Spain seizes 115 properties from former Venezuela cabinet member

  1. Former top official is summoned by courts in Andorra, Spain and the US
  2. Properties worth about €60m ($68.9 million) include a hotel, flats and a 60-villa luxury development in southern beach resort of Marbella

Marbella, a glitzy resort for the wealthy in the south of Spain, has long been a focus for sun, yachts and the stench of corruption.

Nervis Villalobos, a member of Hugo Chávez’ cabinet between 2004 and 2006, amassed a huge number of properties in Spain through corruption.

After tracing the fortune of the Chávez family, Court No 41 in Madrid has seized a luxury development with more than 40 villas in Marbella (Málaga), where Villalobos and other partners allegedly had money laundered according to sources from the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office.

According to police sources a total of 115 properties, including hotels, apartment blocks and flats in various parts of Spain, has been seized from a network that allegedly laundered money belonging to state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).

The investigation, named ‘Operación Carabela’ by the Spanish police, began more than a year ago when agents detected a number of money transfers made by a Portuguese citizen to several bank accounts owned by persons linked to Venezuelan ex-politicians, as well as executives of a wealth management firm operating in Spain.

As a result of the international police cooperation, agents verified that the facilitator was also being investigated by the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which also collaborated in the police operation.

The legally unidentified Portuguese national apparently helped former PDVSA board members to launder, in Spain and the United States, more than $1.2b obtained through bribes from the Venezuelan government, in what is known in the US as “Operation Money Flight”.

As a result of the joint efforts, it could be established that ‘Columbus Properties One’, a wealth management company run by Luis Fernando Vuteff — an Argentine national who is a relative of former Mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma — provided money laundering services to Venezuelan politicians and PDVSA executives.

It helped them hide the profits gained with their criminal activity, by investing in real estate in Spain through a complex corporate structure with ramifications in Switzerland, Malta and Italy.

In addition to the properties, the judge has also ordered the blocking of several bank accounts and the taking possession of five luxury cars.

Officers searched the premises of Columbus Properties One at Orellana street in Madrid and arrested Villalobos, Vuteff, lawyer Ignacio Sánchez Combán and businessman Darío Ramiro Mario Ale Iturralde.

Villalobos was re-arrested on Wednesday, October 17th for money laundering and corruption — the former Venezuelan official had previously been imprisoned, but was released in September after a provincial court concluded that allegations against him were unsupported.

According to judicial sources, Villalobos was already being investigated for having transferred almost $7m between October 2011 and June 2012 to a Banco Madrid branch in Lisbon through a complex corporate scheme.

The Office of the Prosecutor is requesting his imprisonment on this charge, and argues there are new indications that reinforce the money laundering allegations.

Spanish newspaper El País has previously revealed the huge list of properties under the name of Villalobos, such as the acquisition in 2014 of a 3,000 m2 house in La Moraleja in Madrid priced at €3 million. The former politician was part of a group of wealthy Venezuelans called ‘Bolichicos’, a select club in Spain that made its fortune by overcharging contracts for national works and for bribery during the first quarter of Hugo Chávez’ period in office.

Villalobos is also being prosecuted in the Principality of Andorra, along with dozens of former PDVSA officials, for an alleged $2bn plunder.

The former Chávez official and other Venezuelan ex-leaders, businessmen and frontmen charged commissions of up to 15% to assign PDVSA contracts to foreign companies.

Bribes were received between 2007 and 2012 via an account at Banca Privada d’Andorra (BPA), and circulated through a network of 37 current accounts under the names of Panamanian firms. The money was then channelled from the Principality to tax havens like Switzerland or Belize through a labyrinthine network designed to obfuscate their origin, according to the inquiries of an Andorran court.

Villalobos came to BPA as a client a year after leaving the Venezuelan government and authorized 12 deposits in that bank until 2012, one in his name and the rest under the veil of companies created in Panama and Belize. He also had deposits in Switzerland, Uruguay, the United States and Panama, and was worth €70 million.

The gang justified its millionaires’ income to the Andorran bank as fees charged for consultancy jobs.

A top official in the first years of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013), Villalobos was in charge of the control and supply of public utilities between 2001 and 2006, and designed the long-term planning of energy, one of the most strategic sectors for the country.

Villalobos faces another Superior Court probe for international bribery. In this case he is on parole for the alleged bribes Spanish construction group Duro Felguera handed to top Venezuelan officials in exchange for contracts.

A Texas court is also investigating Villalobos for money laundering. He agreed to be extradited, but his handover cannot be authorized while he is still under trial in Spain.

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