The network that looted $2 billion from Venezuela’s state oil company was obsessed with luxury

The group of Chavista leaders who plundered the energy sector treated themselves to a high standard of living. New documents reveal exorbitant expenses on decoration ($7 million), hotels ($1.8 million) and cooking courses ($430,690)... All paid for with money embezzled from — or kickbacks related to — PDVSA

Rafael Ramírez Venezuela
Rafael Ramírez, Venezuela’s former oil minister, during a conference in Caracas on January 29, 2013.Ariana Cubillos (AP)

Bills for presidential suites totaling $1.8 million; a $1.3 million wardrobe; $761,497 worth of private flights to Nicaragua; cooking courses valued at $430,690; a private gym built at a cost of $388,658... The list of ill-gotten gains goes on and on. The network that plundered $2 billion from Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) — Venezuela’s state-owned oil company — engaged in a spiral of wasteful spending after embezzling money and accepting kickbacks between 2007 and 2012. Unpublished documents that EL PAÍS has had access to reveal the purchases made by more than 30 people involved in this plot. Among the culprits are Nervis Villalobos and Javier Alvarado, former vice-ministers of energy who served under the administration of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013).

The documents about luxury accommodations reveal the exorbitant expenditure of this network. Those involved in the plot charged commissions of up to 10% from companies seeking contracts with the Venezuelan energy giant. In 2014, the organization paid at least $1.8 million to a travel agency based in Miami, to purchase more than 20 exclusive stays in presidential suites at Four Seasons hotels in Paris, Mexico and New York, as well as the Sheraton in Frankfurt.

The group also stayed at Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental hotels, the Bristol in Panama, the Grand Hyatt in Shanghai, as well the Atlantis (Bahamas) and Le Blanc (Cancun) holiday complexes. The latter two offer their clients a butler, views of the Caribbean Sea, luxury rooms and infinity pools, according to their websites. A vacation at the Mandarin Riviera Maya — along Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula — was bought at a price of $283,178.

The Panamanian company High Advisory and Consulting SA — controlled by the alleged frontman of the group, Luis Mariano Rodríguez Cabello — was the organization’s instrument to pay the expenses, according to an investigation carried out by an Andorran judge. Rodríguez Cabello, in turn, was working on behalf of Diego Salazar, the cousin of Rafael Ramírez. Ramírez is a former Chavista energy minister, the former president of PDVSA and Venezuela’s former ambassador to the U.N. Since 2018, around 30 people have been prosecuted in Andorra for money-laundering and for belonging to a criminal network that plundered Venezuela’s largest company.

Hotel stays came complete with luxurious touches. For instance, the group paid $430,690 for “miscellaneous gifts, transportation and a cooking course” during a trip to Paris and another $538,362 for “miscellaneous expenses” on another trip to the French capital.

The scheme — which acquired 21 homes valued at a total of $52 million — allocated almost $7 million to decorate and renovate the exclusive properties. The tracing of the charges reveals that the group spent $1.4 million on wardrobes, $1.3 on furniture from an Italian firm (the sum included transportation from Livorno and Genoa to Venezuela), $1.4 million on a dining room for one of the office buildings, more than $1 million in marble supplies for a property in Caracas, $600,000 dollars in other pieces of exclusive furniture, and $388,658 on the construction of a private gym.

The network also spent $1 million on state-of-the-art telecommunications systems, $230,000 on architectural touch-ups, $200,000 on carpentry and another identical figure on lighting equipment for the beach house of one of its members. One pool table alone was snapped up for $13,000.

Party gowns and Dom Pérignon champagne

The taste for clothing led the organization to pay $151,716 in October 2011 for 60 black tuxedos, 60 dress shirts and 30 bow-and-sash sets. Another charge reveals a disbursement of $131,561 to purchase Italian clothing from a firm whose name isn’t specified.

An order for 153 bottles of 2004 Dom Pérignon Champagne totaling $129,875, another 23 cases of champagne from the Taittinger brand ($29,519), a bill from the Ronchi wine bar in Milan ($28,323), and $55,000 in whiskey were part of the expenditure on alcohol… All on the public energy company’s tab.

The organization that looted PDVSA acquired a new Eurocopter Ec135 helicopter for $2.6 million in November 2011, with capacity for six passengers and a pilot. This was revealed by EL PAÍS. The most recently-obtained documents confirm that the network also spent $50,000 on the maintenance of this aircraft, $114,282 on equipping a Beechcraft twin-turboprop plane and $761,497 on private flights to Nicaragua.

Funds were transferred by this criminal network to the entity where the loot was hidden: the Banca Privada d’Andorra (BPA). Just by himself, Rodríguez Cabello — the frontman — moved over $1.1 billion through a series of 11 accounts at this bank between 2007 and 2015. A productivity bonus of $350,000 was paid out to BPA employee E. J. Villegas Carrillo. Rodríguez Cabello also spent $100,000 in embezzled funds to acquire tax residency in Dubai (UAE).

Made up by high-ranking PDVSA officials and former ministers who served President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013), the scheme charged commissions of around 10% to various companies, especially Chinese firms, which were later awarded contracts by PDVSA. The network hid its loot through a complicated web of accounts in the BPA.

Through 30 shell companies located in tax havens such as Switzerland or Belize, the plot moved its flow of funds to Andorra, a country of 78,000 inhabitants. Until 2017, the tiny European nation had banking secrecy laws, which protected the scam. The group camouflaged the millions of dollars in income under the umbrella of consulting jobs that — according to Andorran investigators — never existed.

Since 2018, an Andorran judge has accused 30 members of this plot for money laundering in a banking establishment and of belonging to a criminal network. The trial is ongoing.

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