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.
It was a badly-kept secret that the long arm of Colombian entrepreneur Alex Nain Saab Moran ?one of the main contractors of the Government of Nicolas Maduro, sanctioned in July by the Trump Administration along with his partner Alvaro Pulido for their participation in the scheme of imports for the state program of the Local Supply and Production Committee (CLAP), prosecuted in Florida for Money Laundering and investigated in other jurisdictions for the opacity of their businesses? had entered the National Assembly (NA), controlled by the Venezuelan opposition and declared in contempt by the Chavismo, to reach some deputies and control their actions.
The alarms went off when Jose Guerra, a member of the Justice First (PJ – Primero Justicia) party, warned on a November 6 tweet, without further details, that what he called the Green Briefcase Operation to buy some of his colleagues was in motion. The announce gained strength a few days later when other documents allegedly signed in 2018 by deputies of the Comptroller’s Commission circulated on Twitter to blame Saab. Some described them as apocryphal, and the Attorney General in exile, Luisa Ortega Diaz, one of the alleged recipients, denied having received them.
That was the case until now.
Documents and communications, which Armando.info had access to, reveal that since early 2018, a plot has been hatching to grant indulgences to those responsible for the negotiations on the supply of imports for CLAP combos. The scheme includes several opposition deputies, some of them are members of the Comptroller’s Commission of the national parliament, which is in practice the only anti-corruption agency in Venezuela with autonomy from the ruling Chavism.
Based on the documents available, two names are key to understanding this story.
On the parliament members’ corner, Luis Eduardo Parra Rivero, a PJ deputy of the State of Yaracuy, member of the Environment Commission.
His counterpart on the other corner, Carlos Rolando Lizcano Manrique. Lizcano is also a Colombian entrepreneur, like the duo of Saab and Pulido, and acts under their orders. He appears in the papers as owner of Salva Foods 2015, the company managing CLAP Stores, which emerged after some sort of undercover privatization of the extinct state network known as Abastos Bicentenario that took place between 2016 and 2017 with the blessing of Nicolas Maduro.
Constant negotiations between Luis Parra and Carlos Lizcano led to the makeup of an informal group of deputies from different opposition parties in favor of the Colombian entrepreneurs and their vast business network with Chavismo, ever expanding since 2013.
One of the most recent actions of the informal group of deputies coordinated by Parra occurred on October 9. That day, deputies Adolfo Superlano ?who was still a member of the Together for Change (Cambiemos) party, expelled weeks later, on November 11, from the novel organization led by Timoteo Zambrano? and José Brito, of the Justice First party, went to the seat of the General Prosecutor's Office of Colombia, in Bogota, to deliver a letter exempting Carlos Lizcano and Salva Foods from any irregularity or relationship whatsoever with Alex Saab. Last year, the Colombian Prosecutor's Office formally accused Saab for tax evasion and keeps the clan's business with Maduro’s government under scrutiny.
“This is to make official that after verifying the files of the entries in the book of complaints, it is concluded that to the date of the inquiry, there is no action filed against the aforementioned Carlos Rolando Lizcano Manrique or his business Salva Foods 2015, C.A.,” as read on the letter of September 20, 2019. Along with the signatures of Adolfo Superlano and Jose Brito, there are those of their fellow deputies Conrado Perez Linares of the Justice First party; Richard Arteaga and Guillermo Luces of the Popular Will (Voluntad Popular - VP) party; and Chaim Bucaram, Hector Vargas and William Barrientos of the A New Era (Un Nuevo Tiempo - UNT) party. By the way, the last name of the latter is misspelled on the letter.
Lizcano appears in the complex organization chart created by Saab and Pulido as the owner of CLAP Stores in Venezuela through Salva Foods and as a director of Mezedes Holding Ltd, registered in the United Arab Emirates, also involved in the business scheme behind the CLAPs.
The so-called certificate of good conduct of the Venezuelan-nationalized Colombian entrepreneur, born in Cucuta, Norte de Santander Department, 48 years ago, was approved in “regular session” of the Comptroller’s Commission, on September 18, 2019, in response to Lizcano’s request in a communication of July 25 of the same year, as per the text. However, there are no records of that session in the commission. The last two sessions were held on August 14, just before the parliamentary recess, and last week, on November 20.
