Mérida, February 8, 2021 (venezuelanalysis.com) – The national president of PDVSA’s community cooking gas program has been arrested on corruption charges.
Jacob Grey (32) was detained on Thursday alongside Yohandry Guevara, Oriana Betancourt and Eder Dugarte, the directors of the state-run oil firm’s natural gas plants in Charallave, Apacuana and El Tambor, respectively. The four are accused of leading a “mafia ring” which charged exorbitant commissions to fill people’s domestic gas cylinders.
Announcing the bust, Attorney General Tarek William Saab accused Grey and his accomplices of being “criminals” and of using “armed men who would threaten the gas distributors to make sure they weren’t ratted out.” Saab also indicated that the four netted up to US $24,000 in commissions over “the space of a few weeks.” Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage currently equates to around US $0,70 per month.
President Nicolas Maduro also commented on the arrests, specifying that the irregularities were exposed following a series of public complaints and details provided by Adan Contreras, a warehouse owner detained on similar charges in Maracay. “We are sick of calling on public officials to do what is right,” he exclaimed in a public meeting.
Grey is the son of a Florida-based Pentecostal priest and has previously led a range of government programs, including the Movement for Peace and Life (2018-19) and the Crime Prevention Unit (2019-20). He was a rising star of the ruling United Socialist Party Youth (JPSUV), and ran as a candidate for the National Constituent Assembly in 2017.
Venezuelans have suffered from shortages and sharp price hikes in domestic gas in recent months, forcing many to use firewood stoves.
Apart from corruption networks, grassroots movements and trade unionists have pointed to the breakup and partial privatisation of the system, as well as mass layoffs and deregulated workplace conditions, in explaining the industry’s problems. As with other PDVSA sectors, gas production has been hard hit by Washington’s blockade, with infrastructure severely deteriorated.
The PDVSA arrests were largely applauded by Venezuelans, with many urging authorities to go further in their anti-corruption efforts which have seen a number of PDVSA bosses jailed in recent years.
Young PDVSA local managers handed five year sentences
As authorities announced the top-level bust in PDVSA Gas, two mid-level managers from the state oil company were condemned to five years prison for leaking, withholding or supplying oil production data to foreign sources on Thursday. The ruling in the high-profile case provoked anger from relatives and the grassroots campaign which defends their innocence and revolutionary credentials.
Alfredo Chirinos and Aryenis Torrealba, who deny the charges, were arrested in February 2020, with lawyers alleging that a number of violations of due process have taken place and that the former was tortured during interrogation.
In a public communiqué on Friday, Attorney General Saab unveiled the controversial ruling, going on to claim that the pair’s alleged information leak “directly” triggered US oil sanctions. Other charges against the oil workers, including corruption, terrorism, treason and criminal association, were either previously dropped by the prosecution or proven to be unfounded by the court.
In response to the ruling, the Committee for Aryenis’ and Alfredo’s Liberation released a statement raising a number of supposed trial irregularities, including the dismissal of documents exposing ministry-level sources as the “real” leak. Family members have likewise previously claimed that the two managers are being persecuted for opposing and reporting corruption in the oil firm. Their legal team will appeal the verdict.
Chirinos’ and Torrealba’s detention has attracted extensive media and social media coverage over the past year, with frequent Twitter storms, street rallies and public declarations calling for their release. Their cause has been backed by a range of grassroots organisations and personalities, including the Popular Revolutionary Alternative (APR) alliance, Communist Party (PCV), Homeland for All Party (PPT), some base level members of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV), renowned geopolitical analyst and former TV host Walter Martinez, journalist Luigino Bracci Roa and human rights organisation Surgentes.
[UPDATE] On Wednesday, the Attorney General announced that all parties involved in both the PDVSA Community Gas corruption probe and the Chirinos/Torrealba case were to be granted provisional release and kept under house arrest. The Committee for Aryenis’ and Alfredo’s Liberation has coined this as a partial victory for their clients, but reasserted their commitment to fight for full liberty. A number of follow-up arrests were also annoucned in the gas corruption probe, including the regional director of PDVSA Community Gas in Merida State.