Image: Armando.Info retrieved

One week after being sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury, Colombian businessman Alex Saab still makes the news. During an interview with Bloomberg, the former head of SEBIN, general Manuel Christopher Figuera, now exiled in the U.S., included him in a “gold trading monopoly” led by Nicolas Maduro’s son, 29-year old Nicolas Maduro Guerra, better known as “Nicolasito.”

This revelation comes as Saab and fellow Colombian business partner Alvaro Pulido were  indicted by federal authorities in Florida last July, for their involvement in a money laundering operation that “transferred approximately $350 million out of Venezuela, through the United States, to overseas accounts they owned or controlled.”

But the public exposure of Saab and his associate Pulido, especially for their main roles in the CLAP food program, has come in part thanks to the work of Armando.Info, a Venezuelan digital outlet specialized in investigative journalism. Its coverage on the scope and magnitude of what has become one of the main tools of Maduro’s government to cling to power has brought them recognition among their peers, also making them targets for retaliation. 

Christopher Figuera, now exiled in the U.S., included Alex Saab in a “gold trading monopoly” led by Nicolas Maduro’s son, 29-year old Nicolas Maduro Guerra.

Armando.Info was created in 2014 by Joseph Poliszuk and Alfredo Meza, who left Caracas newspaper El Universal after it was mysteriously bought the previous year, changing its editorial line. With them was veteran investigative reporter Ewald Scharfenberg. Roberto Deniz, who worked as a reporter in El Universal’s economics section, joined them later. This team would soon take part in the multinational journalistic endeavors related to Panama Papers in 2016, and the Paradise Papers in 2017. 

Caracas Chronicles spoke with Deniz, in charge of the CLAP reporting right from the start, and with Poliszuk, now Armando.Info’s co-editor.

The Friends from Colombia

The CLAP saga began in 2015, as the government launched a house-delivered food program just in time for the National Assembly election campaign. The following year, it created the Local Committees of Supply and Production (better known for their spanish acronym CLAP,) supposed to help the Food Ministry to provide groceries to those who need it.

Since its creation, there were complains for the openly political use of the CLAP program as it became more relevant in 2016. Armando.Info specifically noticed that the CLAP boxes came full with imported products (mostly from Mexico,) odd for the Venezuelan State, then facing a financial crunch. And no, don’t blame this on the sanctions. 

Deniz told CC that they found out that neither the Food Ministry nor the then reorganized public corporation for food services were responsible for those purchases. Instead, two Colombian businessmen were pointed out: Alex Saab and Alvaro Pulido, who already had deals with the government in the construction of prefabricated houses for the Gran Mision Vivienda housing program. 

Both men were already notorious for Armando.Info, according to Poliszuk, as they’ve appeared in previous reports, like one involving their company Fondo Global de Construcciones in a money laundering scheme, related to the ALBA’s attempted currency, SUCRE. That case was part of several that caught the eye of Ecuadorian public prosecutors. 

“Saab and Pulido had privileged business with the government before the CLAP,” Poliszuk told CC, “and they continued even when others distanced themselves from Maduro.”

As Saab and Pulido became entangled with the Maduro government, more questions surged about their backgrounds and even Pulido’s identity has been questioned in Colombia. However, both share links with the former Colombian presidential candidate Piedad Córdoba, and both created a business structure that allowed them to keep a low profile, including a Hong Kong-registered company, Group Grand Limited. According to Deniz, it had parallelisms to Fondo Global de Construcciones, in order to avoid the scrutiny of its activities.

Interestingly enough, Armando.Info’s findings got the unlikeliest of confirmations by the Prosecutor-General Luisa Ortega Diaz (forced out of her post and into exile, after the 2017 protests). That didn’t deter them from expanding into Turkey, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned into one of Maduro’s main allies. In 2018, Turkish products became the majority on CLAP boxes. 

The Real Value of CLAP

At this point you might notice the complexity and outreach of the web that Saab and Pulido created. For those involved in the coverage, it’s not just the hard work of finding and connecting the dots, but to make it digestible for the readers. Deniz told CC that in comparison with previous efforts, like the Panama Papers research, this was a longer-term enterprise.

Just consider how this evolved looking up on international trade databases and having people right there in Caracas, entering the CLAP stores and buying some of their products to obtain the fiscal number on the receipts. Through that, they uncovered that the food distribution company Salva Foods 2015, main provider of the stores, is controlled by Carlos Liscano, an associate of Saab.  

“Saab and Pulido had privileged business with the government before the CLAP,” Poliszuk told CC, “and they continued even when others distanced themselves from Maduro.”

But as the investigation unfolded, Alex Saab struck back. On September of 2017, he filed a defamation lawsuit against Armando.Info in a Caracas court. Those involved in the research were also doxxed and harassed online. On February, 2018, amid rumours of a possible travel ban, the three editors of Armando.Info (Meza, Poliszuk and Scharfenberg,) and reporter Deniz left the country. Months later, the website got a gag order by the Venezuelan communications authority CONATEL, related to Saab’s suit.

Deniz never understood why Saab, who remained in the shadows for so long, decided to take this action. “The lawsuit was a sword of Damocles over our heads,” he says, and Poliszuk admits that things were very tough at first, but that the need to tell this story kept them going. 

And there is no sign that the CLAP program will stop anytime soon, as the Maduro government indirectly defended Saab and Pulido after they (along with other members of his inner circle) were sanctioned. In the words of Edison Arciniega, head of local NGO Ciudadanía En Acción, “A CLAP box has more value to control public order than a hundred tear gas canisters.”

The current status of Saab’s lawsuit in Venezuela is unknown, which adds to the overall uncertainty about the chances of Deniz and his colleagues to come back anytime soon. Even if he shares those concerns, Poliszuk is optimistic: “There is no shortage of news in Venezuela.” 

For more into the case of Armando.Info, please read the recent article by the Colombian reporter Lorenzo Morales, of the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN.)

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