Authorities in Cape Verde have arrested en route to Iran a prominent businessman accused by the U.S. of corrupt dealings with President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government in Venezuela.
A U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman said Saturday that Alex Saab was arrested pursuant to an Interpol red notice issued in connection with U.S. money laundering charges in Miami. She declined further comment as did Saab’s American lawyer, Maria Dominguez.
A source familiar with the situation said Saab was detained in the Atlantic Ocean archipelago when his San Marino-registered jet was making a refueling stop on a flight to Iran from Caracas. The person was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Flight tracking data shows the aircraft, which the once globe-trotting U.S. fugitive had been known to use in the past, departed Friday from Caracas and after midnight Saturday was spotted returning to Caracas.
As the Trump administration seeks to regain momentum in its faltering campaign to oust Maduro and install opposition leader Juan Guaidó, it is increasingly going after top officials and businessmen connected to the embattled leader. In March, it indicted Maduro and more than a dozen other individuals on narcoterrorist, corruption and other criminal charges.
Saab, a Colombian businessman, came onto the radar of U.S. authorities a few years ago after amassing a large number of contracts with Maduro’s government.
Federal prosecutors in Miami indicted him and a business partner last year on money laundering charges connected to an alleged bribery scheme to develop low-income housing for the Venezuelan government that was never built.
Separately, he had been sanctioned by the Trump administration for allegedly utilizing a network of shell companies spanning the globe — the UAE, Turkey, Hong Kong, Panama, Colombia and Mexico — to hide huge profits from no-bid, overvalued food contracts obtained through bribes and kickbacks.
“Saab engaged with Maduro insiders to run a wide-scale corruption network they callously used to exploit Venezuela’s starving population,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at the time of the sanctions. “They use food as a form of social control, to reward political supporters and punish opponents, all the while pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars through a number of fraudulent schemes.”
In private, U.S. officials have long described Saab as a front man for Maduro although he’s not identified as such in court filings.
Some of Saab’s contracts were allegedly obtained by paying bribes to Yoswal, Yosser and Walter Flores, the adult children of first lady Cilia Flores from a previous relationship, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. The three men, commonly known as Los Chamos — Venezuelan slang for “the kids” — are also under investigation by prosecutors in Miami for allegedly forming part of an scheme to siphon $1.2 billion from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, two people familiar with the U.S. investigation told The Associated Press.
News of the possible arrest broke late Friday but initially officials in the U.S. and Saab’s native Colombia were skittish about discussing the matter. Cape Verde has no extradition treaty with the U.S. and fresh in officials’ mind is the 2014 saga involving another high-priority target, Hugo Chávez’s longtime spy chief retired Gen. Hugo Carvajal.
Carvajal was arrested in 2014 on the Caribbean island of Aruba, where he had been named Maduro’s consul, but managed to flee a U.S. drug warrant after intense diplomatic pressure from Caracas. Carvajal remains at large after having been jailed and later released in Spain.
Saab is believed to have expanded his reach into Venezuela’s vital oil industry as the OPEC nation’s economic crisis has deepened. Iran sent Venezuela several tankers of gasoline last month that government opponents say were purchased with gold and by shell companies controlled by Saab.
Last week, prosecutors in Colombia froze eight properties allegedly belonging to Saab, including a mansion in his Caribbean hometown of Barranquilla valued at more than $7 million, as part of their own money laundering investigation.