From Veracruz to La Guaira, a trip that links Piedad Córdoba with Nicolás Maduro

The rebel prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Díaz, opened a real Pandora's box. Her accusation against Group Grand Limited not only strips the food import business for the popular Local Supply and Production Committee (CLAP). It also confirms that the businessman from Barranquilla, Alex Nain Saab Morán, hitherto linked to former Colombian senator, Piedad Córdoba, is also a hinge of President Nicolás Maduro. From the port of Veracruz, at least 7 million boxes of food have been shipped to Venezuela by a ghost company with no permanent office in Caracas or Mexico, and thanks to a millionaire contract with the Venezuelan government.   

3 September 2017

Venezuela's main food distribution center is in the port of Veracruz, Mexico. From there, thousands of miles away,so far this year, vessels have sailed, loaded with food boxes for the Local Supply and Production Committee (CLAP), a program designed by Nicolás Maduro. The five-days voyage involves coming down from the Mexican Gulf, crossing the Caribbean Sea and reaching Venezuelan shores, and has led to a millionaire business deal with Group Grand Limited, the ghost company that, according to Luisa Ortega Díaz, the Attorney General of the Republic deposed by the Venezuelan Government, has a direct connection with the president of Venezuela.

Although unknown to the public, Group Grand Limited has quietly entered Venezuelan homes, especially the poorest, through food boxes. The company is the major beneficiary of the CLAP business. It has even imposed itself over Postar Intertrade Limited, owned by Venezuelan businessman Samark López Bello, who the U.S. Treasury Department pointed out last February as the "front man" of Vice President Tareck El Aissami. Precisely the sanctions associated with that accusation, quickly removed him from the business after having signed a contract for about 120 million dollars with the Venezuelan authorities for the sale of 3 million CLAP boxes, according to López Bello.

Pandora's box

On August 23, the rebel prosecutor traveled to Brazil to meet with counterparts from the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) nations. A few days before, she had escaped from Caracas to Bogotá after being dismissed in early August by the questioned National Constituent Assembly (ANC) with which the Chavismo has finally supplanted the parliament under opposition control since January 2016. In the Brazilian capital, surrounded by microphones and in front of the cameras of the media, Ortega Díaz said that President Maduro is a beneficiary of Group Grand Limited and the sale of food for the CLAP, a plan that the government wields as the solution to the widespread shortage of food and the "economic warfare" of local businessmen.

"We also have these proofs, I'm going to hand them over to the authorities of different countries"

"We have investigation on the food bags delivered in Venezuela, the CLAP, a Mexican company, registered in Mexico under the name of two people. The company is called Group Grand Limited, a company presumed to be owned by the President of the Republic, Nicolás Maduro", shot the now-persecuted by the Chavismo. She further explained that the official owners would be the Venezuelan Rodolfo Reyes and the Colombians Álvaro Pulido Vargas and Alex Saab. "We also have these proofs, I'm going to hand them over to the authorities of different countries", she said, which caused commotion in Venezuela and Colombia.

Ortega Díaz's statements aimed to show that Álvaro Pulido Vargas and Alex Nain Saab Morán, until now related to former Colombian senator Piedad Córdoba, are also close to the Venezuelan president. In other words, Maduro would be another protector of the business that for years Pulido and Saab won with the Chavismo. Despite some inaccuracies, Ortega Díaz's allegations are not misguided.

On April 23rd, Armando.info published a first report on the operations of Group Grand Limited, a company registered in Hong Kong on March 8, 2013 with a capital of $10,000. From May 7, 2015 until February 24 this year, the director was Shadi Nain Saab Certain, son of Alex Nain Saab Morán. In addition to the family bond, father and son are joined together with other relatives in two foundations created in Panama called Seafire Foundation and Fundación Hesace, and they formed a partnership in a company called Saab Certain & Company, registered and later liquidated in Barranquilla, birthplace of Alex Saab.

Alex Saab himself and his lawyers quickly denied his association with Group Grand Limited. "I am not part of the food-related company", the businessman replied to the newspaper El Tiempo of Bogotá in a brief interview via email that was published on August 25. There, on the other hand, he admitted having a friendship for "many years" with former Colombian senator Piedad Córdoba, whom he described as a "great person and natural leader" and whom he said he admired for "her fight for human rights". Months earlier, in April, when Piedad Córdoba's name had already been linked to Alex Saab's business, the former senator was honored by the Governorate of Tachira, which already negotiated with Group Grand Limited.

