An unknown company called Salva Foods 2015 —created months before Nicolás Maduro put out his idea of establishing a network of stores for the state program of the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP)—is the current beneficiary of that business. They are called CLAP Stores and are mistaken for a state-owned company, with food outlets where there were once the premises of Abastos Bicentenarios (state-owned supermarkets). Behind that operation, the shadow of Colombian entrepreneurs Alex Nain Saab Morán and Álvaro Pulido Vargas reappears, both linked since early 2017 to the CLAPs due to a dummy company registered in Hong Kong.
Upon entering, the deception is confirmed. The color green replaces the revolutionary red and, despite the name, it is not a public company. The high prices and the scarce variety replicate the scene of any supermarket in a Venezuela submerged in hyperinflation and shortages. But it is not any supermarket or any chavista government premises. Behind the so-called CLAP Stores, the supply network for the state program of the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP), the shadow of Colombian entrepreneurs Alex Nain Saab Morán and Álvaro Enrique Pulido Vargas, who are among the largest private food importers for government programs, reappears.
Through an unknown company called Salva Foods 2015, they control what looks like a franchise of the state plan to "privatize" public food retail chains, like Abastos Bicentenario, partly built on the frame of the business in Venezuela known as Alamacenes Éxito. Salva Foods joins the dummy company Group Grand Limited, registered in Hong Kong, whereby the entrepreneurial duo became a supplier of millions of CLAP boxes since early 2017, thanks to two contracts signed with the Government of Nicolás Maduro, and is also a supplier of medicines from India because of another contract signed with the Ministry of Health.
The formula for taking over this other link of the business is repeated. Neither Saab Morán nor Pulido Vargas has shares in Salva Foods, but several hints lead to them. It is a business network with many pieces, put together like a puzzle.
To verify that Salva Foods is the owner of the CLAP Stores, it is enough to buy in one of the nine branches in Caracas. In addition to the name of the company, an address appears on the invoices, which was the same that appears on its first Tax Information Registry (RIF). First, it seems to lead to any office in Centro Banaven, colloquially known as Cubo Negro (Black Cube), a business complex southeast of the Venezuelan capital. But it is not any office, it is the same address published on the website -currently inactive- of Group Grand Limited, after Armando.info discovered that this company initially had the same headquarters as Fondo Global de Construcción, another company that let Saab Morán and Pulido Vargas become Chavismo contractors in 2011.
However, the address is incorrect. At least that is what they say at the Banaven Center. They deny that they once hosted Group Grand Limited or Salva Foods. The office of Salva Food is actually and finally in Centro Altamira, another office tower in the northeast of Caracas.
Error or not, the Banaven Center will not be the only coincidence between the two companies. The calls made to the telephone number on the invoices issued by Group Grand Limited to the Venezuelan Government for the millions of food combos from Mexico are answered by Carlos Rolando Lizcano Manrique, an entrepreneur born in Cúcuta (Department of Norte de Santander, northwestern Colombia), of 47 years of age, and owner of Salva Foods.
Carlos Rolando Lizcano Manrique also has companies in Colombia and Panama. A year ago, in a brief telephone conversation, he denied that Group Grand Limited was related to Alex Saab Morán and Álvaro Pulido Vargas, and merely stated that it was a Hong Kong company. However, the papers of the commercial registry of that jurisdiction revealed that Shadi Nain Saab Certain, son of Alex Saab Morán, was a beneficiary of the company from 2015 until February 24, 2017. Subsequently, Armando.info discovered that the attorney-in-fact of the company before the Government of Maduro is Andreina Fuentes Mazzei, who is also a director of Fondo Global de Construcción, and that a son of Álvaro Pulido Vargas was attorney-in-fact of a branch of Group Grand Limited, created in Mexico.
Thus, Carlos Rolando Lizcano Manrique answering the telephone of Group Grand Limited does not seem a matter of chance. There is also another coincidence. Its Tax Information Registry (RIF) has the same address as the RIF of the company registered in Hong Kong, which is the one reported in some cargo manifests. Being the main suppliers of CLAP boxes with contracts for the Government of the State of Táchira and the Ministry of Food for around 700 million dollars was not enough. Another piece of the plot was missing.
