This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
A Colombian businessman indicted by U.S. authorities as the chief money launder for Nicolas Maduro’s regime in Venezuela has been detained in the African island archipelago of Cape Verde.
Alex Saab was detained on June 12 as his San Marino-registered jet made a refueling stop in Cape Verde on its way from Caracas to Iran.
U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Nicole Navas Oxman said on June 13 that Saab was arrested in Cape Verde on an Interpol red notice.
Maria Dominguez, Saab’s U.S.-based attorney, confirmed his arrest.
The United States has no extradition treaty with Cape Verde and it was not immediately clear what would happen next.
The U.S. government accuses Saab of being the front man for a vast network of money laundering and corruption in Venezuela through shell companies in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Hong Kong, Panama, Colombia, and Mexico.
The U.S. Justice Department in July 2019 indicted Saab and another businessman for bribing Venezuelan officials and diverting some $350 million to overseas accounts.
The U.S. Treasury Department has also put sanctions on Saab for running a vast corruption network for a food-aid program that lined the pockets of the Maduro regime, which has overseen the economic collapse of the oil-rich country.
U.S. officials say the food scheme also includes Maduro’s stepchildren as well as 13 companies in various countries.
“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 in July 2019 while announcing 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.”
More recently, Saab is suspected of getting involved in the oil business by helping Maduro buy fuel oil and supplies from Iran in exchange for gold in order to get around U.S. sanctions on both countries.
In May, Iran sent Venezuela several tankers of fuel oil that the U.S. government and Venezuelan opposition say were purchased with gold and by shell companies controlled by Saab.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza denounced the “arbitrary and illegal detention” of Saab, who he said was acting on behalf of the Venezuelan government to procure food, medicine, and other supplies to help the country against the coronavirus pandemic.
The Venezuelan opposition, headed by Juan Guaido — who is recognized by dozens of countries including the United States as Venezuela’s interim president — welcomed Saab’s arrest.
“Colombian boss Alex Saab is the main figurehead of the dictatorship; he manages opaque [Venezuelan state oil company] PDVSA businesses, gold, food, alliance with Iran, relations with cartels, and protects ill-gotten money from Maduro and [Maduro’s wife] Cilia Flores,” Julio Borges, a top opposition figure close to Guaido, said on Twitter.
“His capture is a hard blow to the structure of the regime, it shows that Venezuelans are not alone and that there is no future with Maduro, not even for those who support him,” he said.