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Latin America Report

Why Alex Saab's extradition to Miami threatens Venezuela's kleptocracy in Caracas

Image of Alex Saab's Colombian passport
Government of Cape Verde
/
The Colombian passport seized from Alex Saab after his arrest in Cape Verde last year.

Alex Saab — Venezuela's alleged money-laundering master — could turn up the heat on Nicolás Maduro's authoritarian regime if he sings to U.S. officials.

Venezuela's authoritarian socialist government suffered a big defeat over the weekend. On Saturday, businessman Alex Saab — an alleged mastermind of what U.S. officials call the Venezuelan regime's multi-billion-dollar criminal enterprises — was extradited to the United States.

Saab arrived in Miami from the Cape Verde islands, where he was arrested last year because he's wanted in the U.S. for allegedly laundering hundreds of millions of dollars.

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WLRN’s Christine DiMattei spoke with Americas editor Tim Padgett about Saab’s saga — and why his extradition marks what could be a key moment in the struggle to restore democracy in Venezuela.

Here are excerpts of their conversation, edited for clarity.

DIMATTEI: Tim, remind us who Alex Saab is and what he's accused of.

PADGETT: Saab is actually a Colombian businessman. But he's allegedly a wizard at conducting financial fraud — embezzlement, bribery, currency manipulation — and then hiding the ill-gotten proceeds all over the world through banks and shell companies and other funnels.

Saab has allegedly helped Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's regime plunder Venezuela's oil industry that way — but it gets darker because he's also accused of helping the regime and its cronies rob billions of dollars from social welfare programs like government housing and food.

READ MORE: Venezuela's Dark Laundering Loop: Saab Nabbed, Bagley Pleads Guilty, Maduro Sweats

Dick Gregorie, a former U.S. prosecutor in Miami who once investigated Saab, told me last year that Saab “is the master of trade-based money laundering, and Venezuela has been robbed blind with every transaction that he does.”

The U.S. has charged Saab with laundering some $350 million of that money here. He denies it, but that's why he was put under house arrest last year when his private plane stopped in Cape Verde, an island republic off Africa's west coast. Cape Verde approved the U.S.'s extradition request, and Saab was finally flown here to Miami on Saturday.

As I recall, you reported on one unusual case involving Saab in Bulgaria, right?

That case is actually a good example of how Saab is said to operate. His food supplier firm allegedly overcharged the Maduro regime for food it never delivered or grossly under-delivered. Saab increased the profit from that scheme by illegally converting it into U.S. dollars at a special government exchange rate — and he and the Maduro regime officials involved allegedly pocketed $70 million.

Saab then tried to launder that cash through a bank in Sofia, Bulgaria — until a Venezuelan exile living there found out about it and convinced the Bulgarians to freeze it.

Financially speaking, U.S. officials believe Saab knows where the bodies are buried when it comes to the Venezuelan regime's corruption.

Why is Saab’s extradition to the United States so important?

Because, financially speaking, U.S. officials believe Saab knows where the bodies are buried when it comes to the Venezuelan regime's corruption. We're talking about an estimated $300 billion or more allegedly stolen from the country over the past two decades.

That's why Saab was reportedly traveling with Venezuelan diplomatic credentials when he was arrested in Cape Verde: the regime simply cannot afford to have him in U.S. authorities hands. Or as Dick Gregory, the former U.S. prosecutor, told me:

The Venezuelan government is a kleptocracy and they certainly don't want him to talk.”

LASHING OUT

The hope is that if Saab sings, it could help the U.S. and the international community apply more sanctions pressure on Maduro and get him to make concessions to help restore democracy in Venezuela — releasing political prisoners, for example, or holding transparent elections.

But right now, it looks like the Venezuelan regime instead is lashing out.

Exactly. Over the weekend, it actually went in the opposite direction: it broke off democracy talks with Venezuela's political opposition, and the regime also placed six U.S. oil executives back in prison. They’d been under house arrest in Venezuela on questionable corruption charges.

estefaniamelendez.jpg
Europa TV
Estefania Melendez, the Venezuelan exile who helped expose $70 million Alex Saab was allegedly trying to launder through a bank in Bulgaria.

Tim, remind us also, there is a disturbing local angle to the story involving Saab here in South Florida.

Yes. Last year, University of Miami international studies professor Bruce Bagley pleaded guilty to U.S. charges that he helped Saab launder more than $2 million here. He's awaiting sentencing.

What happens with Saab now?

He's in the Miami Federal Detention Center, and he had his first hearing before a U.S. federal judge here on Monday.