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Miami man accused of servicing Venezuelan combat jets with ‘explosion suppressant foam’

A gavel cracks down. (Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid/U.S. Air Force)

It’s not your typical South Florida weapons case alleging the export of missiles or assault rifles to a rogue nation.

Jorge Nobrega is a prosperous Miami businessman who sold foam to the Venezuelan air force — but U.S. authorities say this was a military-grade foam used to protect fuel tanks in its fleet of Russian-made planes from enemy fire.

On Sunday, Nobrega got arrested.

Now he’s being held in a federal lockup on charges of violating U.S. presidential sanctions against the Venezuelan government and State Department weapons export laws. He is also accused of a money-laundering conspiracy for allegedly moving millions of dollars of illicit Venezuelan payments through Venezuela, Thailand, Portugal and South Florida.

Nobrega, a U.S. citizen who had his first appearance in Miami federal court Monday, faces detention before trial because federal prosecutors consider him a flight risk due to his wealth and international connections. A detention hearing is set for Wednesday.

Nobrega’a defense attorney, Francisco Alfonso Marty, did not respond to a request for comment. His client’s case stands out among the array of foreign corruption and money laundering prosecutions brought in South Florida against various Venezuelan businessmen and government officials with connections to the late President Hugo Chávez and current President Nicolás Maduro.

Nobrega, who has businesses west of Miami International Airport and in Venezuela, is accused of exporting polyurethane foam to the Venezuelan military and servicing its fleet of Russian Sukhoi SU-30 combat aircraft. The “explosion suppressant foam” insulates the fuel tanks in the wings from fire by strengthening the structures and slowing down the speed of shrapnel during enemy attacks.

The advantage to Nobrega’s service is that the Venezuelan military did not have to send the wings to Russia to be repaired — the relining of the fuel tanks could all be done by his company in Venezuela, according to prosecutor Kurt Lunkenheimer.

But Nobrega, who described his technique as akin to “dialysis,” did not obtain a license or waiver from the U.S. government to export the foam to Venezuela and service its military planes, according to a criminal complaint and affidavit filed Monday in federal court.

Nobrega was recorded in phone conversations discussing the purchase, sale and export of the foam with a Homeland Security Investigations confidential source, and he also exchanged WhatsApp messages and emails with the informant, according to the criminal affidavit. Starting in 2018, Nobrega discussed the illicit export scheme and how to hide the payments with the HSI source, the affidavit says.

The following year, Nobrega’s company negotiated with a U.S. company to buy supplies of the explosion suppressant foam, saying it was to be used for diesel and kerosene storage tanks — “non-military commercial use” — and that the end user was Chevron, the giant U.S. oil company, according to the affidavit.

Nobrega was lying because he knew he couldn’t sell the foam to the Venezuelan military and service its fleet of combat aircraft, prosecutors said.

Nobrega’s Miami-based company, Achabal Technolgies, had contracts for servicing 23 of the Venezuelan military’s Russian aircraft and was paid millions of dollars for his maintenance work, the affidavit says. The Venezuelan military made those payments through the state-owned oil company, PDVSA. The payments were funneled through an intermediary company, TIPCO, in Thailand, wired to Nobrega’s bank in Portugal and then transferred again to his bank in Miami, the criminal affidavit says.

In early 2020, Nobrega and the confidential informant discussed “the importance of making sure there is no mention of PDVSA in future paperwork shared with the Portuguese bank as support for the wire transactions even though PDVSA would continue to be involved in payments to Nobrega for servicing Venezuela’s SU-30 combat aircraft,” according to the affidavit.


© 2021 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.