A US court case seeks to compensate victims of the FARC with assets seized from Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA, in the latest push to establish legal responsibility of entities linked to the Venezuelan state for the actions of the Colombian guerrilla group.
The targeted funds include an $117 million debt owed by a New York bank to PDVSA sister company Petrocedeño, $41 million in the brokerage account of a Salvadoran PDVSA affiliate, and an undisclosed amount associated with PDVSA joint venture Petrowarao, according to El Pitazo, citing research from Redd Latam.
Although the article does not name the victims, the case echoes that of Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes, three US contractors who were kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) in 2003. The FARC demobilized in 2016 after a peace agreement with the Colombian government but dissident elements of the group continue to operate in Colombia and Venezuela.
SEE ALSO: Samark López Bello Profile
In 2012, a Florida court ruled that the men were liable for $318 million in compensation, payable from assets seized from FARC-affiliated drug traffickers. The ruling triggered years of appeals, as targeted individuals sought to contest claims of financial links to the FARC.
The victims achieved a major victory in August 2020, when the US Supreme Court ruled that they could be rewarded assets from accounts held by businessman Samark López Bello. López was sanctioned in February 2017 for allegedly assisting Venezuelan politician Tareck El Aissami to launder the FARC’s drug profits.
However, the very nature of this case has been criticized. Writing on Twitter, José Ignacio Hernández, a former prosecutor and adviser to opposition leader Juan Guaidó, stated that this case had been manipulated by the United States to create another legal method to go after PDVSA assets.
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Should this case establishes financial links between PDVSA and the FARC, it would create a significant legal precedent, potentially overriding protections on the state company’s foreign assets.
PDVSA has long been a vehicle for embezzlement by the government of Nicolás Maduro, leading to sweeping sanctions in January 2019. However, the terms of the sanctions protect its assets from being used to redress $150 billion in claims from Venezuela’s creditors and sectors of the opposition seeking to recover embezzled funds.
Then-US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declared that the sanctions “would help prevent further diverting of Venezuela’s assets by Maduro and preserve these assets for the people of Venezuela.”
But the recent cases against López Bello and now PDVSA make use of an entirely different legal mechanism, established in 2018 through the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act. This allowed victims of terrorist groups to claim compensation from funds blocked under counter-narcotics legislation. The US considered the FARC a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
Claims of PDVSA’s links to the FARC have been building since at least September 2017, when security consultant Douglas Farah testified to the US Senate that PDVSA and its subsidiaries represented the “primary money laundering structure for the FARC.”
Farah documented enormous economic irrationalities in PDVSA’s subsidiaries in El Salvador and Nicaragua, triangulating these with evidence seized from FARC computer files in 2008 to claim that these entities were used to launder profits generated by FARC cocaine sales.
In March 2020, the US Justice Department issued sweeping indictments against President Maduro and other senior Venezuelan officials, accused them of collaborating in a two decade-long “narco-terrorism conspiracy” with the FARC.
The indictment claims that around 2008, then President Hugo Chávez agreed with FARC leaders to use PDVSA funds “to support the FARC's drug-trafficking and terrorist operations.” During that year, the US Treasury sanctioned several senior Venezuelan officials for assisting the guerrillas’ drug trafficking operations, and later with providing them with weapons, but it is yet to be demonstrated whether these alleged channels of support were financed through PDVSA.
Although the FARC formally demobilized in 2017, dissident factions have continued to use Venezuela as an operational base, with the toleration if not active support of sectors of the current Maduro government.