Authorities in Cape Verde have arrested on a U.S. warrant a prominent businessman accused of corrupt dealings with President Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela.
Alex Saab’s American lawyer, Maria Dominguez, confirmed the arrest but declined further comment.
A source familiar with the situation said Saab was detained on the Atlantic Ocean archipelago when his plane was making a refueling stop on a flight between Caracas and Iran. The person was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
As the Trump administration seeks to regain momentum in its faltering campaign to oust Maduro and install opposition leader Juan Guaidó, it is increasingly going after top officials and businessmen connected to the embattled leader. In March, it indicted Maduro and more than a dozen other individuals on narcoterrorist, corruption and other criminal charges.
Saab, a Colombian businessman, came onto the radar of U.S. authorities a few years ago after amassing a large number of contracts with Maduro’s government.
Federal prosecutors in Miami indicted him and a business partner last year on money laundering charges connected to an alleged bribery scheme to develop low-income housing for the Venezuelan government that was never built.
Separately, he had been sanctioned by the Trump administration for allegedly utilizing a network of shell companies spanning the globe — the UAE, Turkey, Hong Kong, Panama, Colombia and Mexico — to hide huge profits from no-bid, overvalued food contracts obtained through bribes and kickbacks.
“Saab engaged with Maduro insiders to run a wide-scale corruption network they callously used to exploit Venezuela’s starving population,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at the time of the sanctions. “They use food as a form of social control, to reward political supporters and punish opponents, all the while pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars through a number of fraudulent schemes.”
In private, US officials have long described Saab as a front man for Maduro although he’s not described as such in court filings.
Some of Saab’s contracts were allegedly obtained by paying bribes to Yoswal, Yosser and Walter Flores, the children of first lady Cilia Flores from a previous relationship, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. The three men, commonly known as Los Chamos — Venezuelan slang for “the kids” — are also under investigation by prosecutors in Miami for allegedly forming part of an scheme to siphon $1.2 billion from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, two people familiar with the U.S. investigation told The Associated Press.
News of the possible arrest broke late Friday but initially officials in the U.S. and Saab’s native Colombia were skittish about discussing the matter. Cape Verde has no extradition treaty with the U.S. and in 2014, Venezuela pressured the Caribbean island of Aruba to let go of another high-priority target, Hugo Chávez’s longtime spy chief Hugo Carvajal, who was detained in the former Dutch colony on a U.S. drug warrant. Carvajal remains at large.