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Court: Hugo Chávez's former nurse hid gold in secret vault

Last Updated Aug 3, 2020 at 10:44 am MDT

MIAMI — It was 2014 and Venezuela’s former treasurer Claudia Díaz was looking for a safe haven to store the unexplained wealth she had accumulated over the years. Then-president Hugo Chávez, who she once served as a nurse, had recently died and with the election of Nicolás Maduro, the nation’s politics and relations with the U.S. were in tumult.

So Díaz allegedly turned to one of the oldest ways of moving vast sums of money anonymously: buying gold.

In quick succession a shell company established in the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines that she allegedly controlled purchased 250 gold bars valued at more than $9.5 million, according to court records from Liechtenstein obtained by The Associated Press.

The bars, weighing a kilogram (2.2 pounds) each, were stored at a private vault in the tiny European principality available to Díaz and her son after his 18th birthday. A few years later, a nearly identical amount of bullion was sold by a representative of Díaz, with much of the proceeds deposited into a Swiss bank.

Those transactions are now at the centre of an international criminal investigation into the network of shell companies and dodgy Swiss bankers that have helped turn Venezuela into one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

While as much as $300 billion is estimated to have been raided from Venezuela’s state coffers in two decades of socialist rule, investigators’ understanding of how the dirty money was laundered is still emerging. The physical transfer of heavy gold bars — something previously unseen in court records — underscore the creative lengths to which some Venezuelans have gone to hide their stolen wealth.

With a reputation for secrecy and the world’s highest income per capita, the German-speaking microstate of Liechtenstein has long been a banking magnet for the world’s uber-rich. But like neighbouring Switzerland, with whom it shares a currency and customs union, its reputation as a freewheeling offshore financial centre has been rocked by scandal.

Spurred by pressure from the U.S., which has indicted numerous Venezuelan officials and sanctioned Maduro’s government for financial crimes throughout the world, the two countries are now doing their utmost to expose corruption in Venezuela.

“Venezuela has become a virtual pariah,” said Michael Levi, an expert on financial crimes in Europe and professor at Cardiff University in the U.K. “Tight-lipped bankers were happy to take their money for years but now everybody is avoiding the country at all costs not just to protect their reputations but to avoid regulatory and even criminal penalties.”

Details of the investigation into Díaz and five alleged associates come from a 14-page legal assistance request sent Nov. 22, 2019, by a court in Liechtenstein and the response two weeks later by prosecutors in Geneva pledging co-operation. A translated copy of the petition, and the Swiss response, were provided separately to the AP by two people on the condition of anonymity because the probe is ongoing.

The state court in Liechtenstein confirmed the authenticity of the request. Switzerland’s Attorney General’s office said it transmitted the information in May but is not conducting any criminal proceedings at the moment.

Díaz was virtually unknown until she and her husband, a former security adviser to Chávez, appeared in 2016 in a dump of secret financial documents known as the Panama Papers, which provided a rare look at how some of the world’s richest people hide their money. Authorities raided the couple’s Caracas home and seized what they described as a collection of luxury cars, artwork, and documents related to real estate holdings inside and out of Venezuela.

Díaz, 46, was a former petty officer in Venezuela’s navy who took care of an ailing Chávez before the Venezuelan leader died of cancer in 2013. In 2011, Chávez named her Venezuela’s national treasurer. She was replaced when Chávez’s successor Maduro was elected in 2013. Díaz and her husband, Adrián Velásquez, currently live in Madrid, where they were briefly arrested in 2018 on a Venezuelan warrant.

In addition to the probe in Liechtenstein, the couple has been sanctioned in the U.S. for their alleged involvement in a $2.4 billion currency scheme and are identified as unnamed co-conspirators in a Miami federal indictment against Díaz’s predecessor as treasurer. Spanish prosecutors are also investigating their purchase of a $1.8 million apartment in Madrid.

Ismael Oliver, the Madrid-based lawyer of both Díaz and her husband, said that his clients had “no knowledge, official or otherwise,” of the investigation by Liechtenstein.

“She radically denies having had any gold ingots or any bank account in Liechtenstein,” Oliver said

The gold bars allegedly belonging to Díaz represent just a small fraction of the total amount looted from Venezuela. But they stand as a powerful symbol of the boundless greed that fed a slew of intermediaries, from white-shoe boutique asset managers to some of Europe’s oldest banks.

The gold bars were kept inside a private vault, number G1, at Liemeta AG that was leased by Díaz in 2014 for around 20,000 Swiss francs ($21,700) a year, according to the request by Judge Roger Beck of the court in Liechtenstein. Access to the vault was restricted to Díaz and her young son after his 18th birthday.

But Díaz authorized a financier from a two-generation Swiss banking family to withdraw the vault’s contents, which was allegedly done in two transactions — in December 2014 and November 2015, according to Beck’s request.

Diaz remains ensconced in Madrid. She insists that her considerable savings are the result of a lifetime of honest work and that she never once misappropriated state funds.

She insists her legal problems all stem from her refusal to go along with what she considered Maduro’s illegal orders in the confusing aftermath of Chavez’s death.

For now, she’s under no pressure to explain her wealth. Last year, Spain’s National Court blocked her extradition to Venezuela, deeming credible her fears that she could face torture if sent back home.

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AP Writer Aritz Parra in Madrid, Jamey Keaten in Geneva and investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/APjoshgoodman

Joshua Goodman, The Associated Press