In the same vein, one of his lawyers spoke out. Abelardo De La Espriella, known for his harsh opinions against the Venezuelan president, told the newspaper El Heraldo of Barranquilla that his defendant "has nothing to do with that food company" and that he "is not related to the Venezuelan Government". He even assured that if Saab "were a partner of Nicolás Maduro, he would not be defending him". 

But shipping documents and invoices confirm that when Alex Saab's son was still responsible for Group Grand Limited, the company sold hundreds of kilos of food for the CLAP to the Tachira Governorate. Between January 8 and January 30 of this year, it issued at least 149 invoices to the Government of Táchira state for about 212 million dollars, more than half of the 340 million dollars initially approved by Maduro. According to those documents, the company charged in advance for food trading. Each of the boxes was sold in approximately 34 dollars, barely 340 bolivars at the preferential exchange rate, but marketed in Venezuela above 10 thousand bolivars, almost 30 times its value.

If the father-son connection is insufficient, other indications reveal that Alex Saab is the man behind the CLAP boxes marketed by Group Grand Limited. Shadi Nain Saab Certain's address on the Hong Kong registry, as well as the address on the invoices, refers to the offices in Caracas of Fondo Global de Construcción, a company with which Alex Saab won a contract with Hugo Chávez himself in 2011 to sell prefabricated houses to the "Mission Housing" plan. That same address was on Group Grand Limited's website until last April, but it was modified after they were asked about the relationship between the two companies and the Colombian businessman.  After the accusations of Ortega Diaz that second address disappeared from the portal, reaffirming the ghostly nature of the company.

The company's current director, the Colombian lawyer, former consul of that country in New York and former president of the National Hydrocarbon Association, also denied Alex Saab's participation. In a communiqué signed by him and broadcast to the Colombian media on August 28, Betancourt said that "it is totally false that any of the people mentioned by Mrs. Ortega (Díaz) are part of the shareholding composition of Group Grand Limited". He also stated that they are only one of "at least 12 companies that currently provide CLAP boxes" to the Venezuelan government. "The contractual relations we have entered into with the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela are governed by the rules of law of that country", reads the text signed by Betancourt, who entrusted the defense of Group Grand Limited to former Colombian prosecutor Mario Iguarán.

Although the communiqué claims that the company works with "total transparency", it does not disclose who the real owners are. From the movements in the Hong Kong registry, it appears that on February 24, when Shadi Nain Saab Certain resigned from the board and Betancourt assumed his position, Group Grand Limited's shares were transferred to two Panamanian companies. These are Eolo Energies INC and Viladrake International INC, the latter created in November 2016 and managed since January 27 of this year by the attorney-in-fact Jorge Wuerms, a Panamanian specialized in finance and linked to Penates AG, a financial firm based in Switzerland.

The art of hiding

If the structure of Group Grand Limited in Hong Kong is opaque, the Mexican subsidiary referred to by Ortega Díaz in her denunciation also raises suspicions. According to the Public Registry of Commerce of Mexico City, Group Grand Limited S.A. was registered on March 21, 2017, two months after having initiated the commercial exchange with the Governorate of Táchira through the Hong Kong headquarters. Prior to the commercial registration, and because it was a foreign business, on March 13, 2017, the company filed an "authorization of denomination/business name" with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Economy of Mexico. The diplomatic tension between Maduro and Enrique Peña Nieto, as well as the insults of Maduro and the Venezuelan authorities against Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, had not yet been unleashed with regard to Mexico's position in the face of the Venezuelan political crisis that began at the end of March.

The capital of the company is 100,000 Mexican pesos, 99% of which belongs to Group Grand Limited of Hong Kong and the remaining 1% to Santiago Uzcátegui Pinto, a 33-year-old Venezuelan born in Madrid, residing in Barquisimeto, State of Lara, in western Venezuela, and with his own companies in the area of ??food and construction. On May 4, Uzcátegui Pinto granted the company control through powers of attorney to Andrés Eduardo León Rodríguez and Enmanuel Enrique Rubio González, son of Álvaro Pulido Vargas, the other Colombian businessman referred by Ortega Díaz. The reason why the surnames do not coincide is that the true identity of Álvaro Pulido Vargas would be that of Germán Rubio, a name that he decided to change after being linked to an investigation for drug trafficking, as revealed by the journalist Gerardo Reyes.

