Navy destroyer patrolled Cape Verde to stop Iran or Venezuela springing Maduro’s money man from jail

A U.S. Navy Destroyer has been secretly patrolling the waters around the West African island of Cape Verde, to ensure that Nicolas Maduro’s financier is not sprung from jail before he can be extradited to the U.S.

The San Jacinto’s deployment was approved by Christopher Miller, the acting defense secretary, shortly after he was appointed on November 9.

His predecessor, Mark Esper, had argued that it was unnecessary to send the warship, at a cost of $52,000 a day, and he sent a Coast Guard cutter instead.

Esper was fired by Donald Trump and his replacement quickly approved the San Jacinto’s new task.

The USS San Jacinto and its 393 crew members have been deployed to Cape Verde

They have been tasked with ensuring Alex Saab (pictured) is not broken out of jail

They have been tasked with ensuring Alex Saab (pictured) is not broken out of jail

The Pentagon’s Africa Command did not acknowledge the ship’s secretive mission, which was reported by The New York Times.

Kelly Cahalan, a spokeswoman, would only say that it was sent to Cape Verde ‘to combat illicit transnational maritime activity’ in the region.

Last week the ship was sent back to its base in Norfolk, Virginia: it was unclear whether it would be replaced.

The ship’s 393 crew members were tasked with ensuring that Maduro’s key aide, Alex Saab, remained in jail and was not freed by Venezuelan operatives or their allies.

Saab, a 50-year-old Colombian businessman, has for many years been known as Maduro’s money man.

Since 2009 Saab is known to have exploited his ties to Maduro regime insiders, frequently paying bribes and kickbacks, to win overvalued government contracts. 

That year he won a contract to build 25,000 homes in Venezuela – a contract for which, U.S. prosecutors allege, he and his business partner were paid three to four times the actual cost of building each low-income home, which were intended for Venezuela’s most vulnerable populations. 

Born in the Caribbean coastal city of Barranquilla, he was arrested in Cape Verde on June 12 when the private jet he was traveling on stopped on an Interpol Red Notice, during what Venezuela has described as a humanitarian mission.

The U.S. is concerned that, such is Saab’s value to Maduro, the Venezuelan president may send a team to try and free him, or else ask a friendly nation such as Iran to spirit him away. 

In November two West African countries denied refueling permission at their airports to an Iranian plane bound for Cape Verde, after the State Department asked them to.

Officials told The New York Times it was possible that the plane was carrying Iranian spies, commandos or lawyers trying to prevent Saab’s extradition. The plane flew back to Tehran.

Saab has been held in Cape Verde, 350 miles off the coast of Senegal, since June

Saab has been held in Cape Verde, 350 miles off the coast of Senegal, since June

Saab was indicted in July 2019 by the U.S. on money laundering charges, and accused of bribing Venezuelan officials and funneling more than $350 million to overseas accounts as part of a food program intended to serve those going hungry in Venezuela, known as the CLAP.

Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP, in Spanish) distribute food boxes that are sold to Venezuelans who are registered in Chavista committees.

Saab’s involvement with the CLAP program started in 2016, the U.S. allege, when he devised a corporate structure to acquire the food from a foreign distributor, assemble it in a foreign country, and ship it to Venezuela, all at the most profitable rate for himself. 

‘Through a sophisticated network of shell companies, business partners, and family members, Saab laundered hundreds of millions of dollars in corruption proceeds around the world,’ the U.S. documents allege. 

Mariano de Alba, a Venezuelan lawyer who specializes in law and international relations, told Dialogo that CLAP was used by Maduro’s cronies to enrich themselves.

‘A good part of the system of food imports has become a mafia scheme,’ he said.

‘It all starts when the food import contracts are given to people who are close to the government, and they sell the food at elevated prices, obtaining a financial return for their loyalty.

‘But it doesn’t end there. When the food finally arrives in Venezuela, the scheme includes determining where to distribute that food, based on the area and its people’s political affinity with the government, as well as bribes to public officials and the military to mobilize or deliver the food.’

Saab is accused of helping Venezuela's embattled and isolated president survive financially

Saab is accused of helping Venezuela’s embattled and isolated president survive financially

Saab's passport was circulated among South American intelligence agencies

Saab’s passport was circulated among South American intelligence agencies

Saab is also suspected of helping Maduro orchestrate a swap with Iran as part of a plan that has brought oil, workers and supplies to Venezuela in exchange for about nine tons of gold worth $500 million.

Last month, Saab’s lawyer denied Saab had any participation in the events and described his client as a ‘food business entrepreneur.’

Saab was also heavily involved in efforts to improve Venezuela’s relationship with Turkey, which included shipments of at least $900 million in gold to the nation in 2018.

U.S. officials allege that some of the gold made its way to Tehran in violation of American sanctions.

In September the U.S. treasury added Saab’s two sons, Amir and Luis, to their list of sanctioned individuals, as well as the son of Saab’s business partner Alvaro Pulido. Sixteen companies owned by Saab in Panama, Colombia and Italy were also sanctioned.

The U.S. authorities also froze $700 million from Saab’s accounts located in the Liechtenstein.

Steve Mnuchin, treasury secretary, accused Saab of profiting from the misery of Venezuela’s people.

‘This action increases pressure on Alex Saab and his network, which have profited off the hunger of the Venezuelan people and facilitate systemic corruption in Venezuela,’ he said.

‘Treasury will continue to target those who corruptly profit at the expense of the Venezuelan people.’

In October, while Saab was fighting his extradition to the U.S., Colombia’s attorney general seized assets valued at $9.8 million, including two properties in the Colombian cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena, and three companies that Saab allegedly used for money laundering.

De Alba said that Saab was deeply enmeshed in Maduro’s financial web, as the South American nation, cut off from the international markets by U.S. sanctions, seeks alternative means to stay afloat.

‘There are indications that Saab was not only the regime’s main financial operator, but also Maduro’s personal front man, who used him as a direct vehicle to embezzle funds, with Saab having to give Maduro a share of the surcharge that he charged the Venezuelan state,’ he said.

‘The relationship is so intimate that when Saab was arrested, the Venezuelan government, surprisingly, without ever having said so, attempted to argue immunity because he was a diplomatic representative of the Venezuelan state.’

The U.S. is determined to put him on trial in their country, in the hope that he can lift the lid on Maduro’s circumvention of sanctions.

Saab insists that he is an ordinary businessman.

In a rare interview in 2017, with the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Saab described himself as ‘an open book’ and denied being involved in corrupt contracts with Venezuela.

‘My accounts are clear and my conscience is clean,’ Saab was quoted as saying.

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