Venezuela’s Maduro under investigation in $1.2 billion U.S. money-laundering case

By Jay Weaver

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is under investigation as part of a U.S. probe into a massive scheme that authorities say has pilfered more than $1 billion from the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, the Miami Herald has learned.

Maduro has not been named or charged in a criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court this week that detailed the international money-laundering conspiracy. But sources familiar with the investigation say he and other government officials and associates — including his three stepsons — are being investigated for any links to a network that prosecutors believe has plundered Venezuela’s national oil company and funneled vast amounts of cash into European and U.S. banks as well as South Florida real estate and other assets.

“Everything runs through him,” said one person familiar with the investigation, describing Maduro as a principal suspect of the U.S. investigation.

Even if Maduro, who became president after Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013, is ultimately charged, it’s unlikely he would be brought to the U.S. for prosecution. But the probe could add to the political challenges already facing the embattled president. Maduro has been the focus of months of protests over his country’s failing economy. The once oil-rich nation has been wracked by hyperinflation, widespread hunger and violence. Thousands of Venezuelans have fled the country.

Though Maduro is not mentioned by name in the criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Wednesday, there are references to him as “Venezuelan Official 2” and to his stepsons, according to multiple sources familiar with the probe. His stepsons — Yosser Gavidia Flores, Walter Gavidia Flores and Yoswal Gavidia Flores — though also unnamed are described by the sources as receiving an estimated $200 million in funds stolen from the nation’s national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PDVSA, that were wired to a European bank in late 2014 and early 2015.

The deposits for his three stepsons — the grown children of Maduro’s wife, Celia Flores, from previous relationships — were among 10 wire transfers totaling about $600 million, according to a Homeland Security Investigations criminal complaint.

The affidavit says the wire transfers were made from PDVSA, with about $265 million going to accounts linked to the complaint’s lead defendant, Francisco Convit Guruceaga, a Venezuelan billionaire businessman. He and other members of the wealthy class are often referred to as the “boliburgués,” an elite politically connected group in Venezuela. An unnamed conspirator also received some of the money, according to the affidavit filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Francisco Maderal.

Roughly $200 million went to the “chamos” — Spanish for stepsons — of Venezuelan Official 2. Sources say that Venezuelan Official 2 is Maduro.

Court documents say another $80 million went to “Conspirator 7.” Sources familiar with the affidavit told the Miami Herald that Conspirator 7 is Raúl Gorrín, owner of the Globovision television network in Venezuela. Gorrín, who has close ties to Maduro and the late president Chávez, has been sharply criticized for turning a pro-opposition news network into one more friendly to the president.

In late 2017, Gorrín tried to broker an exit strategy with the Trump administration for Venezuela’s beleaguered government, according to various Washington sources, by peddling the idea that Maduro and other key government leaders might be willing to negotiate a transition in Venezuela in exchange for amnesty. He also retained Ballard Partners — the firm of President Donald Trump’s former Florida lobbyist — ostensibly to help his Venezuelan TV network company expand into U.S. markets.

Gorrín’s lawyer in Miami, Howard Srebnick, denied any wrongdoing by his client, who has not been charged in the criminal complaint. “Mr. Gorrín is a successful media mogul who has not been involved in any money laundering,” Srebnick told the Miami Herald in a text message.

The eight defendants named in the complaint are accused of embezzling funds from Venezuela’s vast oil income and exploiting its foreign-currency exchange system to amass illegal fortunes in the United States and other countries. To leverage their profits, the defendants took advantage of their access to the Venezuelan government’s foreign-currency exchange system, which offers a far more favorable rate than the everyday market. It was used to convert bolivars to dollars and euros as the defendants stole from the country’s oil riches for overseas investments in Florida, Europe and other parts of the world.

The Venezuelan information ministry in Caracas could not be reached by phone.

Among the defendants is a German national arrested Tuesday at Miami International Airport who manages “banking” activities for numerous Venezuelan officials — Matthias Krull, 44, a Panamanian resident who worked as a banker in Switzerland. His defense attorney, Oscar S. Rodriguez, declined to comment on Friday. Krull is being held at the Miami Federal Detention Center.

Another defendant, Gustavo Adolfo Hernandez Frieri, 45, a Colombian-born naturalized U.S. citizen, was arrested in Italy on Wednesday and is expected to be extradited.

Hernandez is accused of using his Miami financial firm, Global Securities Advisors, and another firm, Global Strategic Investments, to launder money with false mutual-fund investments. A Homeland Security investigator says in the affidavit that the two brokerage companies, which are listed as having offices at 701 Brickell Ave., are “affiliated” and were used by Hernandez for meetings with members of the money-laundering network.

Representatives of Global Strategic Investments insist Hernandez has had no involvement in the firm, which is headed by Hernandez’s brother, Cesar.

The alleged money-laundering conspiracy began in December 2014 with a currency-exchange scheme to embezzle $600 million from PDVSA obtained through bribes and fraud, the complaint says. The defendants used an associate, who would later become a confidential source for the feds, to launder a portion of the PDVSA funds. By May of 2015, the conspiracy had doubled to $1.2 billion embezzled from Venezuela’s national oil company.

In early 2016, the associate approached Homeland Security investigators in Miami about cooperating and becoming a confidential source, the complaint says. The source agreed to wear a recording device to launder $78 million in PDVSA funds that he had received from a loan contract with the national oil company.

The federal probe, called Operation Money Flight, was launched with the initial focus on the defendants’ efforts to launder a portion of the $78 million. That investigation uncovered the broader money laundering, according to the affidavit.