A fugitive businessman accused of acting as a money launderer for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s regime was extradited Saturday (Oct 16) to the United States from Cape Verde, his legal team told AFP.
Manuel Pinto Monteiro, a lawyer for Saab in Cape Verde, said “we were informed that Alex Saab was put on a US Justice Department plane and sent to that country.” Pinto Monteiro insisted the extradition was illegal because, he said, the legal process surrounding it in Cape Verde had not run its full course.
Venezuela reacted angrily to the extradition, suspending talks with the US-backed opposition in Mexico City. It had hoped to make Saab part of the government delegation to that dialogue on ending the country’s political and economic crisis.
Saab and his business partner Alvaro Pulido are charged in the US with running a network that exploited food aid destined for Venezuela, an oil rich nation mired in an acute economic crisis.
They are alleged to have moved some US$350 million (S$472 million) out of Venezuela into accounts they controlled in the US and other countries. They risk up to 20 years in prison.
Saab, who also has Venezuelan nationality and a Venezuelan diplomatic passport, was indicted in July 2019 in Miami for money laundering, and was arrested during a plane stopover in Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa in June 2020.
Venezuela’s opposition has described the Colombian national as a front man doing shady dealings for the populist socialist regime of Maduro.
The US Department of Justice did not immediately respond to an AFP query seeking confirmation of the extradition of Saab.
Colombian President Ivan Duque said he had in fact been extradited.
“The extradition of Alex Saab is a triumph in the fight against the drug trafficking, asset laundering and corruption that the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro has fostered,” Duque tweeted.
“Colombia has supported and will continue to support the United States in the investigation of the transnational crime network led by Saab.”
Cape Verde agreed last month to extradite Saab to the US, despite protests from Venezuela.
Venezuela said Saturday that Saab, whom it called its “ambassador,” had been abducted by the US.
“Venezuela denounces the kidnapping of the Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab by the government of the United States in complicity with the authorities in Cape Verde,” the Caracas government said in a statement.
The speaker of Congress, Jorge Rodriguez, said the government will not attend the fourth round of talks with the opposition due to start Sunday in Mexico City “as a deep expression of our protest against the brutal aggression” against Saab. Rodriguez leads the government delegation.
On Sal, the Cape Verde island from which the plane carrying Saab took off, a state TV correspondent told AFP that a US Justice Department plane left from Amilcar Cabral International Airport in the afternoon.
The reporter said there was a heavy police presence on roads leading to the airport and some entrances to it were closed off.
Venezuela had called Saab’s arrest in Cape Verde “arbitrary” and claimed he was suffering “mistreatment and torture” at the hands of the Cape Verde authorities.
Roberto Deniz, a journalist who has covered Saab’s story for the Venezuelan investigative news site Armando.info, said last month that the regime in Caracas was desperate to get him released.
“It is clear that there is a lot of fear, not only because he may reveal information about bribes, about the places where money was moved and the inflated pricing,” Deniz said, but also because Saab “was the bridge for many of these deals that the Maduro regime is beginning to carry out with other allied countries”.
Venezuela’s former attorney general Luisa Ortega, who broke with the regime and fled the country, said Saab was “the main figurehead of the regime,” adding that she herself had passed on evidence in the case to some authorities.