He was flying by private jet from Venezuela on a mission for the government of President Nicolás Maduro, but businessman and fixer Alex Saab never got further than the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa.
When his plane stopped to refuel, local police arrested him on a warrant from the US, where he is wanted on suspicion of money laundering and is under sanctions for his links to Mr Maduro. Mr Saab, the authoritarian leader’s main dealmaker, is now at the centre of a tug of war between Washington and Caracas.
Washington wants him to face justice in the US and is preparing an extradition request for the Cape Verdean authorities, according to people briefed on the matter. The Department of Justice has declined to comment. Mr Maduro’s government says the Colombian-born Mr Saab has diplomatic immunity and was on a humanitarian mission to secure food for the poor and medical equipment to combat coronavirus.
Opponents of Mr Maduro hailed his detention as a significant breakthrough in their long campaign to depose the government in Caracas.
“This guy [Saab] can clear up a lot of things and give us a lot of answers,” said Alejandro Rebolledo, a Venezuelan magistrate and expert in organised crime, now in exile in Miami. “Who are the bankers [supporting the regime]? Which banks? Who else is supporting them? Which other countries are involved? And where is the stolen money?”
The Venezuelan opposition regards Mr Saab as the president’s chief dealmaker — the man suspected of helping the regime import petrol from Iran in defiance of US sanctions, buying state-subsidised food in Mexico and exporting illegally-mined Venezuelan gold to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, and channelling money through a web of companies in Panama, Hong Kong and elsewhere.
“He’s the go-to guy,” said Vanessa Neumann, envoy to the UK of Venezuela’s US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó. “He knows who to call in Iran, who to call in Turkey, how to set up a business in Panama. Not many people have that skillset, or that Rolodex, or that loyalty.”
The US confirmed Mr Saab’s arrest “pursuant to an Interpol Red Notice” — a message that alerts police forces when someone is wanted on a national warrant.
The Maduro government said Interpol only issued the notice on June 13, the day after Mr Saab’s arrest. It accused the international police body of “issuing an extemporaneous capture order to justify the detention”. A top security official in Cape Verde said that was incorrect.
“After receiving the red notice we had a formal request to check if he was on that plane,” the official said. “We did the check and confirmed the presence of the person who was wanted . . . that was the sequence of events.”
Interpol, which has not made the red notice public, told the Financial Times it did not comment on individual cases.
The Venezuelan government did not say where Mr Saab was going but five people with knowledge of the situation said Mr Saab was en route to Iran.
Roberto Deniz, a journalist at armando.info, a Venezuelan investigative website that has tracked Mr Saab’s activities for years, said it was “highly improbable that he was going to Iran to negotiate food supplies”. More likely, he believes, Mr Saab was negotiating a further shipment of petrol, following Tehran’s dispatch of five tankers of fuel to Venezuela last month.
“This gives you an idea of how central the guy is,” Mr Deniz said. “When the Maduro regime wants to deal with Tehran, it doesn’t send the finance minister, it sends Alex Saab.”
Julio Borges, a former head of the Venezuelan congress who serves as Mr Guaidó’s chief foreign envoy, described Mr Saab as “the hinge in the relationship” between the Maduro government and Iran, “so much so that he was arrested while on his way to Tehran”. “This frontman’s power wasn’t just about food or gold or housing, but also oil and, in particular, petrol,” he said in a statement. Abbas Mousavi, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, told the FT that the Islamic republic had “no idea what his mission was; where his destination was and why he was arrested”.
Mr Saab’s links to Venezuela date back years.
In 2011 he signed a joint venture contract as head of a Colombian company to build prefabricated houses in Venezuela. The US Department of Justice says Mr Saab and his company never fulfilled the contract. “[They] transferred approximately $350m out of Venezuela, through the United States, to overseas accounts they owned or controlled,” the DoJ said last year when a US court indicted Mr Saab. The US Treasury also said Mr Saab had laundered the profits from a Venezuelan government scheme to import food “through a sophisticated network of shell companies, business partners and family members”.
In a rare interview with Colombian newspaper El Tiempo in 2017, Mr Saab, 48, said: “I do not know President Maduro, beyond [meeting him at] a couple of acts of protocol for the signing and execution of contracts.”
He said his company had “never given gifts or commissions to any member of the government or the president for any of the works or projects that we’ve carried out”.
“I’m an open book and my accounts and conscience are clear,” he told the paper by email from Caracas.
The attorney handling the extradition case in Cape Verde did not respond to requests for comment. Mr Saab’s lawyer in Miami, Maria Dominguez, confirmed the arrest but made no further comment.
The US has no extradition treaty with Cape Verde, although both countries are party to a UN convention on organised crime, which includes extradition provisions.
A senior official in Cape Verde said it would take at least three to five months to be resolved. In the meantime, Mr Saab is in preventive custody on the small island of São Vicente and Mr Maduro is without his dealmaker.
“Will other people take his place? Yes, absolutely,” Ms Neumann said. “But there aren’t many Alex Saabs. His arrest isn’t a silver bullet but it’s a start.”
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran