Venezuela has demanded the release of a government-connected businessman who was detained in Cape Verde on US corruption charges, calling his arrest an illegal act of aggression aimed at piling new hardships on the crisis-wracked oil nation.
Alex Saab’s arrest on Friday en route to Iran was a major blow to President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
US officials believe he holds many secrets about how the socialist leader, his family and top aides allegedly siphoned off millions of dollars in government contracts amid widespread hunger in the oil-rich nation.
It was unclear how American authorities, who had been targeting the Colombian businessman for years, finally caught up with him.
The Justice Department declined to comment as did Saab’s American lawyer, Maria Dominguez.
A person familiar with the situation said the 48-year-old Saab was arrested in the Atlantic Ocean archipelago when his San Marino-registered jet made a refuelling stop on a flight to Tehran, where he was believed to be negotiating deals to exchange Venezuelan gold for Iranian gasoline.
Flight tracking data shows the aircraft, which the once globe-trotting Saab had used in the past, departed on Friday from Venezuela’s capital, Caracas.
A private jet belonging to Presidential Aviation, a US government contractor formerly owned by the Blackwater private security firm, was ready for a chartered flight from Cape Verde to Miami’s private Opa Locka airport on Sunday.
Venezuela’s government protested against the arrest, saying that Saab was travelling on a Venezuelan passport and was on a “humanitarian mission” to buy food and medical supplies.
In a statement issued on Saturday night, the government said an Interpol arrest notice for Saab was not issued until a day after his detention, violating international norms and disregarding the diplomatic immunity he enjoys as an “agent of a sovereign government”.
It said it would initiate all legal and diplomatic actions to secure his release. But coronavirus restrictions frustrated an attempt by Maduro’s nearest ambassador, in Senegal, to travel to Cape Verde.
In March, the Donald Trump administration indicted Maduro and more than a dozen other individuals on narco-terrorist, corruption and other criminal charges.
Saab came onto the radar of US 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 that pocketed more than $350m from a low-income housing project for the Venezuelan government that was never built.
Separately, Saab had been sanctioned by the Trump administration for allegedly using a network of shell companies spanning the globe – in the United Arab Emirates, 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,” 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.”
Cape Verde has no extradition treaty with the US and fresh on officials’ minds is the 2014 saga involving another high-priority Venezuelan target, the late Hugo Chávez’s longtime spy chief, retired general 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 US drug warrant after intense diplomatic pressure from Caracas.
Carvajal remains at large after having been jailed and later released in Spain.
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 $7m, as part of their own money laundering investigation.