Caracas, March 30, 2023 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan authorities continue to push on with a wide-reaching anti-corruption probe centered on the oil industry.
On Tuesday evening, 23 detainees were arraigned before a judge and two public prosecutors. The arrival of the prisoners in orange jumpsuits was broadcast on state television networks.
The swift hearing saw them all subjected to pre-trial detention. The group includes nine public officials, ten businessmen and National Assembly Deputy Hugbel Roa, who had his parliamentary immunity removed by the legislative body.
The charges include misappropriation of public funds, influence peddling and money laundering. Saab added that those who worked at state oil company PDVSA might additionally be charged with treason. The group likewise included three judges, who were charged with corruption, but no connections between the two cases have been established.
The alleged corruption plot has been labeled PDVSA/Crypto by Attorney General Tarek William Saab, in reference to the accusation that US $3 billion worth of crude sales were diverted via cryptocurrency schemes.
PDVSA Trade and Supply Vice-president Antonio Pérez Suarez and National Crypto Active Superintendency (SUNACRIP) chief Joselit Ramírez were among those charged. Both, as well as Roa, are considered close associates of Tareck El Aissami, who resigned as oil minister to “fully support” the anti-corruption efforts.
“We are now concluding the first stage of the investigation,” Saab said in an interview. Venezuela’s top prosecutor said he would not disclose working theories about PDVSA corruption schemes at this time. “I do not want to get ahead of the investigation.”
The Attorney General also stated that interviews with those already behind bars could lead to further arrests.
On Thursday, Basic Industries Vice-Minister Pedro Maldonado was reportedly arrested by the Anti-Corruption Police. Maldonado additionally served as president of the Venezuela Guayana Corporation (CVG) which brings together several heavy industries in eastern Venezuela. Five other CVG board members were detained as well, according to unconfirmed reports.
Maldonado's detention follows that of Jackeline Perico, former executive director of the Orinoco Oil Belt, on Wednesday. Local witnesses stated that the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) seized Perico in a company building in San Tomé, Anzoátegui state. She had been removed from her post hours earlier.
Suspicions of graft in the oil industry arose earlier this year when newly appointed PDVSA President Pedro Tellechea ordered all export contracts suspended and reviewed. A pattern of delayed and missed payments from unreliable intermediaries saw the company demand upfront payment both for cash and swap agreements.
According to Reuters, Venezuela’s state oil company might have racked up as much as $21.2 billion in accounts receivables (84 percent of total invoiced shipments) over the past three years, with $3.6 billion of those “potentially unrecoverable.”
However, Venezuelanalysis sources have cast doubt on the figure, claiming that it would have been impossible to sustain imports and other economic activity with such a reduced income. Instead, they point to the fact that most of PDVSA’s transactions are swap deals that do not register as cash inflow at the state oil company. Additionally, specialized publication “Exclusivas Económicas” ventures that PDVSA turned to intermediation via cryptocurrency mechanisms in the wake of sanctions against Russian banks, and that the alleged $3 billion in losses might be tied to the recent collapse of stablecoins and Silvergate Bank.
On Wednesday, Reuters reported that PDVSA is likewise auditing petcoke export deals involving Maroil Trading, owned by longtime shipping businessman and oil industry associate Wilmer Ruperti.
While the news agency claims Maroil owes PDVSA $423 million as part of an “account reconciliation” process, the company has disputed the figure, claiming that it has performed infrastructure works that need to be deducted. Venezuela has increased its sales of petcoke, a byproduct of heavy crude processing that offers an alternative to coal, in recent years.
The ongoing anti-corruption operation has seen authorities publish photographs and videos of expensive assets allegedly belonging to the arrested officials and businessmen. The seized property includes real estate, cars and private planes.
Social media users have also dug up content where those accused showcase riches. In one video, Johana Torres, an alleged associate of Hugbel Roa, is seen hosting friends in a luxurious apartment in Dubai.
President Nicolás Maduro claimed that the disclosed patrimony is just “a fraction” of the total.
“I can assure you that all the reclaimed assets are going to be destined for social programs,” he said during a televised broadcast on Wednesday.
Maduro expressed his “anger” over the recent revelations and stressed there would be “more blows against these mafias, these crooks.”