Colombian working as Venezuelan envoy was DEA informant, records show

Unsealed records in Miami federal court reveal Maduro’s financier Alex Saab was DEA informant

A federal judge unsealed records on Wednesday in Miami revealing that a Colombian businessman who Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had described as his envoy was a confidential source for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

MIAMI – A federal judge unsealed records on Wednesday in Miami revealing that a Colombian businessman who Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had described as his envoy was a confidential source for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

U.S. District Judge Robert N. Scola Jr. ordered records prosecutors submitted on Feb. 23, 2021, to be unsealed in the case of Alex Nain Saab Moran, who allegedly met with U.S. authorities in August 2016 in Bogotá, Colombia.

Saab allegedly agreed to cooperate with U.S. authorities as an “active law enforcement source” in 2018. He was supposed to surrender on May 30, 2019, but after he failed to do so, prosecutors charged him on July 25, 2019. Cabo Verde authorities detained him nearly a year later and he was extradited to the U.S. on Oct. 16.

The alleged deal with the DEA “included providing law enforcement with information about the bribes that he paid,” turning over more than $12 million despite “concerns regarding the safety and security” of him and his family if this was disclosed, records show.

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2021 file photo, pedestrians walk near a poster asking for the freedom of Colombian businessman and Venezuelan special envoy Alex Saab, and that reads in Spanish "They haven't been able to bend him," in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Maduro claimed the U.S. was in violation of international law after “kidnapping” Saab, 51, Venezuela’s deputy ambassador to the African Union. His administration launched a campaign in his defense that included social media posts, rallies, and posters.

Venezuela claimed Saab — a financier who was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, and is of Lebanese descent — was allegedly on a diplomatic trip to negotiate with Iran on behalf of the Venezuelan government when he was detained in Cabo Verde. Venezuela’s attorneys fought the extradition for months.

In the U.S., two of Saab’s attorneys presented incongruent descriptions of his dealings with U.S. authorities.

Attorney Neil Schuster, who represented Saab in U.S. federal court, argued that Saab deserved to be released on bond because of his cooperation. He also asked the judge to not unseal documents describing the relationship because if the Venezuelan government found out the extent of what Saab had provided, he had “no doubt” that there would be retaliation.

“He has five children, some of which are minor, and he has a wife there, and they are basically under the thumb of the government ... I do believe that will create a situation where his family will be either put in jail, harmed, physically harmed,” Schuster said in court, according to the unsealed transcript.

Camilla Fabri, the wife of Colombian businessman Alex Saab who has been recently extradited to the U.S., reads a letter sent to her by her husband, during a demonstration demanding his release, in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Saab’s wife, Camilla Fabri, who was born in Rome, Italy, was under investigation for money laundering in Italy, when she stood on a stage during a rally on Oct. 17 in the Plaza Bolívar de Caracas. She said he was innocent and had been tortured while in custody in Cabo Verde.

On Wednesday, Fabri used Twitter to share a statement from Saab’s New York-based defense attorney denying he was an informant and reiterating that “he remains a loyal citizen and diplomat” of Venezuela.

Attorney David Rivkin, who was not in court on Wednesday, wrote, “Mr. Saab wishes to clarify that the sole purpose of the meetings ... was to confirm that neither he nor any companies associated with him had done anything wrong.”

Rivkin also wrote Saab’s communication with U.S. authorities was undertaken with the full knowledge and support of the Venezuelan government.

“They are trying to stop the support that has naturally accompanied this campaign. The US lies blatantly, as with Russia and Iraq. Alex Saab will never harm Venezuela, he has not and will not. We will release Alex, and we will do so in loyalty,” Fabri wrote in Spanish on Wednesday.

Venezuelan President of the National Assembly Jorge Rodriguez, center, speaks to the press as an image of Colombian businessman and Venezuelan special envoy Alex Saab is in the back in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Oct 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

According to the 2019 U.S. indictment, Saab was part of a 2011-15 conspiracy to launder $350 million related to public corruption in Venezuela. The former currency controls allowed fraudsters to get a favorable exchange rate, according to prosecutors.

The alleged conspiracy involved a Venezuelan government contract to build low-income housing units, meetings in Miami, bank accounts in Venezuela, Florida, and overseas. It also allegedly included the misuse of Venezuela’s former government-controlled exchange rate.

Roberto Deniz, a Venezuelan journalist who lives in Colombia, is the editor of Armando.Info. He has followed public corruption cases allegedly related to Saab since 2015.

“I don’t know if Nicolás Maduro knew that Alex Saab tried to negotiate with the United States,” Deniz said, adding this was likely a bombshell for Venezuelan officials.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is demanding that the U.S. free Alex Saab, right, a Colombian businessman of Lebanese descent. ((AP Photo/Matias Delacroix, File and Broward Sheriff's Office))

U.S. prosecutors accused Saab of submitting false import documents in Venezuela and bribing Venezuelan officials to approve those documents.

In July 2019, the U.S. Treasury accused Saab of bribing Maduro’s stepsons to exploit no-bid overvalued government contracts that included a food subsidy program and a sophisticated network of shell companies to launder corruption proceeds.

In this photo distributed by Colombia's Attorney Generals Office, officials pose with their backs to the camera by a pool on a property allegedly belonging to Alex Saab in Barranquilla, Colombia, Wednesday, July 22, 2020. (Colombia's Attorney Generals Office via AP)

DEA Miami investigated the case with assistance from the FBI’s Miami Field Office and Homeland Security Investigation’s Miami Field Office.

Saab was facing one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and seven counts of money laundering through violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In November, the judge dropped most of those charges. On Wednesday, he was only facing one count of conspiracy to launder money. He pleaded not guilty and his next hearing is Oct. 11.

Unsealed on Feb. 16, 2022

Alex Saab's case (.)

Saab’s Attorney Neil Schuster

Transcript in case of Alex Saab (.)

Saab’s Attorney David Rivkin

Alex Saab's attorney (.)

The indictment

About the Authors:

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.