In the letter submitted to the document control office of the Colombian Prosecutor's Office, identified with number 20196110908052, the signatories speak on behalf of the entire legislative body and even its president Juan Guaido, appointed as acting President of Venezuela by the National Assembly, on January 23, 2018. “The acting President (of Venezuela) and President of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, and us, overcome many obstacles from this highest control agency of the Executive and we are aware of and guarantee the fundamental changes and restoration of ethics in the official function that we must put at the service of the Venezuelan society,” they boasted.
This affair in Colombia is not the only recent process of deputies abroad to clear the record of Carlos Lizcano.
In late September, a similar communication was sent at Lizcano’s request to the Department of the Treasury in Washington. At the closing of this report, it was not possible to confirm receipt of the document at the offices of that US equivalent to a ministry of finance. The purpose of persuading this entity about Lizcano's innocence seems logical. The Department of the Treasury had imposed financial sanctions on Alex Saab and Alvaro Pulido last July, hence, Lizcano would try to protect himself from future measures against him. The documents reviewed by Armando.info only allow to affirm that the document was mailed - not delivered to the agency in person - on September 26, 2018, from a post office in the US capital city.
In addition, according to those files, some of the coordination meetings between entrepreneur Lizcano and deputy Luis Parra were held in a house in El Valle Parish, southwest of Caracas, in apartments in the east of the Venezuelan capital and in several stores of the CLAP Stores chain. The entrepreneur did not respond to the interview request for this report.
On the other hand, deputy Luis Parra denied knowing the Colombian entrepreneur or having participated in conversations for the Comptroller’s Commission to support Lizcano. "I invite you or whoever else to submit any proof that Luis Parra is related to these cases," he said when interviewed for this report. In fact, he only affirmed about Carlos Lizcano, “I have been told that he is the alleged front man of the man you named (Editor’s note: Alex Saab) and that the other thief out there named (Editor’s note: Rafael Ramirez).”
The documents obtained for this report include invoices of company Agroleon Molinos de San Felipe (capital of the state of Yaracuy) to Salva Foods, Carlos Lizcano’s company. The owner of Agroleon Molinos de San Felipe is Roger Leon, a well-known entrepreneur of that state and friend of Deputy Parra, who represents Yaracuy in the parliament. Both have been seen in political activities in that central-western region of Venezuelan.
One of the invoices, issued on March 12, 2019, shows Agroleon Molinos de San Felipe, mainly engaged in the sale of all types of grains, dispatching a 30-ton shipment of “carcass meat, placed on site” to Salva Foods for a total of 120 million bolivars. Months earlier, on December 17, 2018, Agroleon Molinos de San Felipe had issued another proforma invoice to Salva Foods Fze - registered in the United Arab Emirates and also part of the CLAP business plot - for almost 500,000 euros. The concept of the invoice is for the purchase of a “central 1,340 square-meter land” and the payment was made to an account in Banesco Panama. Neither the company nor its owner responded to the request for an interview about those transactions.
The contact between Luis Parra and Carlos Lizcano could be even more confusing if considering that almost simultaneously to these efforts, Emilio Fajardo, another deputy of the Justice First party and member of the Environment Commission, like Parra, announced last June in a press release that he would open an investigation into Lizcano for the "illegal exploitation and commercialization of gold" of the so-called Mining Arc. "We must take action against those who illegally exploit and commercialize our natural resources disregarding the environmental devastation of our country."
Fajardo did not respond to the interview request for this report.
Regarding the announcement of his commission colleague and party partner, Luis Parra said that “it was a press release that said that Carlos Lizcano has mines and a gold mafia, and we are open to the rendering of evidence.” However, when asked about the progress of this possible investigation, he said, "you cannot investigate what does not exist."
Since last year, Alex Saab and his network also appear linked to the commercialization and extraction of Venezuelan gold. The incursion into this business would have a double purpose, to offer Nicolas Maduro a way to bypass the economic sanctions imposed by the United States on the Caracas regime, but also ensure a hard-to-track form of payment for imports made for CLAPs. Sources who recently learned about the structure of the Colombian entrepreneurs say that Carlos Lizcano usually travels to the mining area in southern Venezuela.
