Latin America

Now in exile in U.S., Venezuelan prosecutor keeps up the fight against corruption

Venezuelan prosecutor in exile Pedro Lupera is shown in his office in Washington, D.C., on July 29, 2019. Lupera is holding a photo of his protege Luis Sanchez, who was arrested on Aug. 11, 2017, after Lupera was forced to flee the Maduro regime.
Venezuelan prosecutor in exile Pedro Lupera is shown in his office in Washington, D.C., on July 29, 2019. Lupera is holding a photo of his protege Luis Sanchez, who was arrested on Aug. 11, 2017, after Lupera was forced to flee the Maduro regime.

You wouldn’t know it by the nondescript office here that has nothing hanging on the wall, but Pedro Lupera is a threat to the top echelons of the embattled Venezuelan government.

A prosecutor investigating corruption in Venezuela involving two high-profile companies, Lupera was forced to abandon his country. He first fled to Colombia in July 2017 but recently moved quietly to the United States, where he has flown under the radar.

Until now.

Technically, Lupera, 44, is still a prosecutor on the job, working remotely. His boss fled the country as have his underlings, and the oil-rich South American nation has two men claiming they’re the country’s leader.

At his request, McClatchy and the Miami Herald are not revealing where Lupera works, out of his concern about retribution. He discloses only that he’s working with an international body in the United States, and that he has shared with an array of U.S. agencies the information he dug up while probing illicit payments by Brazilian engineering giant Odebrecht S.A. and the Venezuelan state oil company known as PDVSA.

Exiled Venezuelan prosecutor Pedro Lupera holds a photo of his jailed protege, Luis Sánchez, on July 29, 2019. Lupera stands in front of a statue in Washington, D.C., of Simón Bolívar, the Venezuela-born liberator of much of South America. Kevin G. Hall

“What you can achieve at home you can achieve elsewhere. I hope for justice,” Lupera said in a wide-ranging interview that took place over several days in July.

The chain of events leading to his exile began with his probe of Odebrecht, a company that had a special arm dubbed the Bribery Division. The company has since admitted to using a parallel accounting system to pay bribes, funnel undeclared money into campaigns, and for other off-the-books transactions in Venezuela and across Latin America.

Odebrecht’s representative in Venezuela, Euzenando Azevedo, was unusually close to the late strongman, Hugo Chávez. Odebrecht corruption probes have been prosecuted across the hemisphere — including a record settlement with the U.S. Justice Department in late 2016 — but in Venezuela, the so-called Bolivarian government has shown no appetite to investigate.

An investigation published in June by the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and their parent, McClatchy, showed that Odebrecht paid at least $142 million off the books from 2011 to 2014 to obtain contracts in Venezuela for still-incomplete projects..

Investigating these sorts of payments brought trouble for Lupera, a career investigator for the nominally independent Ministerio Publico — Venezuela’s equivalent of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Lupera and his colleagues were probing a project won by Odebrecht to build a large, third bridge over the Orinoco River. A 61-page contract document obtained by McClatchy shows the Orinoco project was approved and modified by numerous top Venezuelan leaders from 2006 to 2015.

One such approval came in the form of a June 4, 2009, signature from Diosdado Cabello, who at the time was minister of public works.

This screenshot shows a contract between Brazilian engineering giant Odebrecht and Venezuela’s then-Public Works Minister Diosdado Cabello. He’s now considered the second most powerful man in embattled Venezuela, and prosecutors who have fled that country say they were threatened after finding he was involved in corruption.

Cabello, often called the second most powerful man in Venezuela, went on to head Venezuela’s constituent assembly, a refashioned legislative branch widely condemned as a sham and created by Chávez successor Nicolás Maduro.

And that signature is why Lupera became a hunted man, and why he is now coming out of the shadows to draw attention to his jailed underling, Luis Sánchez.

