By Laura Millan Lombrana
U.S., Swiss authorities investigate major embezzlement scheme
Efforts were made to launder $1 billion from oil company
President Nicolas Maduro is a principal suspect in a U.S. investigation into the embezzlement of more than $1 billion from the South American country’s state-owned oil company, the Miami Herald reported, as the U.S. adds to the pressure on the socialist leader.
Maduro, his three stepsons and other Venezuelan government officials are being investigated for links to an international money-laundering conspiracy tied to Petroleos de Venezuela SA, known as PDVSA, the newspaper reported, citing sources familiar with the investigation that it didn’t identify.
Venezuela’s leader isn’t mentioned in a criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court last week, but there are references to him as “Venezuelan Official 2,” according to the Miami Herald.
Officials with the Venezuelan information ministry didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Maduro’s stepsons were described by the Herald’s sources as having received an estimated $200 million in funds stolen from Venezuela, wired to a European bank in late 2014 and early 2015. The deposits were among 10 wire transfers totaling about $600 million, according to a Homeland Security Investigations criminal complaint, the newspaper reported.
Bloomberg News reported on July 26 that private banker Matthias Krull, who until last month was one of Julius Baer Group Ltd.’s wealth managers for Venezuela, was arrestedas part of the same investigation, which Swiss authorities are also working on.
Switzerland in 2016 seized $118 million in bank assets linked to a Venezuelan businessman who has admitted to bribing PDVSA officials to steer about $1 billion in energy-supply contracts.
The U.S. continues to make life difficult for the autocratic Maduro, 55, who won a new six-year term in a May in an election widely derided as a sham.
Meanwhile, the economic crisis in Venezuela — once a prosperous OPEC nation — was described this week by the International Monetary Fund as rivaling some of the worst in history, including that of Germany in the 1920s and Zimbabwe a decade ago. The fund is forecasting that Venezuela’s inflation will reach 1 million percent this year.
A sharp decline in the production of crude oil in Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves, has exacerbated its economic troubles.
The U.S. has sanctioned at least 48 Venezuelan nationals associated with corruption, including Maduro, and has provisionally revoked tens of thousands of visas. The most recent measures were announced in May, prohibiting purchases of debt owed to Venezuela, including PDVSA.
Earlier this month, the U.S. revoked the visa of Asdrubal Chavez, cousin of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez and chief executive officer of PDVSA’s U.S. refining unit, Citgo Petroleum Corp.