Who is Alex Saab and why could his extradition affect the Venezuelan government?
One of the most anticipated extraditions of a Colombian occurred this weekend. It was not a drug trafficker, but a businessman linked to the Venezuelan government.
Alex Saab is a Colombian businessman who worked for the Venezuelan government for nearly a decade — first as a contractor on housing projects and later, participating in several business ventures with the Venezuelan government. Over the years, Saab's wealth increased exponentially and suspiciously. As a result, in 2019, the Justice Department filed charges against him and another Colombian businessman, Álvaro Enrique Pulido, for money laundering and he was blacklisted by the Treasury Department along with his associates and family members.
In 2020, Saab was arrested in Cape Verde, after Interpol issued a red notice against him, as he was not only wanted by the U.S. government, but also the Colombian government for money laundering and illicit enrichment.
After more than a year and an arduous legal and diplomatic struggle that included not only the governments of the U.S. and Cape Verde, but also Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and even Russia, Saab was extradited to the U.S. over the weekend, where he was formally charged with seven counts of money laundering and one count of conspiracy to commit the crime.
According to the United States, Saab not only enriched himself illicitly, but also served as a front man in several business deals for Presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro.
For many analysts, Saab's knowledge could be key to the collapse of the Venezuelan regime due to his involvement in the corrupt scheme that has allegedly illegally smuggled millions of dollars out of Venezuela through the exchange control system operating in the country.
In 2017, the news portal armando.info began an investigation that uncovered Saab's links to a corruption network in the country and tied him to million-dollar businesses ranging from "food imports, the construction of gym modules, coal mining, tanker trucks to alleviate water shortages and the triangulation of oil for Iranian gasoline," according to El País from Spain.
In fact, the accusation that led to his extradition has to do with the creation of shell companies to import food that were part of the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP), which was the program created by the Venezuelan government to avoid shortages after economic sanctions established by the United States in 2015. In the business, worth at least $350 million, Maduro's stepchildren also allegedly benefited.
For this reason, the Venezuelan government has led the defense of the businessman, not only giving him Venezuelan nationality, but also a diplomatic post that protected him from being arrested.
During recent months, the Venezuelan government undertook a campaign in favor of Saab, although the Colombian always kept a low profile. There are few photos of him, but now in Caracas and other cities across the country are peppered with posters of his face above the hashtag #freealexsaab.
Figuras del chavismo, perfiles en Twitter y portales oficialistas ligados a sectores que defienden a Alex Saab siguen atacando al periodista @robertodeniz en redes sociales, #10Oct. Conoce más aquí: https://t.co/bSAAFadhdl #AlertaIPYSve
— IPYS Venezuela (@ipysvenezuela) October 18, 2021
Almost immediately after the extradition was announced, Maduro's government sent six former executives of Citgo to prison. The executives of the U.S. subsidiary of PDVSA had been under house arrest since last year for corruption. They are both Venezuelan and U.S. nationals.
Talks between Chavismo and the opposition that were being held in Mexico, which acts as guarantor country, were also suspended.
In addition, over the weekend, Venezuelan authorities raided the residence of the parents of journalist Roberto Deniz, founder of the site armando.info, which was the first outlet to investigate the corruption scheme headed by Saab in Venezuela and ties him to business deals worth more than $3 billion.