Key player in plunder of Venezuela state oil company spent $2.5 million on a life of luxury

Diego Salazar, cousin to former minister Rafael Ramírez, shelled out $610,000 at the Ritz and $806,630 on watches while looting PDVSA between 2007 and 2012

Rafael Ramirez Venezuela
Rafael Ramírez, former Venezuelan oil minister, at the PDVSA headquarters in Caracas in May 2013.JUAN BARRETO /AFP /Getty Images

More than $806,000 in Patek Philippe watches, $610,000 at the Ritz hotel and $330,000 in fashion items from the Italian firm Brioni. The businessman Diego Salazar, the alleged mastermind of the network that plundered more than $2 billion from the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), spent $2.5 million on hotels, jewelry and designer clothes while participating in the plunder of his country’s main energy company between 2007 and 2012, according to documents to which EL PAÍS has had access.

Salazar – who is the cousin of Rafael Ramírez, a former energy minister under Hugo Chávez, former president of PDVSA and former ambassador to the United Nations – also enjoyed a pleasure trip to Paris with his family in August 2008. The whim amounted to $500,000 between tips, dinners and gifts.

Together with his wife, Rosycela Díaz Gil, Salazar paid $865,312 in jewelry during the five-year period in which officials were plundering the oil company, a giant that produced 800,000 barrels a day in January. With this money, he paid for nine purchases totaling $806,630 worth of Patek Philippe watches and shelled out $58,682 for pieces by American jeweler Harry Winston, according to his credit card records.

Luxury hotels represented the second-highest expenses on this trail of abundance and excess. The businessman and his wife spent $719,061 between 2007 and 2012 on upscale accommodations. The Ritz, where they paid $610,000 in five years, was their favorite chain. In March 2009, the couple spent $210,138 at these establishments, whose exact addresses are not specified in the bank records.

The Hôtel Plaza Athénée is just a five-minute walk from the Avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris. Salazar and his wife spent $87,711 in August 2007 to stay at this palace-like building with views on the Eiffel Tower. The couple also paid $21,350 in May 2012 to sleep at the Parisian hotel Le Meurice, which combines Louis XVI furniture with a two-Michelin-star restaurant.

Also between 2007 and 2012, the years when PDVSA was being pillaged, the couple chose to renew their wardrobe. Salazar and Díaz Gil bought garments worth $385,905 during this period. The list of expensive brands was headed by the Italian fashion firm Brioni ($330,000) followed by Louis Vuitton ($25,982), Christian Dior ($15,162) and Ralph Lauren ($14,791).

The couple paid for this life of luxury through an account at Banca Privada d’Andorra (BPA), a bank located in a tiny principality nestled between Spain and France that has begun taking steps to exchange banking information in a bid to clamp down on tax evasion. The account was opened in the name of a Panamanian company without any activity called Worldwide Traders Line SA, which channeled payments worth $49 million.

The Andorran account was also used to purchase property. In June 2006, the couple transferred $3.3 million to a Swiss HSBC deposit to purchase land from a businessman who appears on Linkedin as an intermediary in the sale of real estate in Venezuela, the US and Canada.

An analysis of bank transactions also reveals how in August 2008 the couple transferred $500,000 to a French company linked to a Moroccan auction tycoon to meet the expenses of their trip to Paris that summer.

Mysterious card charges

In addition, Salazar’s account associated with the Panamanian company Worldwide Traders Line S.A. shows credit card charges worth $14.1 million “that it was not possible to identify,” according to a document presented to the Financial Intelligence Unit of Andorra (Uifand), a public agency that targets money laundering.

The couple became clients of BPA in January 2007. Salazar, 54, introduced himself as an insurance businessman converted to the oil brokerage business. He expressed his interest in depositing $25 million as a result of his commercial activity, as reflected in Know Your Customer, a mandatory identification process before opening an account where potential clients must justify the source of their funds.

Salazar added that he had ties to seven companies, including Inversiones TPSK CA and Inmobiliaria Torre Edicampo CA. The businessman’s wife – who was linked to four accounts at BPA – told the Andorran bank that she was a “housewife.” And, like Salazar, she announced her intention of keeping an annual balance of $7 million. A report by the consulting firm PwC included in the investigation maintains that Díaz Gil did not provide the Andorran bank with documentation to prove the source of her millions.

Salazar was arrested in 2017 for corruption and money laundering along with 65 other senior officials in the energy sector, in connection with the plunder of PDVSA, which left a hole of $4.2 billion in the coffers of the oil company, according to the Venezuelan Prosecutor’s Office.

The arrest came two years after the Andorran authorities intervened in BPA for its alleged laundering of funds from criminal groups. The bank’s clients included former vice ministers and frontmen for politicians of the Venezuelan government during the presidency of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013). These officials allegedly charged illegal commissions of up to 15% for intermediating so that foreign firms, especially Chinese ones, would secure contracts from PDVSA.

To avoid attracting attention, the suspects camouflaged their income under the umbrella of consulting jobs that, according to the investigators, did not exist.

A court in Andorra prosecuted Salazar and his wife in 2018 for money laundering and charging illegal commissions, along with 26 leaders and frontment connected to Chavismo, including the former vice-ministers of energy Nervis Villalobos and Javier Alvarado.

The Andorra judge also prosecuted Salazar’s business manager, Luis Mariano Rodríguez Cabello, and his attorney, José Luis Zabala.


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