Venezuela

Venezuelan ‘front man’ fights back against allegations of corruption and crime

For years, Venezuela businessman Samark López Bello has remained silent amid mounting allegations about the source of his wealth.
For years, Venezuela businessman Samark López Bello has remained silent amid mounting allegations about the source of his wealth. Miami Herald

For years, Samark López Bello has remained silent even as he says he’s seen himself turned into a grotesque “caricature” of corruption, cronyism and crime in his native Venezuela.

As one of the government’s top contractors who claims to have handled billions of dollars in imports, López has been painted in the press as an “enchufado” — one of the politically well-connected who have gotten rich amid a crushing economic crisis.

With business ties in Miami, Mexico, Barbados and beyond, he proved to be perfect target for the opposition in some ways. His preference to remain behind the scenes meant he allowed allegations to pile up without ever contesting them.

In February, the dark insinuations about him seemed to gain credence when the U.S. Treasury Department named López the “primary front-man” for Vice President Tareck El Aissami — a man Washington accuses of running a drug-trafficking and money-laundering network that has reaped him billions of dollars.

The sanction against the two men blocked more than a dozen properties, including some in Miami, worth tens of millions of dollars. It was also one of President Trump’s first tangible actions toward Latin America.

But even as López’s name ricocheted around the world, he chose to stay quiet and work through the U.S. courts to clear his name. That changed last month when a Venezuelan congressman accused him and his Barbados-based company, Postar, of jacking up prices on food imports. The explosive charges — amid severe shortages that have many Venezuelans scavenging, looting and stealing food — couldn’t go unanswered, he said.

“That this person would have the temerity to say that we consciously planned a scheme to [profit] off the hunger of our people — I can’t accept that from him or anyone,” López said in an exclusive interview with the Miami Herald. “I also have family in Venezuela and everyone is suffering right now.”

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Wearing jeans, a pressed white shirt and a blue blazer, López, 42, met with the Herald last week for what he claims is his first formal media interview. Accompanied by a lawyer and his PR representatives, he had brought a box of documents — shipping contracts, purchase orders, warehouse receipts — to clear his name. In order to maintain his privacy, he asked that the Herald not publish the location of the meeting.

It was the day after a rogue Venezuelan policeman with movie-star aspirations had jarred the nation by buzzing the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry in a helicopter. President Nicolás Maduro accused the pilot of dropping hand grenades on the building in hopes of sparking a coup.

López was worried about his family back home amid the country’s growing political violence.

“Our children are asking us what’s happening? What’s going to happen tomorrow?” he said. “It has been terrible for everyone without exception, regardless of your religion, color, gender or social class. The entire nation is suffering from permanent anxiety.”

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In opposition circles, López is seen as part of the problem: a member of the corrupt elite who has grown fabulously wealthy on the back of the socialist administration. In that telling, López went from being a middle-level bureaucrat in the state of Merida in 2003 with less than $20,000 in the bank to one of the country’s richest men. It’s that meteoric rise that usually puts him under suspicion.

López says that view is too simplistic. When he quit his job in Merida’s planning department in 2003, he went to work at the SIDOR steel company at a time when it was owned by a Brazilian, Argentine and Mexican conglomerate. During his five years there, he says he executed more than 70 industrial “projects” where he learned the ropes of international commerce and made connections in the oil industry.

When SIDOR was nationalized by the late President Hugo Chávez in 2008, López started his own company, Yakima Trading, and became an importer for his contacts in the oil sector.

López bristles at those who accuse him of getting rich off the state, saying it’s simply the nature of the oil industry. American companies like Chevron routinely work for the Venezuelan state in partnerships but don’t face the same criticism.

“You have to work with the state to work in petroleum,” he explained.

López’s name first started making headlines in 2010 when the media began questioning his close ties to El Aissami, a rising star in the PSUV ruling party who was the minister of interior under Chávez.

In some Washington circles, El Aissami was already being viewed with suspicion. There were rumors about his ties to the drug trade, and his Syrian ancestry fueled hose who linked him to the Hezbollah terrorist group. And López, with his exotic-sounding first name, was often mentioned in that context.

López calls the allegations nonsense. Samark, he said, is simply a combination of his grandparent’s names: Santiaga and Marko.

“We’ve been Venezuelan for generations and my daughters were in a school run by the Opus Dei,” an ultraconservative branch of the Catholic Church, he said. “We are not Muslim.”

Also in 2010, the first rumors began surfacing that López was secretly buying media outlets critical of the government in an effort to muzzle them. In the press, he’s been linked to the purchase of at least three different media properties, including Ultimas Noticias and El Universal newspapers.

López said it would be perfectly legitimate for him to own a newspaper, but he’s never invested in the sector.

“They’re practically calling me the dark, bald Ted Turner of Latin America,” he said. “They’re saying that I have a [media] empire.”

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Instead, López said he’s always focused on being an importer — primarily for the petroleum and construction industries.

During that time, he set up his base of operations in Miami, and two of his four children were born in Miramar. He also established a South Florida insurance company called PYP that was the basis of his investor visa in the United States.

López won’t answer specific questions about his personal wealth, but says his company has imported more than $2 billion worth of goods in the last decade, and that in a single year he personally paid taxes in Venezuela on $100 million in income that was repatriated from off-shore accounts.

In a country where anyone who is wealthy is suspected of corruption, López said he tries to stay under the radar.

“I like the good life. I like good wine, and I like to travel,” he said. “In a country with so many needs, we have the habit — it’s even a family value — to enjoy the things we do have because that’s why we work. But we’re not going to be ostentatious.”

More recently, López has found a new line of work that has forced him into a harsh spotlight: importing food for the Venezuelan government amid a crushing hunger crisis.

“My job is logistics,” he said. “I will find you the best prices and coordinate the routes....If you needed an elephant from India, I would bid for that project.”

Last year, he won a government contract to import 454,000 tons of corn meal and wheat flour, buying it from U.S. commodity giants ADM and Bunge. “We helped solve the flour crisis that the county was going through,” he said.

So when the administration began looking for companies that could provide boxes of assorted food to be sold at affordable prices to the country’s neediest, López jumped in. Postar won a $119.6 million contract to supply three million boxes of food under what’s known as the CLAP program.

While investigators in the opposition-controlled congress have accused Postar of inflating prices, López provided receipts, contracts and bills of lading that seem to back up his assertion that it was a standard business deal, and that his company usually aims to make profit margins of 17-18 percent.

Three days after the first shipment went out, the U.S. Treasury designation was made public, tying his fate to that of his longtime friend, El Aissami.

López refused to provide details about the case, as he fights to clear his name in U.S. courts, but he described El Aissami as a longtime family friend who has “nothing to do with business.”

Asked if the allegations of El Aissami’s drug dealings had strained the relationship, he said “absolutely not.”

“I have nothing to hold against him, and he has nothing to hold against me,” he said.

“I am innocent of everything they are accusing me of,” he said. And “I have faith in the American justice system.”

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Asked why it took him so long to respond to the multiple allegations, López said it simply wasn’t his nature.

“I’m not a public man. It’s not that I’m not articulate enough to talk to you, or I don’t have the capacity to explain what I want to say, it’s just that I don’t like to,” he said. “I chose my world, and that’s the business world...I’m not a politician.”

Even as he maintains his innocence, López says his life has been turned upside down by the U.S. government ruling. His shipping and insurance businesses in Miami have been frozen and he’s relocated his family from South Florida back to Venezuela. And he says he’s suspended all of his international trade work while he fights the case.

Even if he eventually is legally exonerated, changing public opinion of him in a country that has vilified him may be the tougher battle. Asked if he ever thought it might become too politically toxic for him and his family to live in Venezuela, he gave a resigned shrug.

“We’re Venezuelans,” he said, “and that’s where we’re going to live.”

Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss

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