Negotiator for Maduro regime in Venezuela extradited to US

CARACAS, Venezuela – Alex Saab, a businessman accused by U.S. prosecutors of creating a global business network to help the Venezuelan government evade U.S. sanctions, was extradited to the United States on Saturday, announced his lawyers.

Mr Saab was airlifted from the West African island nation of Cape Verde aboard a Justice Ministry plane, his lawyers said, ending a 16-month battle for the negotiator of Colombian origin. U.S. prosecutors accuse Mr. Saab of funneling more than $ 350 million from a series of Venezuelan government contracts through the U.S. financial system.

On Saturday, while the extradition is underway, the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro issued a statement saying that it “denounces the kidnapping of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab by the government of the United States”.

Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of Florida charged Mr. Saab in 2019 with using a Venezuelan state social housing program and a controlled foreign exchange market to embezzle money for himself and Venezuelan officials. that he and his associates would have bribed.

The US Treasury Department also blacklisted Mr. Saab and his accomplices, including three of Mr. Maduro’s step-sons, for allegedly using the country’s food program and gold resources to launder property of the United States. State stolen. In Colombia, which has allied with the United States against Mr. Maduro, prosecutors said last year they were investigating allegations that Mr. Saab laundered money for drug traffickers.

Jose Pinto Monteiro, lawyer for Mr. Saab in Cape Verde, called the extradition of his client “illegal and shameful”. Courts in Cape Verde have ruled in recent months that Mr. Saab can be extradited, and his lawyers have exhausted their remedies.

Mr Saab is scheduled to appear in a South Florida District court for the first time on Monday for the 2019 indictment, a Department of Justice spokeswoman said, confirming his extradition.

Mr. Maduro’s authoritarian regime, which granted Mr. Saab Venezuelan nationality and appointed him a diplomat, has maintained that he is innocent and that the accusations by the United States and Colombia are lies intended to tarnish the left government.

“They had him kidnapped in Cape Verde in an illegitimate, illegal and inhumane manner,” Maduro said in recent public comments.

In Caracas, the regime appeared to retaliate by jailing six former executives of Citgo Petroleum Corp, a US-based refiner that the Venezuelan state once controlled. The men, five of whom also have American nationality, had been under house arrest since the end of April. They had been sentenced to long prison terms on corruption charges which they deny.

“I think this is retaliation for the extradition of Saab,” said Veronica Vadell, daughter of one of the men, Tomeu Vadell.

The extradition is a victory for US investigators, who have been trying for years to secure the extradition of senior Venezuelan officials charged with crimes ranging from drug trafficking to corruption and money laundering.

Figures from the Venezuelan opposition celebrated publicly, as did the Colombian government, including the president, Ivan Duque,

said on twitter that extradition is “a triumph in the fight against drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption” of the government of Mr. Maduro.

Juan Carlos Buitrago, a former director of Colombian intelligence services who has worked with US officials on Venezuelan affairs, said Colombian investigators believe Mr. Saab has collaborated with some 80 companies and more than 170 people as part of his work for Mr. Maduro’s regime and may possess vital information. it would help prosecutors seeking to better understand how the regime’s engineers act despite US sanctions.

“This will be one of the biggest outcomes of Alex Saab’s extradition to the United States,” Buitrago said.

Mr Saab, 49, had been one of the main targets of US investigators during the Trump administration, which attempted to isolate Venezuela and topple Mr Maduro by enforcing sanctions and trying to dismantle trade deals involving gold, oil and not. tender contracts for food distribution.

“Alex Saab had the keys to mock banking laws and manage Maduro’s black market economies,” said Zair Mundaray, a former Venezuelan prosecutor who investigated Mr. Saab before breaking ranks with the Maduro government in 2017. “This is a powerful message to his huge criminal structure and gives some hope for justice.

The detention of Mr. Saab had sparked a diplomatic confrontation between the two countries. Authorities in Cape Verde arrested him under a US arrest warrant in June 2020 when his private jet made a refueling stop en route to Iran, where US officials said he was working to negotiate food and fuel supply agreements for Caracas.

Protecting Mr. Saab from extradition has become a priority for Mr. Maduro and his key aides, as the regime seeks to protect him from U.S. investigators by claiming he enjoys diplomatic immunity. Venezuela’s foreign ministry said he was a special representative to the African Union and later a member of a government team negotiating with leaders of the Venezuelan political opposition in Mexico.

Mr. Saab was little known in Venezuela prior to his detention. But after the arrest, the government covered the walls of the capital with posters of Mr. Saab featuring his face and calling for his release. Graffiti around Caracas portrays him as a humanitarian, persecuted by Washington.

In recent years, the United States has imposed a series of sanctions against the Venezuelan economy and its vital oil industry in an attempt to stifle the finances of a regime that Washington accuses of election rigging, human rights abuses and of corruption. Despite this, Mr. Maduro retained power thanks to the support of allies including Russia and China.

Mr Saab also played a central role in organizing deals to swap Venezuelan gold for food and fuel from countries like Turkey and Iran, which have helped Maduro survive. deteriorating economic conditions in his country, said Mundaray, the former prosecutor.

Write to Kejal Vyas at [email protected] and Juan Forero at [email protected]

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