26 Jun 2019
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is the “head of a criminal enterprise” involving his family and other government officials, the nation’s former top spy, now a defector, told The Washington Post.
From October through April, Gen. Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera served as the director of the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional (SEBIN), which as the country’s top intelligence agency also functions as a security force under the direction of Venezuela’s vice president.
Figuera, who had previously spent a decade running security for the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, became a target of US sanctions in February, when the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) blacklisted him for purported human rights abuses, including overseeing the torture and persecution of political reformists and others.
But by his own account, Figuera had decided the following month to take an active role in overthrowing Maduro after a Miami-based Venezuelan businessman broached the subject during a meeting. The subsequent coup attempt ultimately failed, prompting Figuera to flee to Colombia in May at the direction of US officials in communication with his wife, according to the report.
Now a defector living in the United States, the former spy chief has accused Maduro and his inner circle of rigging gold sales, laundering illicit proceeds and shielding the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah from scrutiny over its financial activity in Caracas and other cities, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
“I never saw the country’s situation and the government’s corruption as closely as I did during my last six months,” Figuera told The Post. “I quickly realized that Maduro is the head of a criminal enterprise, with his own family involved.”
Gold mining and drug trafficking
During his time at SEBIN, Figuera investigated allegations that Nicolas Maduro Guerra, the son of the Venezuelan president, had concealed his role as the true owner of a company that had established a monopoly on buying gold from small mining operations near the country’s southern border, according to The Post.
The company, Figuera claims, purchased gold at discounted rates and then resold it to Venezuela’s central bank at inflated prices. After uncovering the scheme, Figuera began to prepare his findings for the Venezuelan president when a top Maduro aide warned him against raising the subject.
Figuera separately alleges to have uncovered a money laundering scheme that operated on behalf of then-Vice President Tareck El Aissami, now the country’s minister of industries. The report does not add further details on the alleged origin of the money or how it was purportedly laundered and The Washington Post could not independently confirm the allegations.
In February 2017, OFAC blacklisted El Aissami as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker and cited 13 companies through which he and an accomplice purportedly laundered the illicit proceeds.
El Assaimi “facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, to include control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan air base, as well as control of drug routes through the ports in Venezuela,” Treasury Department officials said in a statement that also tied the former vice president to Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled Garcia and the Mexican cartel Los Zetas.
Hezbollah and Colombian guerillas
At times, the Venezuelan government has taken measures to protect foreign militant groups operating in the country, according to Figuera, who cited intelligence findings on governmental interactions with Hezbollah and Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN), a leftwing organization said to have expanded its presence in Venezuela since Maduro’s election.
The United States includes both groups on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
In April, Der Spiegel reported that an unofficial gold mine in the Venezuelan southern border state of Bolivar is controlled by Nicolas Maduro Guerra, the son of the president, and that ELN guards the operation. In March, Ugandan authorities discovered some $300 million in gold believed to have been shipped from Venezuela to a gold refinery in Uganda, the German news outlet said.
Venezuelan officials are aware that ELN has asserted itself in Bolivar’s mining areas and that Hezbollah has pursued illicit business activity in Maracay, Nueva Esparta and Caracas as part of an effort to fund its activities in the Middle East, but the government has blocked efforts to address such groups, Figuera told the The Washington Post.
“I found that the cases of narco-trafficking and guerrillas were not to be touched,” he said.
Last month, the US Treasury Department lifted sanctions against Figuera, and took the rare step of announcing the decision in a press release.
“The delisting of [Figuera] also shows… that removal of sanctions may be available for designated persons who take concrete and meaningful actions to restore democratic order, refuse to take part in human rights abuses, speak out against abuses committed by the illegitimate Maduro regime, or combat corruption in Venezuela,” the department said.
Photo: Presidencia El Salvador via Wikimedia Commons
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