The Film on Alex Saab that Maduro Really, Really Doesn’t Want You to Watch

The multi-awarded documentary series Frontline joined forces with the Venezuelan investigative team Armando.Info and director Juan Andres Ravell to tell a story that condenses the scale of corruption in modern Venezuela. On PBS since May 14th

Last week, general attorney Tarek William Saab said that Roberto Deniz and Ewald Scharfenberg are part of the “PDVSA Crypto” case, where his office is throwing everyone the Maduro government wants to punish, by saying that those investigative journalists are no less than propaganda operators for Tarek El Aissami. 

Deniz and Scharfenberg are two of the founders of Armando.Info, and they have actually published investigations against the former oil minister who fell from grace. The accusation has the absurdity of many other charges created by a judiciary designed to show who’s in charge. But this time, it’s easy to think why Saab is attacking, once again, journalists who were pushed to exile years ago and have been subjected to a systematical dirty war of vitriol and judicial persecution. 

Last night, PBS premiered in the U.S. and the internet A Dangerous Assignment: Uncovering Corruption in Maduro’s Venezuela, a documentary on Armando.Info’s investigation on Alex Saab.  

The film, the first documentary feature directed by Juan Ravell, is very well done, and by exposing this story with such granularity it states how valuable it is as a case study on the perversion of the Venezuelan institutionality in the hands of Maduro & Co. 

One can see, as never before, how bad the first subsidized CLAP products were, and how far the team led by Roberto Deniz went to prove it by seeking the help from food researchers at the Central University nutrition lab. The movie shows how the government played with the hunger of the masses, by selling fake milk that left a disturbing sediment that moms denounced by videos in social media. And the way they enriched a few persons by contracting social housing for thousands that never were finished, and ended up as cemeteries of half-built buildings in Valencia. 

At the center of all this has been Alex Saab. Bankrupted after the failure of his textile business in Barranquilla, Saab (not related to the attorney general) found the way to the chavista elite via the Colombian senator Piedad Cordoba, a close friend of Hugo Chavez, and used that access to get rich with an expert partner in shady operations: a former drug trafficker who was now living in Venezuela under a new identity. From then on, Saab continued to become Maduro’s providential man during the financial collapse of the nation and the partial isolation of its government. 

A thriller in Cape Verde

Ravell, mostly known as one of the creators of the beloved site El Chigüire Bipolar, was already making videos for Armando.Info when, in 2019, Deniz ran the story of the “alacranes”, those congressmen of opposition parties, especially Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular, who broke ranks to work for the government as fake opposition, with the help of the Supreme Court and the funding of Alex Saab. “When I heard the call that Luis Parra -one of the alacranes– had with Roberto, I realized we had to make a documentary on this,” remembers Ravell. That call is in the movie, and is a big moment: a congressman telling a journalist “I can travel with five deputies and ten whores but I don’t have to tell you I left and came back.” Deniz was calling Parra to get his version on something the reporter had found that involved the congressman – that Parra, with other lawmakers, went to Europe to lobby for Saab; both Parra and Deniz recorded the call, but it wasn’t the investigative journalist who shared it, but Parra, in its entirety on its YouTube channel… including his, well, “figure of speech”? about the ten sex workers. 

They started to make the film in 2021, when Deniz went to Cape Verde to try to get more information about Saab, who had been detained in the African archipelago, by requirement of the U.S., since June 2020. In January 2023, Ravell showed the material to Frontline, where they decided to join the project – as one of the very few independent documentaries they produce per year that are not Frontline Originals – and help Ravell to finish it with editorial guidance and funding. This cooperation gave access to new sources and, naturally, a prestigious platform to help the documentary reach a bigger public. Precisely what Maduro, Saab and their accomplices don’t want to happen.

“The idea of making the documentary was like flipping a coin,” says Roberto Deniz. “Once Saab was detained in Cape Verde, we thought his extradition would be a matter of time. Since that didn’t happen, and actually a sort of telenovela developed around Saab with the involvement of Moscow and Washington D.C., and Saab going into house arrest in the archipelago instead of a jail in the U.S., we decided to do something different, in response to the waves the case began to make internationally.” 

Still from A Dangerous Assignment: Uncovering Corruption in Maduro’s Venezuela. (FRONTLINE/

The film’s title, A Dangerous Assignment, emphasizes the reprisals Deniz and his coworkers have suffered from Saab and the Maduro regime. When Saab was finally extradited to the U.S., “I felt we were making a documentary about justice being made, thanks to geopolitical reasons,” says Ravell. It wasn’t exactly the case, given the release of Saab in December 2023, and the fact that he’s again a free man, presumably living in Venezuela. “Now, I think it is a movie about investigative journalism: what does it mean to do it in a place like Venezuela, and what it entails for the journalists who have to live in exile and keep working from abroad. And I see it as a movie about what holds the Maduro regime, that kleptocracy’s recipe. I would love the film to serve as an answer where someone asks what is happening in Venezuela.”

For Roberto Deniz, who keeps investigating Saab, A Dangerous Assignment reached two goals already. One, to connect all the parts of the situation he has investigated in a wholesome story. The second: to reveal the true nature of Maduro’s regime. “In the worst moment of the humanitarian crisis, he focused on giving more businesses to Saab, a man who shipped to a hungry country the worst food he could find in order to get the highest profit. Making this documentary even gave me a panoramic view of the case, that I’ve missed until then because of being submerged in the details and the documents. Saab’s business is something that goes beyond Venezuela, and I learned to see that by working with Juan”. 

Warning: it’s not only a necessary but a great documentary, but it may be difficult to watch, as it displays the depth and width of the damage chavismo and its accomplices inflicted to Venezuela. This is my country, you can say, with rage and even shame, as you ascertain the cruelty, the magnitude of the crime. However, you can also see the whole team of Armando.Info at work and remember that those journalists are also Venezuela, those reporters who decided to go to exile before stopping what they were doing under threat. Venezuela is also Juan Ravell and the crew that made this movie for us and the entire world, and the sources and insiders who helped Armando.Info to uncover the Saab scheme. 

We are more than the plague of amoral greed that ravaged our nation.  

A Dangerous Assignment: Uncovering Corruption in Maduro’s Venezuela premieres this Tuesday, May 14, 2024, on the PBS stations (check hours), on, the PBS App, on the Frontline PBS channel on YouTube, and on the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel.