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Latin America

US investigates alleged billion-dollar bribes at Venezuelan state oil firm

Federal authorities arrest two businessmen for reportedly paying off PDVSA officials

The logo of the state-owned oil company PDVSA at a gasoline station in Caracas. REUTERS

The US Justice Department is trying to determine whether high-ranking officials at Venezuela’s state-owned oil company engaged in bribery and other corrupt acts that may have involved billions of dollars in transactions.

Federal authorities earlier this month arrested Roberto Enrique Rincón Fernández and Abraham José Shiera – two Venezuelan businessmen who live in the United States – on conspiracy, money-laundering, and bribery allegations.

Rincón, who is in custody in Houston, was indicted on charges that he allegedly bribed top officials at Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) in exchange for contracts for his company.

One of the arrested men is a “close friend” of an ex-Venezuelan intelligence chief whom the US suspects of having drug-trafficking ties

Rincón is a close friend of a former high-ranking official in the administration of late President Hugo Chávez, whom US authorities suspect of having ties to drug trafficking, according to a filing at the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

In her December 19 detention order, US Magistrate Nancy Johnson said Rincón was a flight risk and, if granted bail, could flee to Venezuela, which holds no extradition treaty with the United States.

“From 2009 through 2014, over one billion dollars was traced to this conspiracy,” Johnson wrote in her five-page order. “Of that amount, $750,000,000 was traced to Rincón between 2010 and 2013. Rincón paid bribes [...] of $2,500,000 to one official alone.

“Rincón also bribed individuals to put non-competitors on the list of bidders, in other words, Rincón’s company would be the only company on the list which could supply a particular product.”

The investigation covered 730 bank accounts; of those 108 were related to Rincón, his family and his companies. Rincón holds Swiss bank accounts, and owns homes in Spain and Aruba.

“Rincón has a close personal friendship with Hugo Carvajal, a retired Venezuelan general who is wanted in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York for drug trafficking,” the magistrate said.

The former intelligence chief under Chávez was briefly detained in Aruba in 2013 on a US warrant but was allowed to go free after the Venezuelans put pressure on the Netherlands, which controls the Caribbean island’s diplomatic affairs.

According to court papers, Carvajal was traveling in Rincón’s private plane when he was detained in Aruba.

This is the first time that a US judge has released information concerning an ongoing investigation into corruption and drug trafficking by US prosecutors against top officials in the Venezuelan government, including outgoing National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello, according to EFE news agency.

Reuters also reported this month that US prosecutors were preparing to file drug trafficking charges against Venezuelan National Guard chief Néstor Reverol.

In November, two nephews of first lady Cilia Flores were arrested in Haiti and brought to New York after allegedly trying to bring a large quantity of cocaine into the United States. Both young men are in custody awaiting trial.

English version by Martin Delfín.

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