Turkey and the coastal emirates of the Arabian Peninsula are now the homes of companies that supply the main social -and clientelist- program of the Government of Venezuela. Although the move from Mexico and Hong Kong, seems geographically epic, the companies has not changed hands. They are still owned by Colombian entrepreneurs Alex Nain Saab Morán and Álvaro Pulido Vargas, who control since 2016 a good part of the Import of food financed with public funds. Around the world for a business.
Just five months ago, on April 6, 2018, a letter from Group Grand Limited arrived at the office of the then president of the Venezuelan Foreign Trade Corporation (Corpovex), Major General (Aviation) Giuseppe Yoffreda Yorio. In the letter, the company asked the state body responsible for public imports the "assignment of financial rights of contract CPVX-CJ-CONT-0086-2017" of Mulberry Proje Yatirim A.S, incorporated in Istanbul, Turkey.
As Armando.Info has revealed in several reports, Group Grand Limited, registered in Hong Kong, is one of the legal facades behind which Colombian entrepreneurs Alex Nain Saab Morán and Álvaro Pulido Vargas hid, and whereby the couple has become almost omnipresent in the business of supplying the main social program of the Government of Nicolás Maduro, the so-called Local Committees for Supply and Production (Clap). As discussed below, Mulberry Proje Yatirim A.S. is another piece of the same plot.
Initially developed by the Government to work as production groups that, as party cells, would ensure the supply of food, in practice, the Claps have been restricted to the intermittent and clientelism-based distribution of boxes and bags with products of the basic basket imported from several countries. Thus, they have become a source of shady deals for a handful of entrepreneurs. For the popular sectors, however, they are one of the few alternatives to alleviate the chronic shortage of food that Venezuela is going through.
The letter from Group Grand Limited to Corpovex was signed by Andreína Fuentes Mazzei, as legal representative. However, Fuentes Mazzei has also acted for years as an executive of the Fondo Global de Construcción (Global Construction Fund) in Caracas, which is part of a conglomerate of the same name with headquarters in Colombia, Spain, Ecuador and the Mediterranean island of Malta. It was with Fondo Global de Construcción that the duet of Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido began their still upward trajectory as contractors of Chavism by reaching in November 2011 the agreement to build a social housing project in Valles del Tuy, southwest of Caracas.
The connection of Fuentes Mazzei with Group Grand Limited is not the only indication that the transfer of the debt from that company to the Turkish Mulberry Proje Yatirim was a virtually incestuous inbred operation between related companies; in other words, from Saab-Pulido to Saab-Pulido.
Mulberry Proje Yatirim is represented by Betsy Desirée Mata Pereda, who is the manager of Salva Foods 2015, the Venezuelan company that runs the CLAP Stores that President Maduro has been promoting since early 2017. Salva Foods belongs to Carlos Rolando Lizcano Manrique, also a Colombian entrepreneur, born in Cúcuta, province of Norte de Santander, and with business ties with Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido established through Group Grand Limited.
So everything was among the closed ones.
When the "assignment of financial rights" in favor of the Turkish Company Mulberry Proje Yatirim was considered, Group Grand Limited had two contracts with the Government and was, perhaps, the main intermediary for the imports of the Clap. For example, the contract referred to in the letter to Corpovex entailed the sale of 11.5 million Clap boxes for Corporación Única de Servicios Productivos y Alimentarios (Cuspal), attached to the Ministry of Food.
Long before, in the late 2016, Group Grand Limited was favored with what would be its first contract as food importer for the purchase of ten million combos for 340 million dollars agreed upon with the Government of the State of Táchira (the Andes in southwest Venezuela), which was back then led by Army Captain José Gregorio Vielma Mora of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). A millionaire business was born that always goes to the same beneficiaries and does not stop growing. After all, Group Grand Limited was also chosen by the Ministry of Health to import medicines, this time from India.