"They are third parties used as the face of the companies and in order to not be linked to them (Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido) because they are being subject of investigations in several jurisdictions", says a source who prefers to remain anonymous. One of those investigations was the one carried out by the Ecuadorian authorities to the company Fondo Global de Construcción, with which Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido Vargas obtained access to the Venezuelan preference dollars and to the Unitary System of Regional Compensation of Payments (Sucre) promoted by the Governments of Caracas and Quito. In Ecuador, it is suspected that the company incurred in money laundering, fake exports and over-invoicing, among other irregularities, with the Ecuadorian subsidiary of Fondo Global de Construcción, another complex business structure that, like Group Grand Limited, leads to a tax haven, in this case on the island of Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea.

"The General Law of Mercantile Associations states that an address must be provided as one of the basic requirements for the constitution of an association”

 The company's registration in Mexico also draws attention to the fact that there is no business address in the Mexican territory, which implies a breach of the General Law of Mercantile Associations of that country and reaffirms the group's ghostly nature. "The General Law of Mercantile Associations states that an address must be provided as one of the basic requirements for the constitution of an association, which is due to the idea that the association can cope with any type of claim or prosecutor's requirement. It remains a mystery how the notary public apparently overlooked this requirement, which makes it appear as an intention of evading the responsibility of facing any claim or issue raised by its corporate purpose" warns a Mexican lawyer who reviewed the registration papers and preferred to remain anonymous. To make matters worse, the notary responsible for the registry, Guillermo Oliver Bucio, has been involved in wrongdoings, according to the Mexican press.

In any case it has not been an impediment to take over the CLAP business. Mexican businessmen, some of them suppliers of Group Grand Limited, assert that the company is the only one with the financial capacity to continue in the business after the departure of Samark López Bello and the failed attempts of other Venezuelan entrepreneurs, which according to those sources would be linked to Alex Saab himself under other corporate titles. From the packing company El Sardinero, up to 25 thousand boxes are prepared on a daily basis to be dispatched from the port of Veracruz to La Guaira. This company is one of the largest Mexican companies dedicated to packing boxes or food pantries, a standard policy in several instances of Mexican Government. "El Sardinero was making at least 25 thousand daily pantries, which implies almost 25 containers per day, since each one has 1300 pantries (...) This project (CLAP) was halted because the Venezuelans did not transfer the resources and the only one that continued to work was El Sardinero", says a Mexican supplier.

Shipping documents prove him right. At least half of the 7 million CLAP boxes for the Tachira government have been shipped by El Sardinero from the port of Veracruz, in the Mexican Gulf. Once the boxes are packed with the 11 basic items, they are transported by land about 28 kilometers to the Intermodal Railroad Terminal, Pantaco, in the Azcapotzalco delegation of Mexico City. From there, the containers with 1,300 CLAP boxes depart by train to the port of Veracruz, about 425 kilometers away, and the shipping company Hapag Lloyd loads the ships that finally set sail for Venezuela.

"No other Latin American country has the capacity to distribute as many volumes of pantries as we do, but I am concerned that they are selling products of very low quality to Venezuelans", said the Mexican businessman, who at one point heard rumors that one of the representatives of Group Grand Limited presented himself as "Maduro's nephew" the one that Ortega Diaz had just pointed out.

This might be the reason why the dismissed Prosecutor has not taken too long to travel to Aztec territory. A week after her accusation against the Venezuelan president she arrived in the Mexican capital and met with the authorities of that country to continue denouncing the authoritarian drift of the Venezuelan government and try to pull at a thread that not only connects the ports of Veracruz and La Guaira, but also connects Alex Saab with Piedad Córdoba and Nicolás Maduro. "I came to this country mainly to meet with the Attorney General of the Republic, to whom I gave some important information related to investigations that are conducted in Venezuela and that may be of interest to this country," admitted Ortega Díaz.

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