Álex Nain Saab Morán is a Colombian businessman and suspected international money launderer who is a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and who authorities say designed multi-million dollar schemes involving Venezuelan government officials.
Saab has been a prisoner in the United States since 2021. He was extradited from Cabo Verde after his arrest in 2020 when his private jet landed in the West African nation to refuel.
Saab is accused of being part of a corruption scheme that included kickbacks to Venezuelan government officials. According to the US Justice Department, Saab and his partner funneled more than $350 million to overseas accounts.
Álex Saab is the son of a Lebanese immigrant who settled in the city of Barranquilla and opened various businesses, finding success in Colombia's textile industry.
Early in his career, he associated with Álvaro Pulido, a Colombian businessman who was involved in drug trafficking and who invited Saab to do business in Venezuela.
Between 2004 and 2011, the two men exported merchandise to Australia, Ecuador, and Venezuela through a company called Shantex S.A. In Venezuela, their clients were small, relatively unknown businesses that had access to dollars at a preferential exchange rate thanks to the country's former currency control agency's (Comisión de Administración de Divisas -- CADIVI) official exchange system that became well-known for its serious corruption scandals.
The close relationship between Saab and Chavismo dates back to 2011 when an agreement to supply the parts needed to build prefabricated houses for Venezuela's Housing Mission was signed in front of then-president Hugo Chávez, Chancellor Nicolás Maduro, and former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos.
The agreement was made with the company Fondo Global de Construcción (Foglocons), through which Saab and Pulido gained access to preferential exchange rates in Venezuela and to the Unified System for Regional Compensation (Sistema Unitario de Compensación Regional de Pagos -- Sucre), which Colombia and Ecuador advocated for.
Between 2012 and 2013, the company received approximately $159 million to import housing kits into Venezuela. However, the company only delivered $3 million worth of products. Ecuador investigated the exports, suspecting money laundering, fictitious operations, and overbilling by Foglocons' affiliate in Ecuador. Although the case was eventually dismissed, Ecuadorian authorities have continued their investigations.
Saab and Pulido started to participate in contracts in the food industry in 2015, when a newly created business partnership in Panama called Global Foods Trading, linked to the two businessmen via frontmen, signed at least four contracts worth around $125 million to supply corn, wheat, rice, and soy to Venezuela.
From the end of 2016 onwards, with Group Grand Limited, Saab signed lucrative contracts to provide million food box combos for the Local Supply and Production Committees (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción -- CLAP) with the Táchira state government and Venezuela's Corporation of Foreign Trade (Corporación Venezolana de Comercio Exterior -- Corpovex).
Although Saab seems to have maintained a low profile at first, the contractor's name started to gain notoriety in August 2017, when then-Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz named him as one of the men behind Group Grand Limited, along with Colombian businessmen Álvaro Pulido and Rodolfo Reyes. Attorney General Díaz indicated that the company really belonged to President Maduro.
As part of this framework, they joined several other companies registered in the United Arab Emirates as intermediaries in the CLAP business. This occurred around the same time that the Maduro administration established a relationship with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the purpose of refining gold extracted from the Orinoco Mining Arc, as well as for food conventions.
A few months later, President Maduro officially created a mixed business between the state-owned Compañía General de Minería de Venezuela (CVG Minerven) and a company known as Marilyns Proje Yatirim, which is registered in Turkey. An investigation by the webpage Armando.Info linked the company in Turkey to Mulberry, another one of Saab's businesses. This serves as proof of Colombia's involvement in the Venezuelan gold business.
In June 2020, Saab was arrested after his plane landed in Cabo Verde. The United States quickly filed an extradition request granted by Cabo Verde's Constitutional Court in September 2021.
After this, Maduro, who had never mentioned Saab publicly, suspended negotiations with the opposition and launched an extensive campaign in his defense, alleging that he has diplomatic immunity and was on a humanitarian mission to Iran at the time of his arrest, although the legitimacy of this diplomatic condition is questionable.
During the trial, it was revealed that in 2018, Saab became a collaborator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to which he transferred more than $10 million obtained through corruption. He also offered information on corruption within Maduro's government and agreed to turn himself into the US justice system on May 30, 2019, which he failed to comply with.
Álex Saab has been accused of money laundering in the United States. At the same time, in Colombia he was charged with a number of crimes, including money laundering, conspiracy, illicit enrichment, and aggravated fraud, among others. In Italy, he also faces money laundering and other charges.
As businessmen, Saab and Pulido knit together a network of shady shell companies registered mainly in tax havens under third-party names, such as the names of their sons, siblings, and allies. Under the guise of these companies, Saab has allegedly undertaken fictitious exports and corrupt activities that have left him with hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.
Journalistic investigations have proved the existence of price inflation in the invoices from Saab's contracts to provide food to the CLAP system and the poor quality and low nutritional values of the acquired products. Saab's foray into Venezuelan gold potentially demonstrates another side of his criminal portfolio. The participation of Venezuelan criminal groups, corrupt security officials, and Colombian guerrillas, such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación — ELN) and ex-FARC Mafia, has been reported in the extraction of precious metals.
Álex Saab and his business partners' main operations have been focused in Venezuela, where they have had the support of the Maduro administration.
For this, Saab has set up businesses in more than a dozen countries, including Brazil, China, Ecuador, Mexico, Hong Kong, India, Panama, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, and Turkey, several of which are shell companies.
Investigations from various countries have verified that the money received from the deals with Venezuela could be traced to banks in the United States, Panama, Malta, Spain, India, Israel, Italy, the United Kingdom, Russia, and beyond.
At first, Saab and his associates used countries in the region like Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Panama as operational centers for his companies. In recent years, as his activities came under investigation, he moved his operations to Europe with the help of his Italian wife Camilla Fabri and her relatives.
Allies and Enemies
The fact that Nicolás Maduro paid hundreds of millions of dollars to Saab, during the most serious economic crisis seen by the country, indicates that the relationship between the two is more than merely commercial.
Álex Saab established relationships with key people in Colombia that helped him to access the highest levels of Maduro's government. One of his main connections has been the former Colombian senator Piedad Córdoba, who in various interviews, has commented about her relationship with the businessman from Barranquilla.
Maduro's efforts to free Saab have been significant, which may have been due to Saab's role as a frontman, or because of the information he might divulge about Venezuela's financial secrets to save himself.
However, Saab's role as a supplier to the government appears to have been quickly filled by his partner Álvaro Pulido. The latter has continued and even increased deals with the Venezuelan government.