stamps.  

In one case, Márquez, presenting himself as Pablo Reimpell, had defrauded Linde AG, a German company in the field of industrial gases by-products of oil, for the amount of 3,5 million German marks (DM) and 3,5 million dollars. Both sums were part of the payment of commissions to Márquez-Reimpell, promised by the Germans in exchange for being granted the multimillion dollar project to construct an ethylene plant in the then still embryonic Cryogenic Complex of Jose, on the coast of Anzoátegui state, in northwestern Venezuela.  

In a second case, Márquez pretended he was an emissary of Frank Alcock and Claus Graf, in those days the vice-president and the director of Pdvsa, respectively. In such quality, Márquez would convince the management of Stone & Webster, a US civil engineering projects company with headquarters in Massachusetts that would later be taken over by Westinghouse, that they could obtain the contract for the construction of the olefin plant at the same industrial complex in Anzoátegui. Stone & Webster agreed to pay Márquez’s intermediation with a commission worth 1,2 million dollars. Marquez’s audacity reached such a point that by mid – 1994 he didn’t have any embarrassment to join two representatives of the American company, Michael Pears and James Holt, at a presentation of their catalogue of services orchestrated in the very office of Claus Graf at the main Pdvsa headquarters in the La Campiña neighborhood, in the north of Caracas. It was only a couple of months later, when the American executives presented Graf with a contract – forged – for the construction of the olefin plant bearing his signature – apocryphal - , that it became obvious to all the parties included that they’ve been victims of an expensive elaborate scam.

Picture: El Nacional

Upon returning to Caracas in February of 1998, after being deported from Spain, José Trinidad Márquez had a swift trial. Maybe even too swift. Also, too soft.

The head judge of the 43rd Tribunal in penal matters, Norma Hernández de Arteaga, sentenced him to one year, five months and ten days of prison. Considering the seriousness of the committed felony, the sentence seemed rather light. Maybe channeling the voice of her expert sources, the reporter that signed the El Nacional story published that Sunday in August 1998, Albor Rodríguez, enumerated all the subtractions in the penalty and the procedural benefits that the judge had applied in order to cut the sentence short.

The journalist also revealed the privileges being afforded to Márquez at the center where he served his sentence, the so-called Retén Judicial de El Junquito (Judicial Remand Prison in El Junquito), on the outskirts of Caracas. For a while he was placed in a room at the administrative building of the penitentiary, where he had a queen size bed, computer, microwave oven, two phone landlines and a refrigerator. He would receive visitations at any hour of any day, and he tended guests on the terrace of the director of the prison. When the director was dismissed and they wanted to discipline Márquez, he was relocated to the best cell of the Pavilion H, a VIP enclosure where not long ago before they lodged Ramiro Helmeyer, the yuppie financier that had conducted a short campaign of sending envelope bombs in 1993, during the rule of the provisional government of the historian Ramón J. Velásquez.      

It seemed as Márquez had the means to buy himself favors. Whether with influences or not, the fact is that he was able to leave Venezuelan captivity and reappear in 2003 in Texas. At that moment he requested the protection of a tribunal in the city of Austin, the state’s capital, to declare bankruptcy, a protection that lasted up until 2008. It should’ve been a dark chapter in his career. But if he had to live with defeats and hardship then, it wouldn’t be long before he makes up for the lost time.  

Setback in Madrid

In March of 2009 he appeared at the central offices of Técnicas Reunidas (United Technics) in Madrid – a corporation specializing in the construction of infrastructure for the hydrocarbon industry, part of the IBEX index of the 35 largest Spanish companies – a man claiming he was the emissary of Rafael Ramírez Carreño, the all-powerful president of Pdvsa and minister of energy in the government of Hugo Chávez. The character, accompanied by other individuals, asserted that the ministry, in the middle of the prolonged drought that at the time was devastating Venezuela and that a year later would lead the commander of the revolution to issue an electrical emergency decree, was set out to build a thermoelectric power station with a combined cycle in the coastal region of the country. According to the visitor, the Venezuelan state had 210 million euros to invest in the construction. In the name of Rafael Ramírez, he could make assurances that the substantial contract would be assigned to Técnicas Reunidas. In exchange, as El Pais daily would later recount, “he requested different quantities of money in Venezuelan currency (bolívar) and in euros in order to organize the trip to Spain, the rental vehicles and his stay in Madrid”.

No need to say it was José Trinidad Márquez.

Picture: Juan Barreto / AFP

He made a third party call the Spanish ambassador to Caracas at the time, Dámaso de Lario Ramírez, and, acting as if he was Rafael Ramirez, confided to him that he had delegated Márquez as his representative and gave him authority to decide the awarding of the contract. But just to be clear: the transaction has to be confidential and no other executive of Pdvsa or the Venezuelan government should have any knowledge of it. 