In the two agreements with the Venezuelan Government for the supply of Clap boxes, the agent of Group Grand Limited before the authorities was Andreína Fuentes Mazzei, the same person that appeared in the letter to Corpovex. On the other hand, the son of Alex Saab, Shadi Nain Saab Certain, appeared as director of the company until February 24, 2017. In addition, the contact address on the incorporation papers of the company is the same of Fondo Global de Construcción in Caracas. Shadi Saab was succeeded by Javier Ernesto Betancourt Valle, a Colombian lawyer, former consul of his country in New York, and whose name will appear again in this business network with a company from the United Arab Emirates. In the Mexican subsidiary of Group Grand Limited, opened and liquidated in 2017, the son of Álvaro Pulido Vargas appeared as the company's proxy for a brief period.
Although the company was registered on May 7, 2015, Betsy Mata became a member of the board of directors of the Turkish Mulberry Proje Yatirim A.S. only a few months ago. The contact telephone number on the incorporation papers in Istanbul is from Caracas. The documents also reveal the connection of this firm with a British company called Mulberry Capital Partners Limited.
The moving of the apparent epicenter of the Clap business to Turkey does not seem casual. In fact, it may seem natural, and not because the Saab family name goes back to its ancestors in the Middle East. For months, financial intelligence units of at least four American countries have been investigating the money flows behind the CLAP business, after Public Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega Díaz, recently dismissed by Maduro and in exile, reported last August that Group Grand Limited was managed by Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido on behalf of the Venezuelan president. “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, Nicolás Maduro," declared Ortega Díaz. The message resounded and authorities of several countries started an investigation.
But there is also the political pragmatism of Nicolás Maduro, who in a matter of months has strengthened the relationship with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in search of an ally to avoid the financial penalties imposed on both countries by Donald Trump’s administration since mid-last year.
"We have brought a thorough document of all investment opportunities. It is the first scenario where Venezuela comes out with a detailed investment proposal," Maduro announced in July from Istanbul before Turkish entrepreneurs. In October 2017, both heads of state set up the "second joint intergovernmental commission" in Ankara, and since then, Venezuelan officials have repeatedly traveled to Turkey. In last year’s November, it was the turn of the Finance Minister, Simón Zerpa, while in January of the current year the then president of the National Constituent Assembly and now Vice President of the Republic, Delcy Rodríguez, as well as the former Minister of Foreign Trade, José Gregorio Vielma Mora, were in the Eurasian nation.
did not take long. On August 31, two presidential decrees formalized the link
state-owned companies Minerven and Carbozulia and Turkish companies for the creation of "joint ventures." Previously, in July, the Venezuelan government confirmed to Reuters that it refines in Turkey the gold extracted from the so-called Mining Arch, in the south of the country. That same month, the Minister of Food, Luis Medina Ramírez, reported on Twitter that he met in Caracas with executives of Yayla, which he defined as the "Turkish agro-food giant" and with which they agreed upon the "cooperation in the supply of food and support to agricultural production." Clap boxes are a mirror of the approach and, for months, some of the eleven products are Turkish-branded and end up in the Venezuelan homes after the Government sells the food combos at subsidized prices.
Betsy Mata did not answer the interview request for this report. However, databases specialized in international trade, like Panjiva, provide clues about the role of Mulberry Proje Yatirim in the Clap business. According to this registry, the Turkish company acts as an intermediary of the Venezuelan Government in food importation, as Group Grand Limited has done since 2016. The data confirms that Mulberry Proje Yatirim buys merchandise from Rice & Beans or El Sardinero, both well-known Mexican suppliers and to which Group Grand Limited also resorted regularly to acquire shipments that come, as before, from the port of Veracruz.