Carlos Rolando Lizcano Manrique is the owner of Salva Foods, the owner of the franchise for CLAP Stores. On August 3, 2017, he assumed 100% of the shares, valued at 2,000 million bolivars. He had initially registered the company with José Rolando Higuera Lizcano with a capital of 500,000 bolivars, on June 23, 2016, seven months before Maduro made his idea public. "We will transform Mercal, Pdval, (Abastos) Bicentenario and all our system in a CLAP store system (...) I urge all sectors willing to continue working in Venezuela to join this new dynamic," he said in January 2017 during his Activity Report before the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ).
The President’s decision against Abastos Bicentenario, a chain that emerged from the expropriation decreed by Hugo Chávez of the assets of the French Grupo Casino and for which the Republic paid 690 million dollars, came a year earlier. "Abastos Bicentenario is rotten. I say so and order a total and absolute restructuring and the change of Abastos Bicentenario into direct distribution centers of communal markets, and communities in the hands of communes and communal councils," proclaimed Maduro in February 2016. "I assume full responsibility," he insisted. Four months later, Salva Foods was born and that seems to have been enough to change the destiny of Abastos Bicentenario.
Although a decree signed by Rafael Campos Cabello - cousin of the number two of chavismo, Diosdado Cabello, and acting president since June 1, 2017 of Abastos Bicentenario – to “create the bidding committee for the sale and exchange of public goods of Red de Abastos Bicentenario S.A. (Rabsa)" was published in the Official Gazette in November 9, 2017, in the Shareholders’ Meeting of Salva Foods held on August 3, 2017, up to ten branches in Gran Caracas (Capital District and the states of Vargas and Miranda), where the CLAP Store marquee would be placed, were listed. Some of these premises belonged to Abastos Bicentenario, like the one in Mohedano building of the Parque Central complex, in the center of the Venezuelan capital.
The reason why these establishments passed into the hands of Salva Foods when the decree of liquidation had not yet been published is not clear even to the workers of Abastos Bicentenario, who after two years of agony and misinformation now foresee massive layoffs. "The committees (CLAP) acquired through a franchise the branches of (Abastos) Bicentenario in Macaracuay, Tamanaco and Guarenas, and instead of absorbing the payroll, they dismissed the employees," reported Jonathan Yulden, member of the union, as published on July 27 by the newspaper La Verdad of the State of Vargas –coastal neighbor north of Caracas.
That same day, union representatives of Abastos Bicentenario met with authorities of the Ministry of Labor and confirmed the news. "We were informed that the Abastos Bicentenario network was sold to a private company. All the stores without exception are sold. They will dismiss everyone," summarized one of the attendees to the meeting in an audio that circulated on Whatsapp. "The State could not deal with the Abastos Bicentenario network and gave it to the private network. It was sold to the private network," he concluded. This week, the workers protested again in Caracas. Salva Foods barely has an "average annual payroll" of three workers according to the National Registry of Contractors (RNC).
Neither Carlos Rolando Lizcano Manrique, nor the general manager of Salva Foods, Betsy Desiree Mata Pereda, answered to the interview request for this report. Mata Pereda, a 37-year-old Venezuelan, is also related to other companies that are, in turn, linked with Saab Morán and Pulido Vargas, whom the dismissed prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz accused in August 2017 of managing Group Grand Limited on behalf of Maduro. "We have conducted an investigation on the CLAP food bags delivered in Venezuela by a company registered in Mexico under the name of two people. The company is Group Grand Limited and presumably belongs to the president of the Republic."
At the beginning of the year, the leftist portal Aporrea.org gathered some opinions on what was to come. "The reality hit them in the face when employees and managers of that company (Salva Foods) let them know that they had nothing to do with the Venezuelan State and that the new establishment belonged to a new Colombian consortium." The story opened some questions. "Under what negotiation was the name of CLAP sold to the new owners of these establishments? What were the terms? Why was this negotiation done behind people's back and without giving any kind of information? Is it the privatization of all state companies being considered? "
The questions remain unanswered and Maduro insists on his idea. "We have to articulate the system. We must articulate it in practice, the extended CLAP, the fairs of the sovereign field, the alliance with the private sector, the CLAP stores and all the municipal market systems that are at the service of the supply and satisfaction of our people," he said last April.
