One of the last hopes of the government of Nicolás Maduro to circumvent the US embargo was placed on hundreds of thousands of tons of coal. At the same time that Washington closed the door of the international market to Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the main source of foreign currency of the South American country, exports of this mineral soared. Alex Saab, singled out by Washington as one of Maduro's main front men, has emerged as the orchestrator of a network designed to move millions of barrels of Venezuelan crude under the radar of US sanctions. Now, new documents reviewed by EL PAÍS and
reveal that the Colombian businessman's circle has also played a leading role behind the
in the coal industry.
The linchpin is Lorenzo Antonelli, Saab's brother-in-law who recently came under the scrutiny of the Italian and UK authorities.
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The link between the two entrepreneurs is the model Camilla Fabri, a Saab partner and sister of Antonelli's girlfriend. The names of in-laws have surfaced shortly after the US included Saab on the Treasury Department's blacklist and charged him with money laundering in July 2019. Washington accused the Colombian businessman of operating a multi-million dollar fraud with the food boxes of the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP), which distributed low-quality products at extra costs to the most vulnerable population in Venezuela. Saab was detained in Cape Verde in June 2020, singled out by Washington as Maduro's great achiever. At the gates of his extradition to the United States, after months of lawsuits in Africa,Chavismo's business with Colombia has emerged with a portfolio that ranges from gold to the dairy trade.
Alex Saab and his partner, Camilla Fabri.RR.
The fence around Saab and its collaborators has grown ever tighter.
In November 2019, a transnational anti-money laundering operation ended with the seizure of a luxurious apartment in the name of Fabri in Via Condotti, an exclusive area of Rome, valued at almost five million euros and the seizure of about 1.8 million additional euros.
The Police found that Fabri had high-end cars and valuable works of art, despite not having his own income to justify the purchases.
Italian authorities found the money came from Kinlock Investment, a UK-based company that was run by Antonelli, the Italian daily
Corriere della Sera reported
Suspicions about the brother-in-law came from long ago. Since 2018,
announced that Antonelli, barely 25 years old, was behind Mibiturven, a joint venture between the Government of Maduro and Marilyns Proje Yatirim, a company with Turkish registration. Saab's brother-in-law is a director of Marilyns and designated as the final beneficiary of the company, according to the minutes of the commercial registry. Antonelli could not be reached for this report.
Since August 2018, the Maduro government issued a decree that gave the green light to the creation of the Turkish-Venezuelan company, an acronym for Binational Mining Turkey Venezuela, and that granted a concession to exploit the Orinoco mining arc: a vast area rich in precious metals of almost 112,000 square kilometers in the south of the South American country. For three years now, the intention of Chavismo was to find alternatives in mining to counteract the US siege of Venezuelan oil. The shadow of Saab since then extended in those deals: the first director of the company in Venezuela was Adrián Perdomo Mata, a former Saab employee, and the Colombian Álvaro Pulido Vargas, partner of the first.
The Turkish-Venezuelan formula that was sealed with Mibiturven was replicated in 2018 for the coal industry with a joint venture between the Venezuelan parastatal Carbozulia and Glenmore Proje Insaat: Carbones Turkey-Venezuela. Both Glenmore and Marilyns have mirror companies in the UK, in which the beneficiary was Antonelli. Despite his key role in the constitution of companies to exploit coal and gold, Antonelli had no experience and was a practically unknown figure in the sector.
The coal sector, which was practically stopped in 2018, re-emerged a year later.
Just as the US announced new sanctions against PDVSA in 2019, coal exports tripled in just one year and exceeded 310,000 tons in less than 12 months, according to United Nations trade statistics.
The coal, which is exempt from the economic blockade of Washington, had as its main destinations the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy and left a spill of 40 million dollars for the scheme operated by the Saab circle and the Maduro government.
Images of the Venezuelan coal shipments marketed by Imperium.
The figures soared in 2020. Despite the fact that the Maduro government has not published updated data since 2013, the recipient countries did account for the bulk of the transactions.
The United Kingdom alone received almost 464,000 tons of Venezuelan coal, worth 46 million dollars, according to the UN.
Almost four times more exchanges in terms of volume and three times more money than in 2019. 219,600 tons of mineral were stopped in Spain from Venezuela, for a total of 23 million dollars.
Without official information on the transactions, in the documents seen jointly by EL PAÍS and
it is not clear if finally the state-owned Carbozulia benefited from coal sales through the scheme designed by Alex Saab.
Different plots, same protagonists
For the coal business, the Turkish facade was only the first step. Documents obtained by EL PAÍS and
show that the business also passed through Mexico and involved companies of the young businessman Joaquín Leal, with whom Saab also managed since 2019 and in parallel the oil exports of the state-owned PDVSA with the unknown Libre Abordo .
Mexico had already served as the base for Alex Saab's businesses, at least, since 2016. There they bought and dispatched thousands of CLAP boxes with poor quality food for the Maduro regime, after securing millionaire contracts using Hong Kong firms, first, and then Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. In October 2018, the then Attorney General's Office in Mexico confirmed the irregularities in the business and opened an investigation against several of those companies, which finally got away with the payment of light fines. So this precedent did not inhibit them from adopting Mexico again as a base for their venture with Venezuelan oil and coal.