With his sophistry, José Trinidad Márquez obtained a first allocation of 350.000 euros from Técnicas Reunidas, and after that a check for 1,3 million euros, both of them paid in the spring of 2009. But as soon as the directors of the Spanish company realized that the promised payment of 210 million euros wasn’t ever arriving from Venezuela, they denounced Márquez to the authorities. The investigating judge managed to freeze one of the bank accounts of the Venezuelan which had deposits of 350.000 euros, and then acted with sufficient speed to prevent Márquez from cashing the check. 

The trial started in October of 2011 in the Province court of Madrid. Even though the prosecution asked for four years of imprisonment for the convict, the verdict, that came in April of 2012, ordered two years of prison for the accused for the felonies of fraud and forging a private document. The mitigating circumstances came to Márquez’s help yet again: he didn’t have a criminal record in Spain – he wasn’t trialed for the deception of Astilleros Españoles in 1998 – so he accepted his punishment without a word.

At the time of publishing this story we weren’t able to verify if Márquez did serve his sentence and, if that was the case, where was he locked up. In March of 2016 a Tribunal in Caracas granted his divorce from Bety Haydee Jakson, who has been his wife since 1979. The sentence quotes a notarized power from October 2014 that certifies Márquez as a resident of Madrid at the time. According to information, he also had the liberty to travel abroad that same year. Because between April and May of 2014, when barely completing the two years of the tribunal sentence for the fraud to Técnicas Reunidas, Márquez was in Lisbon at least two times to complete his master stroke.

Master stroke

José Trinidad Márquez isn´t the only Venezuelan mentioned in the cast of characters of the so-called Case Espirito Santo, a name too simple to understand the sophisticated scheme of maneuvers and financial products that Ricardo Salgado and his team, with the consent of its principal shareholders, implemented for years from the highest management in order to cover their insolvency without stopping big payoff days for themselves. It seems striking that the document presented by the Portuguese prosecutors this last July, which leads to accusation of twelve individuals and five organizations of diverse crimes, includes two segments entirely dedicated to the relations the financial group had with Venezuela.

These connections go back as far as 2008 when – as the prosecution explains – a delegation of Portuguese businessman accompanied prime minister José Sócrates on an official state visit to Caracas. Ricardo Salgado came along with the group. And, while up until then Espirito Santo had been acting as a financier for Portuguese companies such as GALP oil company or Caixa Geral de Depósitos starting business ventures in Venezuela, from that precise moment they found the chavista administration to be a solution for the chronic liquidity problems caused by the bank’s imprudent management. 

If between 2009 and 2014 somehow Espirito Santo and its immense fleet of subsidiaries maintained themselves afloat, it was largely due to plugging the huge holes in their balances with wads of Venezuelan petrodollars. Salgado’s management was able to persuade diverse organisms of the Venezuelan State – most significantly Pdvsa, but also Fonden or the development bank Bandes among others – to, primarily, entrust BES with functions of the Treasury; then, to invest in debt papers issued by the group; almost simultaneously, to appoint BES as the guarantor of Venezuela’s purchases of goods and services abroad, principally through Bariven.

Picture: Patricia De Melo Moreira / AFP

Each one of these functions implied an injection of liquid cash to the coffers of BES. For example, according to data from the Portuguese Attorney General´s office, between 2008 and 2014 various entities of the Venezuelan State invested something over 3,1 billion dollars in securities papers of the financial group. 

Of course, these massive investments were made not precisely as result of the impeccable quality of client service that Espirito Santo provides. On top of a certain amount of ingenuity and carelessness on part of the Venezuelan authorities, the systematic payment of bribes also resulted decisive for the hierarchy in the chavista administration, so they averted the flow of money towards the Portuguese bank. The bribes were circulating through an entangled capillarity of offshore companies which the prosecutors have been studying for years and which they finally decided to set aside from the main trial, and pack it all up under the name Investigation GES/Venezuela/Switzerland/Dubai/Macao. As a result of this investigation, a surge of a new accusation is expected, one that would point out various bank executives and Venezuelan citizens such as Nervis Villalobos, Rafael Reiter, Rita González, Luis Carlos de León, Abraham Shiera, Roberto Rincón and César Rincón, under the presumption of having committed felonies as “criminal association, corruption in detriment of the international trade, corruption in the private sector, falsifying documents and money laundering”.

Even so, in the main case of BES, upon which the prosecution focused all the evidence regarding administrative irregularities, transgressions of regulation, and financial manipulation collected during the investigation, the story of José Trinidad Márquez still holds.

