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.’
In the absence of an air bridge, there is a financial corridor between Venezuela, Antigua and Barbuda. Millions of dollars associated with contracts of the Chavismo with cash shell companies and correspondent operations pass through some small banks in the also small island nation of the Lesser Antilles. At the same time, and in equal measure, the relationship between the governments of Nicolas Maduro and Gaston Browne is growing closer.
One of such banks is the North International Bank (NIB), based in Antigua, but controlled by Venezuelan executives. In August 2016, the Venezuelan Superintendency of Banking Institutions (Sudeban) authorized the bank to appoint a representative in Caracas. “Promoting and informing Venezuelan residents of the products and services” that the bank “may offer” was one of the justifications of the Venezuelan banking regulator for granting the license contained in Official Gazette 40.970 of August 19, 2016.
At the time when the authorization was given, the United States had not applied economic sanctions against the chavista regime. However, Maduro’s administration was quick to use the services of North International Bank as a correspondent bank for state financial entities, such as Banco del Tesoro or Banco del Desarrollo Social (Bandes), and for the millionaire payments to intermediaries contracted to supply food for the Local Supply and Production Committees (Clap). Antigua is one of the jurisdictions with the highest banking secrecy, according to the index of the NGO Tax Justice Network.
For example, just eleven months after the approval by Sudeban, $425 million of a payment from Nicolas Maduro’s government to Group Grand Limited began passing through a bank account in North International Bank. Group Grand Limited is the company registered in Hong Kong behind which Colombian businessmen Alex Saab Moran and Alvaro Pulido Vargas hid in order to control imports for the Claps with Mexican products, from the very beginning of the state plan devised by Maduro.
The details of that transaction are in contract CPVX-CJ-CONT-0086-2017 entered into by and between the state-owned Corporacion Venezolana de Comercio Exterior (Corpovex) (Venezuelan Foreign Trade Corporation), responsible for centralizing public imports, and the Hong Kong company. The document shows North International Bank and the Dutch Rabobank as channels of the transaction that would end in the coffers of Group Grand Limited, 50% of which was paid in advance.
The contract also shows that the Colombian duo, widely favored by Nicolas Maduro with millionaire businesses since 2013, charged $37 for each Clap box, $3 more than for each combo from a previous contract. A year later, in October 2018, the Attorney General’s Office of Mexico reported irregularities, like overbilling or poor quality of the shipments of Group Grand Limited for the Venezuelan government.
At the time of the agreement, signed by Air Force Major General Giuseppe Yoffreda, representing Corpovex, neither Saab nor Pulido had been included on the Ofac’ list of those sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, nor had they been accused of money laundering in a South Florida court, events that occurred in mid-2019. Nor had the Italian Guardia Di Finanza frozen their assets, as it did in last year’s November.
However, Armando.info had revealed by then that Colombian businessmen were camouflaging behind Group Grand Limited. A few years earlier, the Ecuadorian Attorney General’s Office accused them of several crimes allegedly committed with company Fondo Global de Construccion. In 2011, the businessmen duo had signed through this same company a multi-million dollar contract with the government of Hugo Chavez to build prefabricated homes in popular areas, which marked the beginning of the golden era of their business with the self-styled Bolivarian Revolution and the process took Alex Saab to the Miraflores palace in one of his few public appearances.
Group Grand Limited’s is not the only financial transaction linked to the Claps that has passed through jurisdictions known for their financial opacity. Saab and Pulido have personally used companies from the United Arab Emirates, while other intermediaries have received millionaire payments in banks in Hong Kong and Switzerland.
It is possible that the Caracas government’s preference for North International Bank is because its partners are Venezuelan investors. Or perhaps, Saab and Pulido’s experience in the Antigua and Barbuda jurisdiction - which the Colombian tandem is very familiar with - has been more of a factor. Alex Saab even had a passport as the island’s “economic representative,” issued in 2014, when Prime Minister Gaston Browne had only been in office for a few months. Browne had to give public explanations for the issuance of that document, precisely when the investigations against Saab and Pulido were heating up. “All I can say to the people of Antigua and Barbuda is that if Mr. Saab is accused at any time of any wrongdoing, you can rest assured that we will revoke his appointment,” he said to a local radio station in October 2018.
Browne is a close ally of Maduro, but is not clear if this relationship preceded or went along with the conversion of Antigua and Barbuda into a Chavista financial hub. The relationship began within the framework of the Petrocaribe program, whereby Hugo Chavez managed to seduce many of the English-speaking Caribbean countries, which hold a significant number of votes at the OAS and other international forums. Nonetheless, Browne and Antigua and Barbuda stood out to the point that in 2019, they became full members of Alba (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America), the alliance of Bolivarian regimes also created by Chavez but currently in decline.
There is other evidence of the role of North International Bank in the financial tricks of Maduro’s administration. On December 24, 2017, the state-owned Banco del Tesoro wished a “Merry Christmas" to those it called “our correspondent banks.” The entity of Antigua and Barbuda was among the banks greeted, together with the Russian Gazprobank, Italbank International Inc and the Commonwealth Bank & Trust, domiciled in Dominica, another island in the Caribbean.
Deputy Carlos Paparoni, who has been investigating the business behind the imports for the Claps since 2017 and last year was appointed by the interim government of Juan Guaido as “presidential commissioner against terrorism and organized crime,” has also identified North International Bank as “an intermediary bank” in irregular or illegal financial operations of the Maduro regime, where Bandes (Economic and Social Development Bank of Venezuela) has participated. Until 2016, when Sudeban was approved and after eight years from its creation, the trail of North International Bank in Venezuela was rather discreet.
The first North International Bank representative in Caracas, endorsed by Sudeban, was Fidel Antonio Gomez Barrios, who is not known for his experience in financial institutions, saved for his presence in a company registered in Panama in 2008, called Optivalores Servicios Financieros S.A. Fidel Gomez will not be the only Venezuelan behind North International Bank. Actually, his partners and most of his employees are also Venezuelan.
The current partners of the bank are Jordan Alberto Silva Tugues and Carlos Eduardo Sandoval Arocha, both owners of NIB Asesores de Negocios in Caracas. With that company they filed in 2013 with the Autonomous Service of Intellectual Property (Sapi) the rights of the brand of North International Bank in Venezuela, which were granted to them the following year. Both the bank and the Caracas-based NIB Asesores de Negocios were founded in 2008 and have offices in Torre La Castellana, east of Caracas. Fidel Gomez, Jordan Silva and Carlos Sandoval also worked in Caracas for the firm Econoconsult Consultores Asociados.
Carlos Vicente Croes Hernandez was also a partner of North International Bank between 2015 and 2016. “I have never been a director of the bank, only a shareholder,” Croes affirmed. In his Linkedin profile, he stresses that he has “no administrative, managerial or directive responsibility” when referring to his time at the bank.
The face of North International Bank as chairman of the board is Jordan Silva. He was the one who appeared at the signing of a sponsorship agreement with the Spanish first-division soccer club Atletico de Madrid. “The agreement, effective for four years, aims to offer more and better payment options to our team’s fans in South America and the Caribbean, reinforcing their athletic identity and passion for soccer,” the Spanish team said in a statement, describing North International Bank as “a renowned bank" also based in the Dominican Republic, in addition to Antigua and Barbuda.
Yet, there is no trace of the potential operation of North International Bank in the Dominican Republic, not even on the bank’s website or in its promotional channels. Jordan Silva’s résumé also highlights his experience as president of the state-owned Banco Solidario C.A. from 2006 to 2008, as well as executive director of the Federal District Government from 1995 to 1998. When contacted for this report, Silva asked for the questions in writing, but as of the close of this edition, he had not responded.
Sources linked to the financial world explain that it was from 2014, when Sapi authorized the use of the North International Bank brand in the country, that it began to attract clients with the offer of prepaid debit cards in dollars, at a time when the rigid exchange control implemented by Chavism still limited the possibility of having dollars if traveling abroad. In fact, in addition to the use of the brand, Sapi approved the name “travel card” for the promotion of “prepaid and postpaid" debit and credit cards.
In the press release issued by North International Bank weeks after its alliance with Atletico de Madrid, it was affirmed that “it has issued over one million physical payment instruments in the last decade, from prepaid cards, credit cards, payroll cards to gift cards and other options.”
In 2014, North International Bank was also seen as a sponsor and co-publisher of brochures of Venezuelan visual artists. “For Nibank, it is an honor to contribute to Latin American society as an international sponsor of several social causes, within our commitment to the development of the human being in ethical, social, sporting and cultural aspects,” reads one of those brochures. It was an ambitious presentation for a reality that at the time was still rather diffuse.
Today, however, the bank seems to be expanding. In addition to the funds related to the Clap's intermediaries, the mediation or correspondent activities of Venezuelan state banks, as well as the sponsorship agreement with Atletico de Madrid, the institution is looking for staff for its office in Caracas. In February of this year, the bank published in its social media vacancies for administrators, corporate lawyers and IT means of payment and web development specialists, among other positions. This is another sign that North International Bank is booming since Sudeban authorized its operation in Venezuela in 2016, despite of the extended economic downturn experienced in the country.
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.
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.
The network of intermediaries contracting with the Venezuelan Foreign Trade Corporation (Corpovex) to bring CLAP boxes seems infinite. In Sabadell, a town near Barcelona, a virtually cash shell company got 70 million dollars for outsourcing the shipment of food to Venezuela thanks to the administration of Nicolás Maduro, which buys the contents of the boxes at discretionary prices and without control. Last year alone, the government spent 2,500 to 3,500 million dollars, but only the leaders of the "Bolivarian revolution" know the actual figure.
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.