Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro's aggressive reaction to the extradition of accused money launderer and ally Álex Saab – who appeared for the first time before a US judge to face charges – suggests the stakes are higher than during previous arrests of prominent figures linked to the regime.
During an initial hearing on October 18, Saab appeared via videoconference before Southern District of Florida federal judge John J. O'Sullivan, who read the money laundering charges and then set Saab's arraignment for November 1, according to court records.
Saab's extradition from Cabo Verde to the United States brought a swift reaction from the Maduro regime, which immediately suspended negotiations with the Venezuelan opposition, which were being held in Mexico.
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Jorge Rodríguez, who heads the government's negotiating team in Mexico, left no doubt about the reason for the suspension of the talks, saying the decision was "an expression of our deepest protest against the brutal aggression against the person and the investiture of our delegate Álex Saab Moran."
Venezuelan intelligence police also transferred six Citgo executives on house arrest to the central police and intelligence service headquarters in Caracas, known as El Helicoide. The return of the executives - five of whom are US citizens - to detention was also said to be in retaliation for Saab's extradition.
A tug-of-war over Saab had played out in Cabo Verde's courts for more than a year, with his lawyers arguing that Saab, a Colombian citizen who has long worked with Venezuela's government, had diplomatic immunity from Venezuela when he was detained. Venezuela said Saab was on a humanitarian mission to Iran to buy food and medical supplies for the coronavirus pandemic upon his arrest in June 2020, when his private jet landed on the island of Sal.
Saab's extradition to the United States came just over a month after Cabo Verde's constitutional court formally approved it.
US prosecutors indicted Saab in 2019 on charges of money laundering. In the indictment, prosecutors accused him of funneling to overseas accounts more than $350 million connected to a 2011 contract to build low-income housing in Venezuela. Separately, the US Treasury Department accused Saab of using shell companies to embezzle money from Venezuela's food aid program, alleging that he paid bribes and kickbacks to government officials to win no-bid, overpriced contracts.
Saab has denied the charges against him.
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Maduro's swift and aggressive reaction to the extradition of Saab indicates that the Colombian businessman may hold financial secrets beyond the money laundering alleged by US prosecutors.
Saab acts as an international broker for Maduro, making him a fundamental builder of the financial architecture used by Venezuela to circumvent sanctions, said a Venezuelan journalist who has followed the Saab case closely and asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
"That world of relationships would be exposed if Saab decides to speak," the journalist said.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza admitted as much in a letter addressed to Saab when he was jailed in Cabo Verde, explaining that Saab could face criminal proceedings for divulging "national security and defense" information deemed classified.
At the moment, Saab appears to have no intention of seeking a plea agreement. Saab's wife read a letter from her husband in which he said that he will face his trial with "dignity" and has "nothing to collaborate with the US" on because he has not committed any crime.
Tellingly, even top-level Venezuelan officials indicted and sent to the United States, or who are currently fighting extradition, have not provoked the same reaction from the regime. These include former general Cliver Alcalá, who is jailed in the US, and former spy chief Hugo Carvajal, who is in the process of being extradited from Spain to the US.
Alcalá and Carvajal were both charged with narco-terrorism in a sweeping March 2020 indictment that accused them of overseeing large-scale shipments of cocaine and providing weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). Maduro and other top government officials were charged in the same indictment.
Both Alcalá and Carvajal have also denounced the current regime. Yet Venezuela has not reacted with the same furor to their cases. One of the few responses recently was a request to Spain that Carvajal be sent to Venezuela.
Though Alcalá and Carvajal may have information about late President Hugo Chávez and Maduro, their relationship with Maduro was most active during the first years of his presidency, said the journalist, whereas Saab is Maduro's "current man" – and likely privy to bigger secrets.