Washington pointed to Saab and Tareck El Aissami, the Venezuelan Minister of Petroleum, as the heads of the network specifically created to move tens of millions of barrels of crude oil outside the embargo with front companies and irregular transactions, disguised as humanitarian aid. The plot consisted of Leal and a group of Mexican businessmen, as happened with the CLAP boxes, taking food and water tankers to Venezuela in exchange for receiving oil from PDVSA as payment. The business was monetized by reselling the barrels to refineries and oil companies in countries from Palestine and Greece to Singapore and China:a trip around the world that has left a trail of hundreds of millions of dollars in profits and that ended with the inclusion in June 2020 of Leal and his partners in Libre Abordo on the black list of the Treasury Department. None of those sanctioned responded to multiple attempts to contact them for this investigation.
Oil was just one part of Leal's business in Venezuela.
Documents held by EL PAÍS and
they realize that Carbozulia made more than three million tons of coal available to the Mexican businessman.
That single contract far exceeded the 80,000 tons that the Venezuelan coal company produced in all of 2018, according to the company's workers at the time.
To close the deal, Leal used Imperium SA DMCC, a company established in Dubai in 2018 with Greek Gyagkos Stylianou and Cypriot Omeros Nishiotis as shareholders.
Articles of incorporation of Imperium in Dubai.
Leal used Supplied Bennu SAPI de CV, a company that he advised for around three years, as a consignee for three shipments that arrived in Mexico in 2020 and that were around 90,000 tons, which would place the North American country in the third place of favorite destinations of Venezuelan coal. The shipments arrived on April 18, May 7 and June 2 of last year, according to an internal Bennu report. Leal's plan, which in multiple emails and corporate presentations said that Bennu was his property, was for the electricity supplier to become a coal reseller for the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) and a buyer of crude oil and fuel oil for Petróleos. Mexicans (Pemex).The deals that the 29-year-old businessman sought with the two main energy companies of the Mexican government failed, despite the fact that his team assured in multiple emails that he had managed to sell 120,000 tons of coal to the CFE without any evidence that the agreements were finalized.
Imperium has been another of the wild cards in Leal's business portfolio with Venezuela.
With that company, the team of the Mexican businessman and Saab managed in May last year the arrival to the South American country of at least five Iranian gasoline ships, they sought to bring food from Mexico again and place Venezuelan coal in Central America and the Caribbean.
Imperium operations are driving Saab again.
"We cannot continue this cooperation with Alex Sabb [sic]," one of the emails reads that Ceto Shipping, a Liberian shipping company that transported one of the shipments from Iran, sent to Imperium, after more than 100 days of disagreements on the payment of their services.
Mail exchange between Imperium and the Liberian shipping company Ceto.
The carrier says it cannot continue to collaborate with Saab.
As recorded in hundreds of emails, the coal was offered to companies such as Singaporean Trafigura, a commodities trading giant, or BB Energy, a Lebanese consortium that appears in the Panama Papers for managing a
company that traded millions of dollars. Russian oil dollars in Latin America during the 1990s. Leal's team also sought to place the mineral in Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, but there is also no evidence that the deals have been closed.
The person in charge of making the offers for the coal was Alex Rodríguez, who had been working as a
in the oil business
. Rodríguez used at least two telephone numbers with which he introduced himself as Axel Galit Capriles Hernández, a Leal collaborator who also signed the emails interchangeably as Axel and Alex. The above cited email from Ceto Shipping, for example, was addressed to Axel G [Axel Galit]. Capriles, part of a wealthy family in Venezuela and with extensive experience in the energy sector, has not responded to multiple requests for comments to clarify the use of that pseudonym and his partnership with Leal en Generadora de Electricidad y Gas en México, a company registered in Guanajuato.
For coal, the formula was the same, except that Rodríguez was now presenting himself as a broker for Supplied Bennu.
"We have managed to have access to a very high-level coal source and I would like to make ourselves available to offer you a first test shipment," reads one of Rodríguez's emails.
One of the Venezuelan coal offers to different Latin American companies.
When consulted, Enrique Woodhouse, the owner of Bennu, comments that Leal offered him that his company would receive the coal on consignment, imported free of charge from Venezuela until the deal with CFE could be closed.
The origin of the merchandise, according to the bills of lading, was not Carbozulia, but Glenmore, Antonelli's company.
Woodhouse broke relations with Leal when he learned that it had been reported by the US Treasury and assures that the immense shipment remained stored in the port of Altamira, in the Gulf of Mexico, before returning to Venezuela. Stylianou, the shareholder in Imperium, told
that he was contacted to legally represent Imperium, but was not aware of dealings with Iran. "What I understand is that there is someone who is illegally using this company for their own benefit," said the Greek lawyer, without giving further details. Imperium, not being in Leal's name, evaded US sanctions.
Between mid-2019 and mid-2020, Leal went from being a practically unknown young businessman to one of the most notorious targets in the United States, who held negotiations with officials from Maduro's first circle.
The trail of their businesses goes from the American banks and
of London, passes through the skyscrapers of Dubai, relies on Liberian and Cameroonian ships, Russian, Swiss and Italian partners, Chinese and Singaporean refineries, and
in the Islands. Marshall, Panama, Malta and Curaçao.
The list spans four continents and some thirty countries.
All in the shadow of the US embargo on Venezuela.
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