The proforma invoice for almost 500,000 euros of Agroleon Molinos de San Felipe to Salva Foods Fze gives an additional hint about the plot hatched between Alex Saab's group and the opposition deputies. The invoice was sent by email from the company to deputy Luis Parra and to Carlos Herrera, former councilmember of the Caracas Metropolitan District, director of the Primicias24.com website and promoter of the self-styled Bloque de Prensa Digital Venezolano (Venezuelan Digital Press Block). The issue does not seem casual.
Luis Parra and Carlos Herrera are friends and they traveled to Europe in April this year along with deputies Conrado Perez and Richard Arteaga. On April 17, the four had to return from Madrid to Caracas on an Air Europa flight, with a stop in the Dominican Republic. The tickets were purchased at a travel agency in Bogota. "It is as if I ask you where you get the money to support yourself, travel and do the things you do; who pays you to conduct investigations. I think you are crossing a few lines," Parra replied when asked about that trip. Neither the editor of Primicias24 nor deputies Conrado Perez and Richard Arteaga responded to the interview request.
In April, Conrado Perez and Richard Arteaga also traveled to Paris, France, with Air France tickets purchased at the same travel agency in Bogota. There was no public information by the parliament members of these tours. Sources close to the deputies also said that in those days they traveled to Bulgaria, Portugal and even the Alpine enclave of Liechtenstein, possibly to deliver official notices announcing the close of the investigation against the scheme of Alex Saab. Precisely in some of these jurisdictions, there are inquiries against the financial movements of the Colombian entrepreneurs and their companies. The Bulgarian newspaper Dnevnik.Bg reported in June ?after a minute sent from the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry’s Office to a deputy of the socialist party of that country? the visit made by the parliament members on April 12, although without further details of the requests of Venezuelan officials to Bulgarian authorities.
Days after the initial trip to Spain, the three deputies - Parra, Perez and Arteaga - appeared again in Europe. They were accompanied by colleagues Jose Brito, Chaim Bucaram and Adolfo Superlano, all signatories of the letter delivered at the Prosecutor's Office of Colombia, on October 9, 2019, on behalf of Carlos Lizcano and Salva Foods.
The deputies were on May 10 in Rome and on May 14 in Madrid to ask authorities of both countries to investigate Rafael Ramirez, the former Oil Minister and former president of the state oil company PDVSA during the Government of Hugo Chavez, as well as former Vice President of Economic Affairs with Nicolas Maduro, among other positions. Indeed, there are photos of this Spain-Italy tour, statements to the media of those countries, and even explanations when they returned to Venezuela. "He lives like a prince in a castle that costs from six to seven million euros (...) I summon prosecutor Tarek William Saab to make the request to Interpol," deputy Chaim Bucaram said on May 22 about the accusation against Rafael Ramirez, after resuming his work at the Comptroller’s Commission.
Deputy Jose Luis Pirela, representative of the state of Zulia and current member of the so-called parliamentary fraction of July 16, dissident of the majority opposition led by Maria Corina Machado and Antonio Ledezma, was in Madrid and Rome too. However, Pirela quickly clarified that his participation was to accompany them to file the complaint against Ramirez and another complaint for the Derwick case, associated with corruption in electricity investments in Venezuela. “I do not accept my name or honor being associated to a matter I have nothing to do with. I have not done anything else with the members of that Comptroller’s Commission,” he also said.
Precisely that trip of members of the Comptroller’s Commission caught the attention of the heads of the political parties, particularly of the president of that office, Freddy Superlano, deputy for the state of Barinas of the Popular Will (VP) party. “It was not about a tour of actions by the commission. Trips involving official actions are first approved in plenary session or authorized by the president; otherwise, it is an individual and non-institutional action,” says Superlano, who should not be mistaken for deputy Adolfo Superlano, whom he claims not to be related to.
On May 22, the day of the statements of Deputy Bucaram against Rafael Ramirez, Freddy Superlano was already out of the country in a self-imposed exile since last April. Hence, Conrado Perez, vice president of the commission at that moment, told the media that he assumed the “voice of the fellow members of the Comptroller’s Commission”. Since then, Conrado Perez has served, in practice, as de facto president of that office of the parliament.
It is worth mentioning that Conrado Perez and Deputy Rafael Arteaga signed the letters of uncertain authenticity, dated in 2018 and leaked to the press and through social media last week, whereby parliament members absolve not Lizcano but Alex Saab of any irregularity. One of those papers also contains the signature of the president of the Comptroller’s Commission, Freddy Superlano. Both on his Twitter account and when asked for this report, Superlano "emphatically" denied having signed that document.