Before the prosecution presented the formal accusation in Lisbon last July, Márquez had been mentioned in leaks to the Spanish press as a member of a money laundering network for Pdvsa that has been criminally denounced in a Madrid tribunal by a law firm hired by the Interim Government of Juan Guaidó, or as a part of a bribe payment scheme of the aforementioned Banco Espirito Santo.

Picture: Patricia De Melo Moreira / AFP

But the truth is Márquez is added to the case as a result of what could only be seen as a true labor of selection and recruitment of talent.

At the beginning of 2014, the circumstance in which the Espirito Santo group found itself was desperate. The large gap in the balance kept widening and the Venezuelan manna was coming in short supply. And not only that: under the pressure of its own insolvency and the European and Portuguese regulators, the BES had undertaken some initiatives to restructure that, paradoxically, sounded the first alarm bell for the debt owners in Caracas. They didn’t like being exposed for the leniency with which they had managed Venezuelan public funds, in case of a scandalous collapse of BES. So, they demanded the bank reimburse some of the bonds that were reaching maturity and replace the rest of its positions with papers from another of its subsidiaries, only seemingly more solid. 

Since Salgado didn’t have any money to fulfill the first request coming from Venezuela, he arranged to take care of it along with the second one through the issue of new debentures for the value of almost 300 million dollars in the name of it’s subsidiary Rioforte del Espirito Santo. But trying to do so he fell over an unexpected obstacle: the resistance of his colleagues from the management of the subsidiary, who maintained that, given the level of restricted liquidity of the company, weren’t in conditions to generate further debt. They refused to approve the new commitment.

Then, Salgado developed a set up that should be an essential part of the universal annals of corporate fraud. He instructed the head of international business of the BES office in Madeira, Joao Alexandre Silva, in charge of the Venezuelan agenda for a long time, to act as a headhunter and try to recruit an impostor. The winner of the fraudster casting was, of course, José Trinidad Márquez.

Since then and during the months of April and May of 2014, by request of Salgado and Silva, the Caracas native Márquez would be known as Domingo Galán Macías, pretend boss of an inexistent Division of Engineering at Pdvsa. Márquez – Galán assured people he was a Spanish citizen with a residence in Caracas, owner of the DNI 70030366X (which in effect belongs to a doormen of a certain building in Madrid, with the same name, who denounced the theft of his identification document to the police authorities). 

Márquez, now in character as Galán, told the executives of Rioforte / Espirito Santo that he was an emissary of Rafael Ramírez and he was baring a good news for them: Pdvsa was just about to announce a tender for the management of an investment fund worth 3.5 billion dollars, whose outcome could be manipulated in favor of BES. Furthermore: the provisions of the fund would be designed in a manor that 20% of it, some 700 million dollars, could be invested in the bank’s debt, a miraculous option which, in translation, spelled salvation for the group. They would only have to pay a commission for Márquez, in order to make this dream reality. 

Picture: Federico Parra / AFP

And even though some of the executives participating in said meetings with José Trinidad Márquez, aka Domingo Galán Macías, were estranged that the Venezuelan intermediary showed little interest when they were presenting him the technical information, they still conceded credibility to his effort. After all, Venezuela had proven to be a corruption paradise during the five-year period when Espirito Santo was living off of it, and where anything was possible. On April 11th 2014, encouraged by the imminent injection of liquidity, they raised the limit of indebtedness, such as was Salgado’s wish. On April 30th, just to rise the joy a bit, Márquez, using a Hotmail account, sent them a forged certificate of an extraordinary – and also imaginary – assembly of Pdvsa in which they were awarding the fund to BES for a period of six years, in fierce competition “with other proposals presented by banking companies of the likes of UBS (Zurich), BSI (Geneva) y MITSUBISHI (UFJ) Tokio (Geneva)”. But disappointment wouldn´t take long to come to the Portuguese, not only because the money was never accredited, but also because three months later the bank was intervened.  

In return, as the prosecution’s documents show, Ricardo Salgado “having achieved his goals with the elaborate scheme (…) took the effort to pay the reward promised to José Trinidad Márquez”. He organized the transfer of 4,5 million dollars to Márquez’s accounts at the BSI bank in Switzerland and Santander in Spain, as well as to an open corporate account at the BES of Luxembourg in the name of Boddickron Overseas S.A., a company being incorporated ad hoc in Panama with Domingo Galán Macías as beneficiary.

Sources in the Portuguese Public prosecutor’s office confirm that, according to available data, Márquez is still on Spanish territory, although he is no longer in the apartment on Nuñez de Balboa 77. He’s still not listed as accused, but as arguido – formal suspect, according to the Portuguese judicial vocabulary – in the case file. He is being required for questioning. Elusive and gripped by his impulses, he must be somewhere rehearsing for his next appearance as an oil expert.

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