For everything else, there were Joaquín Leal and Alex Saab

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.

14 June 2021
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If Joaquín Leal, and later on Alex Saab, were in charge —at the initial request of Vice President Delcy Rodríguez— of devising and activating in 2019 a network to trade Venezuelan raw materials to bypass the U.S. sanctions on the Caracas regime, it was only a matter of time before they had to face the challenge of going around the turnstile that Washington installed with its punitive measures for Venezuelans to access one of the most scarce imported goods, the U.S. dollar.

They began to outline the formula that they found for their plans after a request for clarification in an email sent on July 16, 2019, barely a month after the first “humanitarian” operation of Leal’s Mexican network with Venezuela —an alleged barter of two million barrels of oil for tanker trucks and white corn. “What would be the specific object of Paquete Alcance? I am asking because the object defined in the incorporation papers is extremely diverse and confusing, as it combines food with technology,” reads the communication, which is part of the leak of thousands of documents that the newspaper EL PAÍS of Madrid and Armando.info obtained and reviewed together to produce this series of articles entitled “Mexican Bypass against Sanctions.”

The email with the question was sent by Venezuelan lawyer Roxana Daneska Mundarain López. The lawyer was already someone Leal trusted in Caracas and had represented him in Venezuela in the operations of Libre Abordo, the Mexican company that first acted as a pivot for the scheme with tentacles in 30 countries to avoid U.S. financial and commercial sanctions.

Roxana Mundarain was also in charge of registering in Venezuela, in September 2019, the company she was asking about in her July 2019 email , “Paquete Alcance” (literally, Reach Package).

Paquete Alcance was the play on words, certainly suggestive and catchy, that Leal used to name an alternative purchasing system, outlined to replace the use of Visa and Mastercard credit and payment cards in Venezuela “in the event that they leave the country,” and use it with the government’s social programs through a prepaid card system of its own and even collect remittances sent by Venezuelans abroad. This is stated in a slide presentation that is also included in the leak that EL PAÍS and Armando.info received.

Although registered in Mexico, Paquete Alcance was expected to be part of Mystic Universe, Joaquín Leal’s holding company in the British Virgin Islands, with a mirror company in Canada. Both companies were registered in May 2019, precisely at the early stage of Leal’s trips to Caracas and his billion-dollar transactions, according to information of the companies. The Mystic umbrella organization also covered Libre Abordo, used since shortly before in underground business with Caracas and eventually sanctioned by Washington, closed to filing bankruptcy in June 2020.

After the inquiries that Mundarain sent by email, the company’s object was finally established in its registration documents, with focus on the provision of a “service to reload balance or credit for consumption of goods or services” and “services to send funds abroad and receive funds from abroad,” as per commercial records.

Paquete Alcance achieved an unusual milestone in the state bureaucracy, which is rarely willing to facilitate the incorporation of companies in the pro-Chavez Venezuela —Sudeban, the regulatory agency of banks and financial institutions, accepted the registration of the company even though it had not been registered in the commercial registry.

Once the business was defined, the next step was to move forward in the operational platform to get remittances from Venezuelan migrants, almost simultaneously with Nicolás Maduro’s interest—as high as the hyperinflationary rate—in “digitalizing” the economy.

Captive Clients

The plan of Joaquín Leal and his company Paquete Alcance still lacked an ally in Venezuela, one that could provide the business establishments with the necessary points of sale for users to cash or redeem remittances received from abroad. That ally was to be Alex Saab with his CLAP Stores, which he managed through company Salva Foods 2015, after Maduro surreptitiously privatized many establishments that where, until then, attached to the failed state supermarket network, Abastos Bicentenario.

Since late 2017, the then unknown Salva Foods began to take establishments of Abastos Bicentenario to set up the CLAP Stores. The president of the company was Carlos Rolando Lizcano Manrique, also a Colombian national and trader of Alex Saab and his partner, Álvaro Pulido Vargas, in Venezuela.

