The inclusion of the Venezuelan businessman in the list of drug traffickers and money launderers in the United States of America reveals the plot of his business with Nicolás Maduro’s regime. First, he sold kits for the government's housing building programs. Then, he benefited from the massive sale of food and even Christmas decorations; all this through a structure that has found, to date, shelter in the jurisdiction of Barbados. The small Caribbean island acts as the lair that hides some of its assets to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
It is no longer anonymous. Days ago, Samark José López Bello stopped being a stranger doing business and fortune. The sanction that the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced on February 13, 2017, points him directly as the frontman or figurehead of the Vice President of the Republic, Tareck El Aissami, and connects them to drug trafficking. López Bello became a public man for Venezuelans, who unknowingly decorated their homes with Christmas trees that the businessman sold through the government.
Yes. The man who the U.S. authorities have just blocked 13 properties in different jurisdictions of the world, the one they accuse of being the "financial support" and the man "acting on behalf" of El Aissami, negotiated Christmas trees in November with the government of Nicolás Maduro, who frequently complains about the public coffers running dry of dollars after the drop of oil revenues.
On November 19, a ship berthed in the port of Puerto Cabello - the main terminal of the country, located in the state of Carabobo - with the holiday cargo. The pine trees were dispatched by Postar Intertrade Limited to the Venezuelan Foreign Trade Corporation (Corpovex), a state-owned company responsible for centralizing public purchases, chaired since its birth in 2013 by Giuseppe Yoffreda, a Major General of the Venezuelan Air Force.
The port records reveal that the Christmas trees, coming from the port of Philadelphia, U.S.A., weighed together almost 58 tons. Corpovex does not publish or reveal information about the purchases made, but whoever follows the trail of Postar Intertrade Limited will run into the now infamous Samark López.
On the web where Samark López responded to OFAC, admitting that he "has known Tareck El Aissami for several years" and denying being "involved in drug trafficking," the businessman mentions that in addition to Profit Corporation and Yakima Trading Corporation —included in the list of the 13 assets blocked by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Postar Intertrade Limited is also his. "Founded in 2013, Postar has a modern warehouse the size of three football fields, where the trucks line up for national distribution. Today, Postar employs three thousand people and leads the way as a model of success in the Venezuelan private company." The portal also specifies that the company is engaged in the supply of building materials for social interest homes.
The version on the Postar Intertrade Limited website is different. "We specialize in bulk commodities trading and add value through our logistics and management service portfolio." In the contact information, there is hardly a reference to an office in New York, an email and a telephone number.
Samark López does not appear in the company's papers. That may be the reason why Postar Intertrade Limited did not fall on the OFAC list known on Monday, February 13. But the persons and addresses associated with Postar Intertrade Limited lead to whom the U.S. Government presented to the world as the figurehead of the Vice President of Venezuela and former Governor of the State of Aragua.
Postar Intertrade Limited has no domicile in Venezuela, nor is it registered in the National Registry of Contractors (RNC), an essential requirement to do business with the Government. To find the headquarters of Postar Intertrade Limited you have to travel to The Phoenix Center, on the Caribbean island of Barbados, as evident in one of the cargo manifests of its shipments to Corpovex.
The bond with Samark López is established in several ways. The businessman used the same address to move his company Yakima Trading Corporation from Panama, where it was founded in 2002, to Barbados, in early 2016.
The cargo documents identify Amaury Salazar as head of Postar Intertrade Limited. This is Amaury José Salazar Gibory, an employee of Profit Corporation, the business pivot through which Samark López entered into many contracts with the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (Pdvsa), since when he had the stock control (as of 2010), he added it to the "Program of Social Production Companies (EPS)" of the oil company and its subsidiaries, devised by the Government of Hugo Chávez. The Venezuelan Institute of Social Security (IVSS) reveals that Amaury Salazar joined Profit Corporation, now questioned by OFAC, on September 1, 2010.
Amaury Salazar is a relative of Armando José Salazar Gibory, who was, for a while, a partner of Samark López at Profit Corporation and also works at the company since May 1, 2010. The record of the National Registry of Contractors (RNC) indicates that Armando Salazar is still the "head" of the company, located at the exclusive Torre JWM, in El Rosal area, Caracas, where this week the press unsuccessfully looked for answers from those responsible for the sanctioned companies.
An additional piece of evidence proves the link between Samark López and Postar Intertrade Limited, the trader of Christmas trees. The management of a company that Amaury Salazar owns in Caracas, called Distribuidora Amaury and disqualified from contracting with the Government, is the same used by Grupo Sahect, C.A., with which Samark López started in the food business years ago, and that was related to the "Pudreval" case, where thousands of tons of food imported by the State decomposed. Today, for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Grupo Sahect is among Lopez's suspicious assets.
Postar Intertrade Limited’s domicile being in the island of Barbados is not hazardous. In the organizational chart of properties that the U.S. Department of the Treasury attributes to Samark López, there are companies in Venezuela, U.S.A., Panama, the British Virgin Islands and the United Kingdom, but none in Barbados. "It is a serious jurisdiction, with predictable case law, and a legal structure inspired by the English Common Law system," describes Hernando Díaz-Candia, a lawyer specialized in international arbitration and investment protection.
Precisely because of these characteristics, the jurisdiction of Barbados offers numerous advantages to entrepreneurs like Samark López. "Barbados is the best of two worlds. It is a clean, serious jurisdiction, inexpensive and, due to its British influence, allows the concept of Trust, a sort of legal anonymity," says a source, who prefers to remain anonymous.
The island-state is not considered a "tax haven" by Seniat, the Venezuelan tax agency, because it has a "treaty to avoid double taxation on income tax in Venezuela," and it signed a "bilateral treaty on the promotion and protection of investments," which would allow investors to initiate arbitrations against Venezuela in the event that the Government incurs in" non-compensated "expropriation proceedings.
"He is obviously very well advised," the source concludes, referring to the domicile of Postar Intertrade Limited and Samark López’s decision to move his company Yakima Trading Corporation from Panama to Barbados last year, when the storm was coming from the isthmus of the Panama Papers, the journalistic investigation based on the filtering of millions of documents from the Mossack Fonseca law firm.
"Today, Barbados is cleaner than Panama. United States of America watches more closely a Panamanian company than one in Barbados wanting to open accounts in American banks," insists the source.
A businessman, who also wanted to remain anonymous, recalls that, years ago, Yakima Trading Corporation was mentioned in the case of an import of contaminated milk from China, which splashed Samark López. Not being in the papers of Postar Intertrade Limited could avoid such an event.
The exchange of Postar Intertrade Limited with Corpovex does not limit to Christmas trees. Coincidentally, when the accusation by the U.S. Government against Tareck El Aissami and Samark López came from Washington, a ship with tons of food had been unloaded in the port of Puerto Cabello. The common thread of both stories, which occurred on February 13, is Postar Intertrade Limited. While the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced the sinking of dozens of assets and companies of Samark López, the businessman began another business in Venezuelan waters with the Venezuelan Government.
While the rumble came from the U.S. capital, at the time in the middle of winter, hundreds of the longed-for boxes of food that the Government sells through the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP) —an emergency plan that began to take shape in late 2015 to address the general shortage of basic products—, trapped since February 10 in the warm Puerto Cabello, were unloaded from the San Antonio ship coming from the Mexican port of Veracruz.
"A total of 633 containers with food kits aimed for the CLAPs were unloaded from the vessel San Antonio, at Pier 24, in Puerto Cabello," reported the Bolivarian State of Ports (Bolipuertos) on February 11. The 11,600 tons of boxes were dispatched by Postar Intertrade Limited, received by the also state-owned Corporación de Abastecimiento y Servicios Agrícolas (CASA) -attached to the office of the Minister of Food, General Rodolfo Marco Torres- and paid by Corpovex. Some sources indicate that this cargo is "minor" if compared to the volumes of bulk foods that Samark López and his companies also sell to CASA.
A few months passed from the format of the food bags and the presentation of the boxes. In July 2016, the then Vice President of Economic Affairs, Miguel Pérez Abad, traveled to Panama, accompanied by the president of Corpovex, Giuseppe Yoffreda, to negotiate the purchase of products from Panamanian businessmen. It was during this visit that it was decided to move from precarious bags to boxes, in the form of kits or combos that include the same products in series.
After that trip of the Venezuelan officials, the Government imported food boxes for CLAPs from Panama, but the ones that Postar Intertrade Limited dispatched a few days ago for Corpovex were prepared in Mexico and left from the port of Veracruz. " Postar Intertrade Limited buys from a Mexican company that prepares the boxes and Postar Intertrade Limited has the contract with Corpovex for selling them," says a source familiar with the business.
For Samark López and Postar Intertrade Limited, the box business is not new. In 2015, the Venezuelan Government sold hundreds of kits with pieces for the construction of prefabricated houses in the framework of the so-called Housing Mission, one of the flagship plans of the Chávez Government. Port records of Puerto Cabello show that in June 2015, Postar Intertrade Limited dispatched from the port of Everglades, Miami, about 200 tons of "pre-fabricated building" material for the National People's Power Fund Service (Safonapp), attached to the Ministry of the Communes and Social Movements. Some sources admit that it is possible that this load had also been canceled by Corpovex, as the company that centralizes public purchases with preferential dollars.
The origin of Postar Intertrade Limited seems to be prefabricated homes. The website that Samark López has used to promote himself as a philanthropist and defend himself against OFAC's accusation states that "Postar developed a logistic system designed to provide access to decent homes for people living in poverty. Postar acquires building materials and sends them to Venezuela in housing kits with around 160 items." A plan of the Venezuelan Government tailored to Samark López and Postar Intertrade Limited.
A promotional video that circulated on the Internet shows the process of preparing the boxes. Postar Intertrade Limited purchased from Home Depot and Graybar the merchandise that it later shipped in boxes for Construpatria in Venezuela, a state network for the sale of building materials under the Ministry of Housing. "Since the material is to be distributed throughout Venezuela, we take care to distribute the weight in two boxes, in box A and box B, because when it arrives in Venezuela, it reaches places where there are no forklifts (...) This would not apply for Venezuela only, but for Latin American countries," explains María Eugenia Rodríguez, project manager of Postar Intertrade Limited, in the video.
After the accusations by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the Venezuelan Government closed ranks with Vice President Tareck El Aissami. But neither El Aissami or any other official, nor the Public Prosecutor's Office have ruled on Samark López and the extensive network of companies and properties that he has vertiginously amassed amidst severe exchange controls since 2003. In all these years, dozens of national and transnational companies have closed their doors dragged by the economic crisis that has hit the country for three years.
Only Samark López has admitted his relationship with Tareck El Aissami, who is possibly not his only acquaintance in the High Government. Thanks to Postar Intertrade Limited, he has escaped from the arm of the U.S. Department of the Treasury and negotiated with Corpovex, CASA or Construpatria, among other state-owned companies, but with its companies based in Venezuela and now sentenced by OFAC, he closed contracts with Pdvsa, Sidor, the Ministry of Electric Power during the power crisis experienced from 2008 to 2011, and even with the Communications and Information office, among other high government areas.
Those agreements allowed him to build in a few years an emporium that began to collapse in a matter of hours when the U.S. authorities announced an in-depth analysis of his business. From that moment, it seems that only a corner of the Caribbean called Barbados is left to Samark López and his fortune.
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.
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.
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.
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.