- More than two dozen Venezuelans linked to four corruption schemes in the state oil company, PDVSA, amassed assets worth at least $273 million in 25 accounts.
- Nearly all of them were opened between 2004 and 2015, when billions of dollars were embezzled from PDVSA, including for people who had already been publicly implicated in corruption schemes.
- At least a dozen of the accounts — which belonged to people implicated in the schemes, their family members and business partners — are not mentioned in court documents.
From his small motorboat, Roberto has watched the rise and fall of Venezuela’s oil industry. For a decade he has ferried workers across Lake Maracaibo to the vast production facilities that line its shores, which were once the jewel in the crown of the country’s national oil company.
But as the industry has collapsed, so too has Roberto’s livelihood.
“Everything has changed… it’s over,” he told OCCRP, requesting reporters refer to him using a pseudonym for fear of retribution.
Once the driver of one of South America’s strongest economies, the state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) has been hollowed out by mismanagement and corruption. Oil executives and their cronies have looted at least $11 billion from the company in a slew of scandals involving fraud, bribery, and currency scams.
Now, reporters have located the fortunes some of them have secreted away in Switzerland. Leaked banking data reveals that more than 20 Venezuelans linked to four PDVSA corruption schemes amassed assets worth at least $273 million in 25 accounts at Credit Suisse over the years – and likely much more. In some cases, the accounts contained significantly more money than authorities have made public.
Using court documents from Spain, the U.S., and Andorra, OCCRP mapped the key players in these bribery and kickback schemes. Reporters then combed through thousands of banking records to find where they had hidden their money, discovering at least a dozen Credit Suisse accounts that have never been named in court documents. These included bank accounts involving 12 associates and family members of people implicated in one of the scams.
Nearly all of the accounts were opened between 2004 and 2015, which covers the period when these PDVSA corruption schemes were taking place. Some accounts remained open even after their holders were arrested, charged, extradited, pled guilty to serious financial crimes, or were named in the media as giving or taking bribes.
The Suisse Secrets Investigation
Suisse Secrets is a collaborative journalism project based on leaked bank account data from Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse.
The data was provided by an anonymous source to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared it with OCCRP and 46 other media partners around the world. Reporters on five continents combed through thousands of bank records, interviewed insiders, regulators, and criminal prosecutors, and dug into court records and financial disclosures to corroborate their findings. The data covers over 18,000 accounts that were open from the 1940s until well into the last decade. Together, they held funds worth at least $100 billion.
“I believe that Swiss banking secrecy laws are immoral,” the source of the data said in a statement. “The pretext of protecting financial privacy is merely a fig leaf covering the shameful role of Swiss banks as collaborators of tax evaders. This situation enables corruption and starves developing countries of much-needed tax revenue.”
Because the Credit Suisse data obtained by journalists is incomplete, there are a number of important caveats to be kept in mind when interpreting it. Read more about the project, where the data came from, and what it means.
Critics say Credit Suisse’s role in enabling corruption schemes in Venezuela and other countries is not just an internal problem; it’s also related to Swiss laws that encourage stringent banking secrecy and punish whistleblowers.
“The Swiss banking system remains a favorite destination not only for the proceeds of massive bribery schemes like the ones involving PDVSA, but for the use of companies like PDVSA as vehicles for laundering criminal proceeds,” said Alexandra Wrage, president of the anti-corruption nonprofit TRACE.
But as corrupt elites have filled their pockets, it is ordinary Venezuelans who have paid the price. The country’s economy has cratered since 2013, with high levels of poverty, unemployment, and hunger, while hyperinflation has eaten into both the savings and the salaries of those lucky to still have them.
Lake Maracaibo, a lagoon in Venezuela’s northwest coast, is a stark reminder of the costs of that corruption. When a reporter visited in November, soda bottles floated in the dirty water and a Hello Kitty doll covered in black sludge had washed ashore. Many of PDVSA’s gigantic facilities along the coast now lie abandoned and overgrown with weeds.
Roberto, who once earned enough for a stable middle-class lifestyle, said that now he can barely afford to feed his family. He’s thinking of joining the 6 million Venezuelans who have fled the country since 2015.
“What’s the use of having a fatherland if people are in need?” he said, using a term frequently invoked by Chavistas to encourage patriotism. “What’s the use of having my family here together if I don’t have a way to feed them?”
Credit Suisse said its staff had not knowingly facilitated corrupt activities by its clients, and noted that, along with other institutions, it has implemented stricter policies to combat financial crime.
“In line with financial reforms across the sector and in Switzerland, Credit Suisse has taken a series of significant additional measures over the last decade, including considerable further investments in combating financial crime,” the bank said in a statement to OCCRP and other media partners.
“Across the bank, Credit Suisse continues to strengthen its compliance and control framework, and as we have made clear, our strategy puts risk management at the very core of our business.”
More than 7,300 kilometers across the Atlantic Ocean from Lake Maracaibo, a former Venezuelan oil ministry official accused of looting PDVSA lives in a 2-million-euro mansion on the outskirts of Madrid, complete with a swimming pool.