The documents of Paquete Alcance indicate that the Salva Foods establishments were open to serve as “marketing channels,” where clients of the system would redeem remittances wired or buy merchandise charged to prepaid cards. The other channel would be “institutional or official to address government issuance programs.”

The main marketing channel of the Paquete Alcance cards would be the CLAP Stores, managed by company Salva Foods 2015.

Paquete Alcance’s projection for the first year of operations in Venezuela was to issue 10 million cards and set up 80,000 to 100,000 points of sale, with an investment of US$ 30 million.

The papers in the hands of EL PAÍS and Armando.Info reflect the scale that Leal and Saab were preparing to give to the business —on average, they calculated that each cardholder would move US$ 140 a year, which was equivalent to having the transit of some US$ 1.4 billion a year. The company’s treasury would be in Mexico and in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, a jurisdiction where both Leal and Saab usually incorporate their companies.

According to the presentation of the project, Leal and Saab were aiming at getting US$ 7 billion out of those US$ 1.4 billion, which was the amount in which they placed the volume of remittances sent by expatriates to their relatives and correspondents in Venezuela. In other words, they sought to channel 20% of the flow of foreign currency. But figures from specialized consulting firms, like Ecoanalítica in Caracas, recently put the annual value of remittances at US$ 3.5 billion, half of what was estimated by the company controlled by Joaquín Leal, which means that the goal of the businessmen might be to get 40% of the remittances. In any case, Leal and Saab were betting on getting a piece of that cake, fed by Venezuelans abroad.

In many presentations of Paquete Alcance, it is assured that the company had four years of experience in Mexico, a huge market for transfers and parcels from abroad, “by finding a market niche in remittances” and going “against large companies that only seek to extract the largest amount of resources from migrants.”

With the Paquete Alcance business in Venezuela, Alex Saab and Joaquín expected to get US$ 1.4 billion per year.

However, there is no evidence that the experience they boasted about was true. In fact, in order to operate in Venezuela, the promoters of the system sought an alliance with Edenred, the French company that manages services for companies and the payment of benefits through the Cesta Ticket cards.  

When the Package reaches them

In fact, the documents supporting this report confirm that the team of Joaquín Leal and Paquete Alcance established contacts in Caracas with Edenred’s local managers. In an email dated July 10, 2019, Leal wrote to an Edenred executive, “I hereby attach the presentation we discussed yesterday. I look forward to your comments and the steps to follow.”

The intent of Paquete Alcance was for Edenred to provide the operating platform for remittances, as well as the connection to the CLAP Stores and any eventual social programs of the Maduro government that he may choose to use the system. In September 2019, the lawyers of Paquete Alcance and Edenred were still holding meetings, where Leal was represented by Haymel Brito, a key player in the connection of the Mexican businessman with the authorities of the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, even though she is a Venezuelan citizen.

A year after those communications and meetings, everything went awry for Joaquín Leal and Alex Saab. The U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned Leal on June 18, 2020, after being identified as the ringleader of a scheme to evade the U.S. sanctions imposed on the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, PDVSA. While Saab was arrested a week before in Cape Verde, when he was making a stopover in that African nation to follow an itinerary that was to take him to Iran on behalf of Nicolás Maduro under an alleged diplomatic status, according to the counsel for the defense of the Colombian trader after his detention.

Both events, the accusation against Leal and Saab’s arrest, may have stopped the business that both conceived to get the remittances of Venezuelans abroad. Although Maduro continues to insist on the need to move towards an economy with a digital currency, there is no evidence that the plan of Paquete Alcance had materialized or even turned into a more or less similar operating system, like the one already installed under the name of Carnet de la Patria. 

The last traces on the social network of the initiative of Paquete Alcance date from July 7 to August 3, 2020, shortly after the bad luck—instead of the package of millions they expected—reached Leal and Saab.

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