The Colombian Office of the Attorney General seized assets valued at $9.8 million from Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman and Nicolás Maduro’s front man, CNN reported on October 17, 2020. Authorities seized two properties in Barranquilla and Cartagena and three companies that Saab used for money laundering, the report says.
“Apparently [the companies] were used to launder money from a criminal organization, since it became clear that they were likely created as a front by people close to Alex Saab, since they had no financial or patrimonial means; and even so, they increased their assets disproportionately,” the Colombian Office of the Attorney General reported via Twitter on October 16, stating: “#AttorneyGeneral conducts investigation against Alex Naim Saab Morán for alleged money laundering, illicit enrichment, fictitious export or import, and conspiracy to commit a crime.”
Saab and Maduro’s relationship is directly linked to the food boxes of the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP, in Spanish). The CLAP program distributes food boxes that are sold to Venezuelans who are registered in Chavista committees. Beneficiaries cannot choose the staples, as the food is prepared in advance, nor can they decide when to access them.
Venezuelan lawyer Mariano de Alba, who specializes in law and international relations, told Diálogo from the United States that the Chavismo system used the aid to conduct overpriced business practices and money laundering. Saab was one of the main businessmen involved in this corruption scheme.
“A good part of the system of food imports [to Venezuela] has become a mafia scheme. It all starts when the food import contracts are given to people who are close to the government, and they sell the food at elevated prices, obtaining a financial return for their loyalty,” De Alba said. “But it doesn’t end there. When the food finally arrives in Venezuela, the scheme includes determining where to distribute that food, based on the area and its people’s political affinity with the government, as well as bribes to public officials and the military to mobilize or deliver the food.”
The Colombian newspaper El Tiempo reported on September 14 that U.S. authorities froze about $700 million from Saab’s accounts located in the European Principality of Liechtenstein. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has sanctioned Saab in July 2019, and the Department of Justice has been investigating him for money laundering since that same month.
Saab has been detained in the African Republic of Cape Verde since June 12. He was arrested due to an Interpol Red Notice. At the end of that month, the United States requested the Colombian national’s extradition to prosecute him. However, the process has been delayed, and Saab remains on the small island.
De Alba explained that Saab’s ties with Chavismo are evident in more than the CLAP, as the businessman became a very important figure for Maduro’s shady business dealings.
“There are indications that Saab was not only the regime’s main financial operator, but also Maduro’s personal front man, who used him as a direct vehicle to embezzle funds, with Saab having to give Maduro a share of the surcharge that he charged the Venezuelan state. The relationship is so intimate that when Saab was arrested, the Venezuelan government, surprisingly, without ever having said so, attempted to argue [immunity] because he was a diplomatic representative of the Venezuelan state,” he concluded.