It’s been years since Nervis Villalobos has felt the sweltering heat of his hometown, close to the lake’s shore, but he can’t go back. He is facing charges of corruption and money laundering in Spain and neighboring Andorra, as well as the U.S. and Venezuela, which have both filed extradition requests.
As a key middleman in Venezuela’s oil industry, Villalobos allegedly received bribes from U.S. companies to help them secure lucrative energy contracts with the national oil company. Spanish prosecutors say Villalobos acted as a frontman for Rafael Ramírez — a previous PDVSA president, a former energy minister, and an ally of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.
Spanish court documents say Villalobos’ position made him effectively the second-most powerful person in Venezuela’s Ministry of Energy, where he worked in various senior roles from 2001 until 2006. Even after Villalobos left to become a contractor, he “walked around PDVSA as if he were a senior executive,” said a Spanish judicial source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to discuss the case.
“He would drown your business if you did not pay him. To survive, you had to ally yourself with Nervis [Villalobos],” Mathias Krull, a Swiss banker convicted in the U.S. for laundering PDVSA money, told Spanish prosecutors in a document obtained by OCCRP.
By 2008, Villalobos had started to gain an international reputation for dirty dealings. An 11-page due diligence report commissioned by Credit Suisse’s compliance department that year outlined multiple allegations of corruption against him, including an alleged 2.7-million euro bribe linked to a hydroelectricity project that he split with Ramírez.
But the compliance department’s own report did not stop Credit Suisse from working with him.
In 2009, Credit Suisse’s Monaco branch opened an account for Villalobos, Spanish prosecutors say. Soon after that, another Swiss bank dropped him as a customer due to corruption concerns — so he simply moved the money into his Credit Suisse account instead.
Prosecutors say the Venezuelan funelled almost $25 million and 11.5 million euros through the account until it was closed over four years later. Some of the money allegedly came from bribes paid by Spanish companies for energy contracts that the due diligence report had flagged as suspicious.
Even the personal information Villalobos provided was problematic: When reporters looked up the Caracas address he gave for the account, they found it did not exist.
Then, in 2011, Credit Suisse’s Switzerland operation opened another bank account for him. A text message sent that September shows Venezuelan oil contractor Abraham Shiera Bastidas intervened on his behalf after the bank had questions about the source of the money Villalobos wanted to move to Switzerland. Bastidas would later plead guilty to bribing Venezuelan officials, including Villalobos, for PDVSA contracts.
“The institution has not accepted the stick,” Shiera wrote to Villalobos on Blackberry Messenger, according to the court documents, using Venezuelan slang for large amounts of money. “They are asking me for invoices and purchase orders. I already submitted them. I hope it is resolved tomorrow.”
The message did not name the Swiss bank Shiera was referring to. But the leaked Suisse Secrets banking data show that Credit Suisse opened an account for Villalobos just five days later.
It appears that Villalobos may then have used this account to receive bribes.
A U.S. indictment describes how Shiera and his accomplice, Roberto Rincón, paid $27 million into a Swiss account owned by Villalobos and another Venezuelan, Luis Carlos de León, who in 2018 admitted to being part of the PDVSA kickback scheme. This money was then allegedly funneled into different accounts belonging to Villalobos and de León.
The leaked banking data shows Villalobos and De León both opened accounts with Credit Suisse on the same day in September, as mentioned in the indictment. Within two years, Villalobos’ account was worth at least 9.5 million Swiss francs, while De León’s was worth at least 22.6 million Swiss francs.
Lawyers for Villalobos and De León did not respond to requests for comment. Credit Suisse did not respond to questions about Villalobos or other individual Venezuelans, but the bank’s lawyers rejected the assertion that the institution had inadequate due diligence procedures, or facilitated financial crimes.
“CS does not tolerate or support tax evasion, money laundering or other illegal activities, has stringent control mechanisms in place and reviews and develops its policies on an ongoing basis,” the bank’s law firm, Latham & Watkins LLP, said in a letter.
Newly Discovered Accounts
In total, reporters identified sixteen Credit Suisse accounts containing at least 162.9 million Swiss francs belonging to seven people who were convicted or accused of being involved in this PDVSA kickback scheme. In one case, the data appears to shed fresh light on an ongoing investigation.
José Roberto Rincón Bravo is the son of Roberto Rincón, who admitted bribing PDVSA officials alongside Shiera in a U.S. court in 2016. Spanish police arrested Rincón Bravo in 2018 on suspicions he laundered PDVSA money, confiscating jewelry, watches and sports cars from him and his family, and seizing a 400-hectare estate near Madrid with several houses and a large paddock for horses.
Rincón Bravo has not yet been charged in the case, however, and he has publicly denied being involved in his father’s corrupt affairs. In 2019 he told El Confidencial, a Spanish newspaper, that his expensive accessories came “from work, from years of savings.”
But the Credit Suisse data shows Rincón Bravo and his father held four joint accounts worth at least 93 million Swiss francs that have not been named in any court documents before now. Three of the accounts reached their maximum holdings barely two weeks before Rincón Bravo’s father was arrested in December 2015.