The €10 million luxury spending spree of former Hugo Chávez ministers

Andorra accounts of powerful Venezuelans suspected of corruption reveal lavish outlays

Venezuelan state oil firm (PDVSA) workers show support for Hugo Chávez in May 2011.
Venezuelan state oil firm (PDVSA) workers show support for Hugo Chávez in May 2011.LEO RAMIREZ/ AFP/ Getty Images

The Venezuelan businessman Diego Salazar had a weakness: the French wine Chateau Petrus from the year 1990, which has a price tag of €5,560 per bottle. In December 2012, Salazar snapped up almost 700 bottles of the vintage alongside other items such as Dom Pérignon champagne. The total bill for his purchases at the Lavinia wine shop in Paris was €493,573.

This extravagant outlay is just one example of the luxury spending by Salazar, his cousin Luis Mariano Rodríguez and the former Venezuelan vice-minister for energy and oil Nervis Villalobos. The three are part of an alleged corruption ring involving high-ranking politicians and businessmen close to the government of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. The group is believed to have hidden €2 billion in accounts in the principality of Andorra, a microstate between France and Spain.

The three men spent some €10 million on luxury goods, including extravagant spending on third parties, according to bills seen by EL PAÍS.

Salazar and Ramírez spent €3.4 million on jewelry, €2 million on artwork, €1 million on wine and €516,012 on helicopter hire. Other bills included €953,000 on tailormade suits and €125,000 on items including caviar and Spanish jamón (ham).

The payments covering the period 2007–2012 were funneled through a network of 37 accounts at the Banca Privada d’Andorra (BPA) bank – a network allegedly managed by the corruption ring. Andorran judge Canòlic Mingorance is investigating whether the members of the ring used this web of accounts to stash away illegal commissions for facilitating contracts with Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA.

In jewelry alone – the most ostentatious spending category – bills reveal that 109 luxury watches, including timepieces made by Rolex and Cartier, were purchased in 2011 for €1.7 million. The purchase was carried out by a Panamanian firm controlled by Salazar, the cousin of former PDVSA president Rafael Ramírez, who was also the Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations until a fortnight ago. Salazar also spent €1 million on watches and gold and diamond chains at a Caracas jewelry shop.

Venezuelan prosecutors believe the corruption ring illegally earned more than €3.5 billion through pillaging the state oil firm

Venezuelan authorities arrested Salazar last week for his alleged involvement in the corruption network, and prosecutors announced they were investigating Ramírez, a strongman of Hugo Chávez.

Another Panamanian firm, Josland Investments, spent €90,500 on items including Rolex white gold time pieces in 2011. The name of Nervis Villalobos, Venezuelan vice-minister for energy from 2004 to 2006, shows up in connection with this purchase. Villalobos was arrested in Madrid in October over a different case, and his lawyers have declined to answer queries from this paper.

Among other costs racked up by alleged members of the corruption ring are the €575,000 spent by Salazar for accommodation at the Ritz hotel in Paris over a period of 10 years, and the €6,223 tab he ran up at the hotel’s Hemingway Bar.

Salazar is also linked to payment of a €412,302 bill with a private airline firm, with trips made to destinations including Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. His cousin Luis Mariano Rodríguez authorized BPA to make a transfer of €470,000 for the payment of suits bought in France.

The corruption network is suspected of using BPA to launder its illegal profits. In 2015, authorities in Andorra – which had banking secrecy laws until last year – took control of the lender after US authorities said it was being used by criminal groups for money laundering purposes.

Venezuelan prosecutors believe the corruption ring illegally earned more than €3.5 billion through its pillaging of the state oil firm, and announced recently that a search of Salazar’s home in Caracas had turned up documents implicating Rafael Ramírez, Chávez’s right-hand man who ran the PDSVA for 12 years.

English version by George Mills.

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