The informal tour in Europe of the group of deputies aroused all kinds of speculation in the floor, which include claims that Alex Saab's checkbook had financed the trip. The gossip was not only among deputies. In a digital meeting held in September this year with foreign correspondents, Rafael Ramirez, fallen out of favor and remotely speaking from an undetermined place, affirmed the same. “They were in Europe, very funny, well, very tragic, accusing me with some horrible banners against me, but later on, people from the opposition told me that this trip was paid by Alex Saab, the lord of the CLAP boxes, whom the Comptroller’s Commission does not investigate.”
Weeks later and for months, Primicias24.com, the portal of Carlos Herrera, began to publish articles in defense of Salva Foods, the company of Carlos Lizcano and owner of the CLAP Stores. The publications even compared the supposed robustness of Salva Foods with Empresas Polar, the main private corporation of Venezuela, in categories of foodstuffs and beverages. “Salva Foods is a company that was created in 2015 to market food on a large scale. It is not a shell company. It has about 6,500 employees and is among the largest companies in the country since it also has a large logistics management,” said one of the press releases.
The dates of these publications coincide with the date of the letters of the Comptroller's Committee leaked to the social media with the alleged signatures of Freddy Superlano, Conrado Perez, Richard Arteaga and even the secretary of such commission. Only deputy Superlano insists that he did not sign those communications on behalf of Alex Saab, Carlos Lizcano or the companies of the group. The prosecutor in exile, Luisa Ortega Diaz, also denies having received any communication from the Comptroller's Committee for that purpose.
None of the letters are in file number 1714 created in 2017 by the Comptroller’s Commission, when Justice First deputy Carlos Paparoni formally opened the case. According to this evidence, these would be apocryphal documents, forged as part of a disinformation strategy. “They never reached the commission's registry, even though they speak on behalf of the commission,” says a source who preferred anonymity.
In those letters, dated in 2018, it is said that the investigation on Alex Saab and his participation in the CLAP business started due to a complaint by Ramses Reyes, omitting that the investigation officially began a year before.
Ramses Reyes is a familiar character in the Primicias24 portal. The site frequently collects complaints of alleged acts of corruption by that individual, who is usually identified as “a lawyer and public accountant” and member of the Venezuelan Revolutionary Currents (Corrientes Revolucionarias Venezolanas) party.
Salva Foods' lawyer, Pedro Aranguren, said via Twitter that he will "summon" the National Assembly "with documents in hand" to "acknowledge the resolutions of the Comptroller's Commission on behalf of entrepreneur Alex Saab, which prove that he did not forge anything and that the documents were personally signed by members of that commission.” Ultimately, his words are the acknowledgement that Alex Saab is the shadow owner of the CLAP Stores, something that the Colombian entrepreneur has always wanted to deny regarding the Armando.info reports that revealed these connections through Carlos Lizcano. Pedro Aranguren is also a familiar character in Primicias24 and is identified as "a criminalist, former judge and expert in criminal matters."
Between the leaks and the unsteadiness of the revelations that follow one after another, and at the close of this story, Freddy Superlano, still long-distance president of the Comptroller's Commission, disclosed a letter in which he asks the interim president, Juan Guaido, to open an investigation with “deputies, journalists and civil society” in the “plenary session of the National Assembly” to discover how is it possible that a strategy was prepared in that office to defend those who are identified in some countries as front men of Nicolas Maduro and potential authors of the Green Briefcase Operation, as deputy Jose Guerra named it.
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.
While the key role of Colombian entrepreneurs Alex Saab Morán and Álvaro Pulido Vargas in the import scheme of Nicolás Maduro’s Government program has come to light, almost nothing has been said about the participation of the traders who act as suppliers from Mexico. These are economic groups that, even before doing business with Venezuela, were not alien to public controversy.
Even though there are new brands, a new physical-chemical analysis requested by Armando.Info to UCV researchers shows that the milk powder currently distributed through the Venezuelan Government's food aid program, still has poor nutritional performance that jeopardizes the health of those who consume it. In the meantime, a mysterious supplier manages to monopolize the increasing imports and sales from Mexico to Venezuela.
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.
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.