Ten days ago, Colombian businessman Alex Saab was arrested in Cape Verde, an island republic off Africa’s west coast, as his private jet was refueling. Saab is wanted in the U.S. on money-laundering charges involving hundreds of millions of dollars – but his detention in Cape Verde and his possible extradition to Miami carry big political stakes in Venezuela.
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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime is in a panic because Saab is strongly linked to the epic regime corruption that's helped destroy Venezuela’s economy and democracy.
"The Venezuelan government is a kleptocracy and they certainly don’t want him to talk,” says Dick Gregorie, a former U.S. prosecutor in Miami who was involved in the early investigation of Saab.
“Saab is the master of trade-based money laundering,” says Gregorie, who helped put the late Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega behind bars in Miami 30 years ago on drug-trafficking charges. “And Venezuela has been robbed blind with every transaction that he does.”
Gregorie argues Saab is responsible for a great deal of Venezuela’s humanitarian suffering today because he’s allegedly the ringleader of embezzlement, bribery and currency manipulation schemes involving the country's once prodigious oil wealth – and critical necessities like food imports and public housing.
Saab denies that. But Gregorie says Saab’s key criminal skill is forging vast international networks that help him operate those schemes – and then laundering the millions those schemes make.
“Saab,” says Gregorie, “is well connected in political circles in places like Iran and parts of the world where you would not expect to see a great deal of trade with Venezuela, moving large sums of money.”
At the same time, Saab’s global networking also lures in people you might not expect. That’s what happened here in South Florida to a respected University of Miami international studies professor: Bruce Bagley.
Full disclosure: Bagley has been an admired friend and trusted source of mine for almost 25 years. He’s an expert on Latin America – and, ironically, Latin American organized crime, especially Colombia's.
About a decade ago Jorge Luis Hernandez – aka "Boliche" – a Colombian drug trafficker who’d fled to the U.S., asked Bagley to testify on his behalf. Bagley helped persuade a U.S. judge not to deport Hernandez back to Colombia, where Boliche feared he’d be killed.
A grateful Hernandez later introduced Bagley to Alex Saab. That turned out disastrously – as we found out one afternoon last November when Bagley suddenly appeared on Miami’s CBS4 telling a reporter in his Coral Gables driveway:
“Not guilty, that’s how I’m feeling. They’ve got it all wrong. Not guilty.”
That was the day federal prosecutors in New York indicted Bagley for helping Saab launder some $3 million through bank accounts Bagley set up in Miami, starting back in 2017.
Bagley did not respond to a request for comment on his case. But he’s admitted in court documents that Saab – impressed by Bagley’s diplomatic and other contacts in the U.S. and Latin America – first reeled him in by hiring him as a consultant on matters like securing a U.S. visa for Saab’s son. It was work Bagley took because he was experiencing financial difficulties.
Still, “everyone was shocked at the charges that were leveled against him,” Bagley’s Miami attorney, Daniel Forman, told me the day after the indictment. “And we’re hopeful that at the end of the day Dr. Bagley is going to be vindicated.”
But at the end of the day Bagley was not vindicated. This month he pleaded guilty to helping Saab move the money to the Miami accounts – with the help of the Colombian trafficker Hernandez, who was also by now a U.S. government informant in cases like these.
As Forman said, everyone was shocked, above all because Bagley – a man who’s written books like “Drug Trafficking, Organized Crime and Violence in the Americas Today” – couldn’t or wouldn’t see where Saab’s cash was coming from.
(Even so, one question in the case is whether Bagley would have sufficiently known about Saab's illicit activities when they first hooked up. One person familiar with the case suggested Hernandez and Saab "turned out to be wolves in sheep's clothing.")
“Saab just sets up one shell company after another, in one jurisdiction after another,” said Vannesa Neumann, an expert on international business crime who is also the ambassador in Great Britain for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. and almost 60 other countries recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
Speaking last week to a Center for Strategic and International Studies webinar on Saab and Venezuela, Neumann pointed to the circuit board of phony firms Saab allegedly uses in countries as far flung as the United Arab Emirates – where much of the money Bagley deposited for Saab was coming through.
“The more the Venezuelan people suffer, the more these networks profit from them,” Neumann said, “and the more Maduro stays in power.”
Maduro claims Saab was traveling on official “humanitarian” business for Venezuela when he was arrested in Cape Verde. That's a striking admission of how close and important Saab is to Maduro’s regime – and why Maduro is fighting so hard right now to prevent Saab’s extradition to the U.S.
Cape Verde and the U.S. don’t have an extradition treaty; Cape Verde could make its decision on Saab as early as next month.
Bruce Bagley, meanwhile, is scheduled to be sentenced in October. The 73-year-old professor faces a maximum of 40 years in prison.