Consumers have another perception. They go looking for subsidized products, but they do not even get one with a price close to the 25,000 bolivars that the CLAP box costs with 11 items. In late June, in the branches of Los Símbolos and San Bernardino -both in Caracas but not included in the Salva Foods list, one kilo of Torondoy milk powder costs 4.2 million bolivars, almost the integral salary of a worker. The marked price of Margarine and mayonnaise was 2.2 million bolivars, while a can of sardine, one of the cheapest items, reached 385,000 bolivars. "Please, check the premises where Abastos Bicentenario used to be in San Bernardino. Now it is a CLAP Store but it is actually a private company called Salva Foods 2015 C.A. and, evidently, they change prices every day," a user complained on June 26 via Twitter with Freddy Bernal, the national head of CLAPs. A month later, another consumer complained on the same social media to the president of the Republic. "The CLAP stores do not exist. They are from a Colombian chain that sets the price it wants."
As in other private networks, the CLAP Stores try to disguise shortages. It is common to see shelves full of a single product in endless rows, as a formula to fill spaces that otherwise would be empty. Some of these items have the stamp of Empresas Polar, the largest private conglomerate in the country, but often demonized by Chavismo spokespersons. In other establishments it is more difficult to disguise the situation and there are spaces disabled or closed for the public awaiting merchandise.
"In Salva Foods we import products to improve your quality of life," summarizes the company on its website despite the fact that in Venezuela, importation is almost impossible due to the strict exchange control in force since 2003, which has caused the abandonment of several transnational companies in the last years. But that is the only description it offers concerning its activities.
Records of Importgenius, international trade database, prove that the company has purchased in Mexico and Colombia products for CLAPs from suppliers like Grupo Brandon, Rice & Beans or Almacenes Vaca. Even Group Grand Limited and other intermediaries hired by the Venezuelan Government for the importation of merchandise have resorted to them. Sources consulted believe that Salva Foods sells this merchandise to the Government, also acting as intermediary. Another proof that Saab Morán and Pulido Vargas managed to put together a business framework to achieve a full participation in what Maduro says is a "salvation", but for them it is strictly business.
Nicolas Maduro’s main contractor was arrested last Friday, right after landing at the international airport of Cape Verde, an archipelago in the Atlantic, on the gates of Africa. It may be his penultimate trip, if he is finally deported or extradited to the United States, as U.S. authorities expect. It would be the worst of all endings after many years travelling and earning miles but, above all, millions of dollars thanks to opaque corporate structures, whereby he managed preferential currencies, public works, food supplies for the CLAPs, contracts with PDVSA, and even the trade of Venezuelan gold and coal since 2013.
A small bank in Antigua and Barbuda, but controlled by Venezuelans, is at the center of some of the financial operations of Nicolas Maduro’s regime. Created in 2008 and with a diffuse trace for years, North International Bank began to take off in 2016 when it was authorized to operate in Caracas. Since then, it has been channeling millions of dollars to and from the coffers of the revolutionary ‘nomenklatura.’
For some months now, parliament members of different opposition political parties have been offering to make informal proceedings on request before agencies like the Colombian Attorney General's Office and the United States Department of the Treasury. They issue letters of good conduct to those responsible for negotiations on the imports for CLAP combos, so that such agencies absolve or stop investigating entrepreneurs like Carlos Lizcano, a subordinate of the already sanctioned Alex Saab and Alvaro Pulido. The fact that the most active defense of the main social program and focus of corruption of the government of Nicolas Maduro comes from the heart of the National Assembly 'in contempt' is just one of the ironies of this story.
Adrián Perdomo Mata has just entered the list of sanctioned entities of the US Department of the Treasury, as president of Minerven, the state company in charge of exploring, exporting and processing precious metals, particularly gold from the Guayana mines. His arrival in office coincided with the boom in exports of Venezuelan gold to new destinations, like Turkey, to finance food imports. Behind these secretive operations is the shadow of Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido, the main beneficiaries of the sales of food for the Local Supply and Production Committee (Clap). Perdomo worked with them before Nicolás Maduro placed him in charge of the Venezuelan gold.