Mexican authorities detected that from 2016 to 2017, El Sardinero alone issued "fiscal invoices" to Group Grand Limited for nearly 240 million dollars. "From April 2016 to August 2017, Group Grand Limited sent international transfers from Hong Kong to five different companies in Mexico," as referred to in a document. In that report, Asasi Food FZC stands out ?a United Arab Emirates company, another intermediary of the Claps that began to make a name for itself almost at the same time that Group Grand Limited was disappearing from the business and its Mexican subsidiary - the one that gave rise to the complaint filed by Prosecutor Ortega Díaz in 2017 - initiated the bankruptcy proceeding.
Asasi Food FZC also became part of the Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido business plot. Sources claim that Group Grand Limited did not only assign financial rights to Mulberry Proje Yatirim, but also to Asasi Food FZC. Although this version could not be reliably confirmed for this release, a primary connection point was found between the pair of Colombian entrepreneurs and the UAE company.
The link is in the commercial file of Salva Foods 2015, the Venezuelan company responsible for the CLAP Stores. In those papers, there is an unsuccessful attempt to sell Salva Foods 2015 to Asasi Food FZC. "Cancellation of sale to Asasi Food FZC", reads a handwritten sheet of the book of shareholders, almost lost among the other pages. Asasi Food FZC was represented in that act by Jorge Wuerms, Panamanian, and Javier Betancourt, the Colombian lawyer who succeeded Alex Saab's son as director of Group Grand Limited. "Asasi Food FZC is a company that aims to meet the basic needs of mankind through agro-industrial development," the company claims on its website.
Although the sale failed, the participation of Asasi Food FZC in the Clap business was registered in Panjiva, in addition to the money movements detected by the Mexican authorities. Asasi Food FZC bought food from Mexican industrialists and sold it to the Venezuelan government. Some of those suppliers were El Sardinero, Molinos de Azteca de Chalco and Grupo Brandon. The latter has become this year the main supplier of milk powder that arrives in Venezuela in the Clap boxes, despite of being completely unknown to the Mexican dairy industry and the poor nutritional quality that some of its products showed after being analyzed by the Institute of Food Science and Technology of Universidad Central de Venezuela at the request of Armando.Info.
Sources familiar with the business state that the money movements of Asasi Food FZC were made through Noor Capital PSC bank, also from the United Arab Emirates.
Salva Foods 2015’s file shows another failed transfer attempt. The owner, Carlos Lizcano, also tried to sell the company responsible for the CLAP Stores to L & L Inversiones SAS, a Colombian company that he also owns and according to importgenius.com, was a supplier of Abastos Bicentenario in 2015, the same sales network that was finally replaced by the CLAP Stores. In addition, late last year, L & L Inversiones SAS shipped merchandise to Salva Foods 2015.
Last May, Carlos Lizcano, who has evaded the interview requests, transferred the majority shareholding of Salva Foods 2015 to another company that he represented, incorporated in Abu Dhabi, one of the seven Arab emirates on the coasts of the Persian Gulf, thousands of kilometers from Venezuela. Just before the sale of shares, the capital of Salva Foods 2015 increased from 2,000 million bolivars (currently, two million bolívares soberanos or just over $ 30,000 at the official rate) to 50,000 million bolivars (50 million bolívares soberanos, almost $ 850,000 at the official rate) that were finally divided between Mezedes Holding Ltd, with 65.97%, and Carlos Lizcano, with 34.02%.
The Abu Dhabi company register confirms that Mezedes Holding Ltd was created on April 10, 2018, just four days after that letter whereby Group Grand Limited assigned its financial rights to the Turkish company. It is proof, at least, that in the end, the plan to feed the poorest in Venezuela, formalized by Maduro in March 2016, benefits a company nominally incorporated in one of the richest places on the planet.
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.
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.
Since the borders to Colombia and Brazil are packed and there is minimal access to foreign currency to reach other desirable destinations, crossing to Trinidad and Tobago is one of the most accessible routes for those in distress seeking to flee Venezuela. Relocating them is the business of the 'coyotes' who are based in the states of Sucre or Delta Amacuro, while cheating them is that of the boatmen, fishermen, smugglers and security forces that haunt them.
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.