Venezuelan tycoon shields US fortune from FARC rebel victims

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

MIAMI – An appeals court overturned a Florida federal judge’s order seizing the U.S. fortune of a sanctioned Venezuelan billionaire with alleged cartel ties to satisfy a $318 million judgment for the American victims of a Colombian terrorist kidnapping.

Samark López is one of Venezuela’s most powerful businessmen, with close ties to that country’s socialist government. He has been indicted in New York for allegedly violating sanctions freezing his sizable wealth in the U.S., including yachts, aircraft, luxury real estate in Miami and a $269 million Citibank account

The ruling Tuesday by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a 2020 order by Judge Robert Scola of Miami awarding those blocked assets to three former American defense contractors held for years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to satisfy an earlier judgment against their former captors, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.

López has long denied any links to the FARC. With testimony from Dick Gregorie, a former prosecutor who has put hundreds of narcos behind bars, including Gen. Manuel Noriega of Panama, his attorneys argued that the U.S. government and the plaintiffs hadn’t produced any evidence linking López even indirectly to the rebels.

The argument persuaded the appeals panel, which returned the case to the lower court and ordered that Lopez’s frozen assets can only be disbursed to the FARC victims if a jury concludes that a relationship exists.

In a unanimous opinion, appellate Judge Adalberto Jordan likened the allegations against López to a popular parlor game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which involves linking the Hollywood star to other actors via their roles in six films or less.

“Common sense indicates, however, that the more attenuated the link the more difficult it will be to prove,” said the ruling by the three-judge panel, which has not been previously reported. “This evidence, viewed collectively and taken in the light most favorable to the López appellants, created material issues of fact as to whether Mr. López and his companies were agencies or instrumentalities of the FARC.”

López’s legal problems in the U.S. stem from his 2017 designation as a narcotics kingpin alongside his close friend, Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s powerful oil czar. The U.S. at the time accused López of being El Aissami’s frontman to hide proceeds from multi-ton cocaine shipments when he served as interior minister and governor of Aragua state.

The FARC wasn’t mentioned by name when López and El Aissami were sanctioned and the only known criminal charges against the two men is for allegedly chartering private flights in the U.S. in violation of sanctions, not drug trafficking.

At a hearing in February in Miami, López’s attorney, Adam Fels, argued that much of the evidence against his client was hearsay and at a minimum he deserved a trial before his assets were divvied up to victims of a crime that didn’t even take place in Venezuela.

In 2012, a federal judge in Florida awarded Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes $318 million to be paid from bank accounts and assets seized from individuals linked to the FARC.

But the men had mostly been unable to collect until President Donald Trump signed into law in 2018 the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, which enabled victims of terror groups to attach assets already blocked by the U.S. government under the drug kingpin act.

The three former Northrop Grumman employees were taken captive by guerrillas when their airplane crash landed due to engine trouble during a drug-monitoring flight in 2003. Their pilot, Tom Janis, was killed by the rebels