Lupera fled Venezuela in the middle of his investigation on July 27, 2017, crossing by land and avoiding intelligence agents who pursued him into Colombia. On Aug. 11 of that year, his protégé Sánchez was arrested after failing to heed Lupera’s advice to flee.

“I knew a bit before, and I said to him, ‘Luis they are going to try to get you’ … but he was too confident,” Lupera said.

Six days later, Cabello held a news conference and accused Lupera and Sánchez of running an extortion ring. The investigators had become the accused.

Cabello even held up bank documents claiming to show that the two prosecutors had opened offshore accounts in the Bahamas on successive days weeks earlier to deposit a combined $7 million.

This screenshot of an Aug. 17, 2017, broadcast on Venezuelan state TV network VTV shows Diosdado Cabello, the president of the legislative body and considered the second most powerful man in Venezuela. Here Cabello is alleging government prosecutors probing corruption were extorting government officials.

There were holes in the allegation, not the least of which the purported bank letters shown by Cabello had a UBS Bahamas letterhead but the text of the documents referenced Euro Pacific Bank. It appeared to be a poorly executed cut-and-paste job.

And UBS’ subsidiary in the Bahamas had in 2014 lost the right from regulators to handle bank accounts and by 2017 was handling only trusts. Lupera, a career civil servant, maintains he had never left Venezuela in his life before fleeing to neighboring Colombia in 2017.

Maria Gabriela Lucena, another prosecutor who worked with Lupera and Sánchez, fled Venezuela on Oct. 11, 2017, after learning that Cabello had named her as part of the alleged extortion ring. Interviewed from the Peruvian capital of Lima, where she has since settled in hopes of starting anew, Lucena described Sanchez as a young and energetic lawyer.

“He was not a corrupt person. He was dedicated to work and to seeking justice,” she said, describing her own ordeal of having to rebuild a life from scratch, including selling food on the streets before eventually landing a legal secretary position and now attempting to get certified to practice law in Peru.

Sánchez is coming up this month on two years behind bars, with no signs of any court movement in his case. He has become more official hostage than accused defendant.

“It is very unusual,” said Michael Prado, Sánchez’s attorney in Venezuela, especially since a first hearing is generally held within 60 days, not two years.

Sánchez has lost weight, isn’t allowed to get much sunlight and is struggling to stay positive, Prado said.

Exiled Venezuelan prosecutor Pedro Lupera stands in front of a statue on July 29, 2019, in Washington, D.C., of Venezuela-born liberator of South America Simón Bolívar. Kevin G. Hall

It’s why Lupera presses ahead with his own investigation. Swiss prosecutors have already shared information about Venezuelan-owned accounts, and he believes much is yet to come out about how Brazil’s Odebrecht and Venezuela’s PDVSA propped up the late Chávez and, more recently, Maduro.

“He is someone who can provide an inside look at corruption in Venezuela from a different perspective,” said a U.S. law enforcement official who knows Lupera. “Venezuelan prosecutors cannot prosecute cases because of corruption. Police officers cannot do investigations because of corruption. Judges cannot do their jobs because of corruption. He knows the system from the inside and knows who everyone is.”

The United States has an overlapping interest in Lupera’s pursuit of Cabello. When levying sanctions against him in March 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department accused Cabello of facilitating drug trafficking, theft of government money and broad family-tied corruption.

The accusations were later echoed by Hugo Carvajal, Venezuela’s former spy chief and current legislator, when he was arrested this past April in Spain on behalf of the United States on drug charges. He is not fighting extradition.

Lupera insists he is apolitical but is dedicated to ending two decades of authoritarian socialist rule.

“I hope to return to a free Venezuela. They have done so much damage, they have stolen millions and millions of dollars, at the price of converting us into a criminal state,” he said. “There is narcotrafficking, corruption — human life means nothing anymore. They are the cause and responsibility for all this tragedy.”

_ Jay Weaver of the Miami Herald contributed.
Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall