29 Oct 2019
Venezuela’s vast gold deposits, which could go a long way in easing the pain of millions nearing starvation, are being pillaged outright by a consortium led by strongman Nicolás Maduro and his inner circle, who smuggle out hundreds of millions in the precious metal while sending only a minor fraction to the state’s coffers, people familiar with the situation said.
Operating at least six gold extraction plants, the consortium is capable of producing more than 16 tons of gold per year, but is also forcing the smaller independent operators to sell them their output under the threat of violence, of being arrested or losing their access to fuel in the remote mining area. The purchase of this gold, extracted illegally by the small miners, nets another 12 tons per year, sources from the mining region said.
Multiple accounts gathered for this article confirm that the consortium might be earning more than $1.5 billion per year, the final amount depending on the gold content of the processed sands and the market price of the metal, in an operation where people in Maduro’s inner circle emerge as the main beneficiaries.
“The one in front of this criminal enterprise is Maduro,” said exiled Venezuelan General Manuel Cristopher Figuera, who headed the regime’s Bolivarian National Intelligence Service until he broke away from Maduro.
“It is unprecedented, the pillage exercised by the criminal enterprise that Maduro administers while heading the state. This is something never seen before,” Cristopher Figuera told el Nuevo Herald in a recent interview in Miami.
El Nuevo Herald talked to military officers, regime members and local workers familiar with the large-scale gold mining operations, which alongside the drug trafficking operations, other types of mineral smuggling and overall government corruption, are helping to sustain the regime in the midst of crippling economic sanctions imposed by Washington.
At the center of the gold mining business is the Domingo Sifontes Industrial Complex. Its extraction plants in the southeastern state of Bolivar processes nearly 80 percent of the country’s production, according to data provided by the regime’s Ecological Sustainable Mining Development Ministry.
But not known until now is the fact that the companies that make up the consortium keep for their own benefit more than two-thirds of the total output, which is later smuggled out of the country instead of being sold to the nation’s Central Bank as stipulated by law, the sources said.
The beneficiaries are a small number of key members of Maduro’s inner circle, who control the whole operation, the sources added.
The lucky inner circle members include former Vice President Tareck El Aissami; Maduro’s stepson Walter Flores; National Guard head Antonio Benavides Torres, and Maduro’s Colombian partner Alex Saab, all of whom have been sanctioned by the U.S. government for alleged crimes that range from drug trafficking and money laundering to corruption and human rights violations.
Top members of the Venezuelan regime have stolen billions of dollars from the state coffers during the two decades of socialist rule, through multiple corruption schemes orchestrated to siphon out large portions of the oil income and huge international loans that were meant for social programs and the country’s development, said a military officer who spoke under condition of anonymity.
But gold production opened a new range of corruption opportunities.
“When they first arrived, they found that the oil industry was totally mechanized, controlled by rules and accountability instruments that they would have to evade. That created hurdles for stealing the wealth and it took time for them to have their people in place, and it was after a long process that they could start pillaging,” the officer who spoke under condition of anonymity said.
“But with gold the situation is different, because with gold there is no supervision. If the complex processes one thousand kilograms of gold, nobody is there to audit it. And they distribute the loot among themselves,” he added.
The Maduro regime did not respond to requests for comment emailed by el Nuevo Herald.
The Domingo Sifontes Industrial Complex, which serves as the backbone of the whole operation, is controlled by Eduardo José Rivas, a trusted partner of the presidential family.
During the inauguration day of the complex, located in the Nacupay sector of El Callao, in Bolivar state, the Minister of Ecological Sustainable Mining Development at the time, Victor Cano, celebrated the investments made by six private companies that invested in the construction of the new extraction plants, which he said would optimize gold production efforts in the region.
These plants “are more efficient because they recover up to 90 percent of the gold material and also allow the removal of millions of tons of gold containing sands accumulated in Bolivar state during decades of uncontrolled mining, and that way substituting the use of mercury, which has a large environmental impact,” the minister said during the May 10, 2018, event.
What he did not reveal during the event is that the six companies — Inversiones RPL, Invertrade, Corporación Petroglobal, Mipre, Inversiones Glenduard, and Inversiones Oriente — are controlled and directly benefit key regime members.
Documents obtained by el Nuevo Herald show that El Aissami, sanctioned by the U.S. government on suspicion of drug trafficking, is one of the main partners of Inversiones Glenduard. Benavides Torres, who is also under U.S. sanctions, has a stake at Invertrade, while two sons of first lady Cilia Flores, Walter and Yosser Flores, own a slice of Mipre.
In the documents, Rivas is shown as president or partner in four of the companies: Glenduard, Invertrade, Mipre and Petroglobal, while Saab shows up as the main financier in most of the companies.
Saab, a Colombian businessman identified by the U.S. government as one of Maduro’s closest partners, was sanctioned this year by Washington for running a corruption scheme that siphoned millions of dollars from the subsidized food distribution program known in Venezuela as CLAP.
Among the people sanctioned alongside Saab were the three sons of Cilia Flores — Walter, Yosser and Yoswal — who were paid a large amount of money by Saab to have access to juicy government contracts for the subsidized food program, the U.S. Treasury Department said.
“Through a sophisticated network of shell companies, business partners, and family members, Saab laundered hundreds of millions of dollars in corruption proceeds around the world,” the department said when it announced the sanctions. “Also targeted today are Maduro’s three stepsons, Walter, Yosser, and Yoswal, to whom Saab funneled money in exchange for access to contracts with the Government of Venezuela, including its food subsidy program.”
By Antonio Maria Delgado, Miami Herald, 26 October 2019
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