A study by Mexican authorities confirms what the palate of the Venezuelans quickly detected: There is something odd in the Mexican canned tuna that comes in the combos of the Local Supply and Production Committee (CLAP). At least three of the brands that the poorest homes have consumed in the country since March 2016, when the state plan was formalized, have high proportions of soy, a vegetable protein that although not harmful, it does not have the same taste and protein contribution of tuna. Behind the addition of soy there is an operation to reduce costs where all the intermediaries, handpicked by the Venezuelan Government to buy the goods, have participated.
Gassan Salama, a Palestinian-cause activist, born in Colombia and naturalized Panamanian, frequently posts messages supporting the Cuban and Bolivarian revolutions on his social media accounts. But that leaning is not the main sign to doubt his impartiality as an observer of the elections in Venezuela, a role he played in the contested elections whereby Nicolás Maduro ratified himself as president. In fact, Salama, an entrepreneur and politician who has carried out controversial searches for submarine wrecks in Caribbean waters, found his true treasure in the main social aid and control program of Chavismo, the Clap, for which he receives millions of euros.
When Vice President Delcy Rodríguez turned to a group of Mexican friends and partners to lessen the new electricity emergency in Venezuela, she laid the foundation stone of a shortcut through which Chavismo and its commercial allies have dodged the sanctions imposed by Washington on PDVSA’s exports of crude oil. Since then, with Alex Saab, Joaquín Leal and Alessandro Bazzoni as key figures, the circuit has spread to some thirty countries to trade other Venezuelan commodities. This is part of the revelations of this joint investigative series between the newspaper El País and Armando.info, developed from a leak of thousands of documents.
Leaked documents on Libre Abordo and the rest of the shady network that Joaquín Leal managed from Mexico, with tentacles reaching 30 countries, ―aimed to trade PDVSA crude oil and other raw materials that the Caracas regime needed to place in international markets in spite of the sanctions― show that the businessman claimed to have the approval of the Mexican government and supplies from Segalmex, an official entity. Beyond this smoking gun, there is evidence that Leal had privileged access to the vice foreign minister for Latin America and the Caribbean, Maximiliano Reyes.
The business structure that Alex Saab had registered in Turkey—revealed in 2018 in an article by Armando.info—was merely a false start for his plans to export Venezuelan coal. Almost simultaneously, the Colombian merchant made contact with his Mexican counterpart, Joaquín Leal, to plot a network that would not only market crude oil from Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, as part of a maneuver to bypass the sanctions imposed by Washington, but would also take charge of a scheme to export coal from the mines of Zulia, in western Venezuela. The dirty play allowed that thousands of tons, valued in millions of dollars, ended up in ports in Mexico and Central America.
As part of their business network based in Mexico, with one foot in Dubai, the two traders devised a way to replace the operation of the large international credit card franchises if they were to abandon the Venezuelan market because of Washington’s sanctions. The developed electronic payment system, “Paquete Alcance,” aimed to get hundreds of millions of dollars in remittances sent by expatriates and use them to finance purchases at CLAP stores.
Scions of different lineages of tycoons in Venezuela, Francisco D’Agostino and Eduardo Cisneros are non-blood relatives. They were also partners for a short time in Elemento Oil & Gas Ltd, a Malta-based company, over which the young Cisneros eventually took full ownership. Elemento was a protagonist in the secret network of Venezuelan crude oil marketing that Joaquín Leal activated from Mexico. However, when it came to imposing sanctions, Washington penalized D’Agostino only… Why?
Through a company registered in Mexico – Consorcio Panamericano de Exportación – with no known trajectory or experience, Joaquín Leal made a daring proposal to the Venezuelan Guyana Corporation to “reactivate” the aluminum industry, paralyzed after March 2019 blackout. The business proposed to pay the power supply of state-owned companies in exchange for payment-in-kind with the metal.