Bogota, December 1, 2017 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan authorities have detained two former oil ministers as part of an ongoing anti-corruption drive led by the Attorney General’s office.
The apprehension of Euologio Del Pino and Nelson Martinez, who both served as oil ministers and PDVSA state oil company presidents, are the highest level arrests to have taken place since investigations into corruption in the oil sector began in August. Both men were taken into custody Thursday.
In comments to press, Attorney General Tarek William Saab said the detentions were part of his office’s attempts to dismantle a “cartel” that had “taken over PDVSA”.
More than 50 arrests have been made in the anti-corruption crackdown over the past four months, including mid and upper-level PDVSA managers and top executives at PDVSA's leading US-based subsidiary, CITGO.
According to Saab, Del Pino is allegedly responsible for a corruption and sabotage scheme within the joint Venezuela-Russia oil venture PetroZamora, costing the country USD$500 million. He is also accused of falsifying crude oil production levels between 2014-2017.
The attorney general said the former oil minister will face charges of embezzlement, graft, failing the nation’s security system, association to commit crimes, undue use of information systems and inflicting damages on the national petroleum industry.
In a video circulated on his Twitter account on the day of his arrest, Del Pino denies the charges against him and calls the attacks on PDVSA “totally unjustified”.
“We know there are irregularities, and I am the first who, through internal control mechanisms ... [made us] denounce and push ahead with investigations,” says a weary-looking Del Pino in the video.
For his part, former PDVSA boss Martinez was arrested in connection to corruption at CITGO. Saab told reporters that Martinez had signed a USD$4 billion debt refinancing agreement with directors at the subsidiary without the knowledge of the Venezuelan president. The attorney general reported that CITGO had been offered up as collateral in the agreement, which he said jeopardized the nation's oil industry and public funds. Martinez was cited in testimonies obtained from CITGO executives while in custody, confirmed Saab. The former PDVSA president is accused of embezzlement, graft, and association to commit crimes.
Both Del Pino and Martinez have been longstanding influential figures in the Venezuelan oil industry. Del Pino served as PDVSA head and oil minister from 2014 to January 2017, when Martinez took over as minister. Del Pino replaced Martinez again in August, leaving the latter as PDVSA president. Both men were replaced by Major General Manuel Quevedo Sunday, just three days before their arrest.
“These investigations strengthen Venezuelan democracy, as well as the justice system, and send the strong, unequivocal message… that we have left behind this [corruption] cartel… and the judicial terrorism of the former attorney general [Luisa Ortega] and the attorneys under her control,” said Saab.
The new attorney general took over from Ortega in August after she was removed from her post by Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly (ANC) on grounds of misconduct. Ortega has since been accused alongside her husband, former socialist party legislator German Ferrer, of extortion and corruption, though she says she is the victim of political persecution. Both Ortega and Ferrer fled to neighboring Colombia in late August.
Saab also confirmed that sixteen arrest warrants had been issued for PDVSA officials and that he had requested an INTERPOL red alert to be placed on those outside of Venezuela.
Both Del Pino and Martinez are reported to be the “protégés” of former oil minister and current Venezuelan Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, Rafael Ramirez, who also made news headlines this week.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Ramirez had been recalled from his post at the UN in relation to the ongoing corruption crackdown, giving rise to speculation that the former oil minister could be the attorney general’s next planned arrest. Ramirez has, however, denied the reports and officially represented Caracas at an event with the Cuban government Wednesday.
Though the Maduro government is yet to comment, reports of Ramirez’ dismissal come on the heels of heated public criticisms made against the diplomat from senior government officials. On Tuesday, ANC Deputy Iris Varela publicly accused Ramirez of corruption in an article on leftist website Aporrea. Fellow ANC member David Paravisini has also appeared on state television network VTV calling for Ramirez to cooperate with the investigation.
Ramirez’s cousin, Diego Salazar Carreño, was arrested Friday in relation to the alleged laundering of €1,347,339 in PDVSA funds through the Andorra Private Bank in 2012. Salazar has reportedly been charged with money laundering and association to commit crimes.
Meanwhile, Ramirez’ former assistant, Rafael Ernesto Reiter, was reportedly arrested in Spain at the end of October at the behest of the US government, also in relation to corruption in PDVSA. Several other former Venezuelan government officials were also detained at the time.
Ramirez served as both oil minister between 2002-2014, and PDVSA president from 2004 to 2014. He was the longest serving cabinet minister under former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias.
Bloomberg reports that Ramirez is currently in Manhattan.
With additional reporting by Lucas Koerner from Caracas.