Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

DRUGS-VENEZUELA: The United States, an ‘Eagle Hunting Flies’

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, May 22 1998 (IPS) - One of the Venezuelan banks accused by the United States of participating in laundering drug money likened the situation to an “eagle hunting flies.”

The case, meanwhile, has inadvertently touched on the leaders of two 1992 coup attempts.

Edgard Dao, president of the ‘Banco del Caribe’ and one of Venezuela’s most prominent financiers, said his bank had checked up on the fictitious U.S. company that opened an account in its subsidiary in Curacao, in the Dutch Antilles, and that the front company had received the backing of two major U.S. banks.

Dao wondered whether Washington’s tactic in “fighting drug trafficking” was to create perfect front companies enjoying all the necessary legal and bank guarantees as bait to be used in tracking down Latin American banks willing to launder the profits of drug cartels.

The question quietly taking shape in Venezuela – whose banking system, consisting of 49 institutions, recently emerged from the crisis that broke out in 1994, and has the highest level of foreign participation in Latin America – is why the undercover operation failed to involve the U.S. banking system.

According to U.S. officials, 300 billion dollars in drug money are laundered annually in the United States, 30 billion in Mexico and three billion in Venezuela.

But what the undercover “Operation White House” – a two and a half-year investigation conducted by the United States to uncover corrupt bank executives in several Latin American countries – has done, quite by chance, is put several leaders of the 1992 coup attempts in a jam.

The Venezuelan go-between sought out by the false owner of the Emerald Empire Corporation to move millions of dollars in drug profits was Carmen Salima, whose claim to fame in Venezuela is that she served as defence attorney for several leaders of military uprisings.

Salima was arrested Wednesday in Miami. According to the charges against her, she went through others to finally reach high- level executives of the ‘Banco del Caribe’ and the state-owned ‘Banco Industrial’ to carry out the 9.5 million dollar laundering operation.

Six Venezuelans are facing charges in U.S. courts. They have all been arrested here, except for the elderly vice-president of the ‘Banco del Caribe’, Marco Henriquez, and another veteran of the local banking scene, Carlos Vivas.

The most scandalous aspect of the case is the connection with the Miami branch of the ‘Banco Industrial’, whose vice-president – accused of involvement in the money laundering scheme – is Esperanza Matos, sister of Senator Raul Matos, who served as Venezuelan finance minister up to December.

Matos has declared herself innocent, her brother said in a public appearance Thursday, when he praised the Venezuelan government’s decision to cooperate closely with U.S. authorities. He added that if his sister were found guilty, she would have to “assume responsibility for her actions.”

Salima, meanwhile, acted as defence attorney for the leaders of the Nov. 27, 1992 military uprising, whose cases – like those of the ringleaders of the Feb. 4, 1992 coup attempt – were dismissed by President Rafael Caldera when he entered office in 1994.

The ‘Globovision’ TV network reported Friday that Salima maintained close links to the leaders of the uprisings, who today support the presidential candidacy of the leader of the November coup attempt, Hugo Chavez – poll favourite for the Dec. 6 elections.

But the leadership of Chavez’ party, ‘Movimiento V Republica’, clarified that Salima was not part of the candidate’s team of defence lawyers.

Her alleged participation in money laundering – Salima supposedly charged a commission amounting to four percent of the money involved – led police and other security sources to suggest an investigation into the possibility that part of the drug profits in question could have reached Chavez’ campaign.

Before setting off for Curacao to head the internal probe in the ‘Banco del Caribe’ subsidiary there, Dao said that institution moved 4.2 million dollars over an eight month period in the account opened by the Emerald Corporation.

He said the front company set up by Washington presented the documentation required by controls designed to prevent money laundering, including the financial backing of two U.S. banks, the Bank of America and the United Bank in the U.S. state of Florida.

The 44-year-old ‘Banco del Caribe’, Venezuela’s seventh largest deposit-holder, associated itself in late 1997 with the Canadian Scotian Bank, which now controls 15 percent of its capital. Its Canadian partner also sent staff to take part in the investigation tracking the Emerald Corporation account.

Dao came out in defence of Henriquez, the 81-year-old vice- president and co-founder of the ‘Banco del Caribe’, wanted by U.S. and Venezuelan authorities for supposedly collaborating in the money laundering operation.

Henriquez reportedly set out from Caracas for an unknown destination Thursday. Venezuela’s security forces have stepped up the search, in order to hand him over to U.S. authorities.

Dao defended the bank’s vice-president as an upright man, and said the bank would “take legal action” both in and outside of the United States to clean Henriquez’ name once his innocence had been demonstrated.

“At the age of 81, these charges are an attempt on his life,” said Henriquez’ son, who did not indicate his father’s whereabouts.

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