Corruption has no ideology.
While millions of Venezuelans struggled with extreme economic hardship, facing food and medicine shortages under the socialist governments of current and past presidents, others have allegedly seen an opportunity to get rich — or richer.
Homeland Security Investigations has gone after a series of high-profile Venezuelan targets alleged to have plundered the country that is a geopolitical foe of the United States. These include ex-Venezuelan finance minister Alejandro Andrade, a Wellington, Florida, resident convicted of taking a billion dollars in kickbacks, and his purported co-conspirator, Raúl Gorrín, a Venezuelan TV mogul who is a fugitive fleeing a money-laundering indictment.
The Homeland Security Investigations initiative, known as the El Dorado Task Force, has led to domestic and international seizures totaling approximately $500 million this year alone.
The Oberto brothers, Luis Jr. , 44, and Ignacio, 37, might be the next target. The Justice Department and other federal officials revealed to the Miami Herald that they are building a case against the bankers, both of whom now live lavishly in South Florida. They are being investigated in connection with the theft of more than $4.5 billion from the socialist government.
The alleged scheme involves making loans to Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, in bolivars and getting repaid in U.S. dollars. The brothers could make a fortune thanks to a favorable exchange rate that is the exclusive domain of government and political insiders close to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro.
Sources familiar with the U.S. investigation, which is ongoing, said profits were then allegedly laundered through Swiss and American bank accounts, including Banco Espirito Santo, then Portugal’s largest bank, with a branch on Brickell Avenue, steps away from the Venezuelan consulate in Miami. Banco Espirito collapsed in 2014 amid allegations of fraud and money laundering.
The brothers both reside at the Carillon Miami Wellness Resort in Miami Beach, in units valued at over $2.5 million each. Oberto Jr. also owns luxury high-rise apartments on Manhattan’s East Side.
As of yet, no formal charges have been filed.
David Markus, attorney for Ignacio Oberto, denies the allegations. “The Obertos have never been charged with any wrongdoing in any country. They are well-respected businessmen who are ethical, honorable, and transparent. We urge you not to continue this propaganda campaign against our clients,” said Markus in a statement provided to the Herald on behalf of both brothers.
The second pair of banking brothers hail from Ecuador. William and Roberto Isaías, 76 and 75, respectively, were briefly detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The brothers left their homeland, allegedly with millions in stolen money, just as their financial institution collapsed in the 1990s, according to a contemporaneous cable by the then-U.S. ambassador, Kristie A. Kenney. Since then, they have been the subject of various diplomatic quarrels. Despite efforts over the years by Ecuador to extradite on charges related to the missing money, the siblings have managed to stay in the United States, becoming generous political benefactors. Finance records obtained by The New York Times in 2014 showed the family donated more than $320,000 to American political campaigns.
In a 2014 interview with The New York Times, Roberto Isaías, said that he and his brother did not make direct contributions because without green cards, to do so would be illegal.
The donations included $90,000 to reelect then-President Barack Obama and smaller amounts to various lawmakers, including former U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and current Sen. Marco Rubio, both Florida Republicans, and Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat. The political contributions were a fraction of the $400 million that Ecuador alleges the brothers have plundered.
During the Obama administration, then-Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa proposed that the brothers be repatriated in exchange for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who had been living in Ecuador’s Embassy in London since 2012 to forestall arrest on rape allegations. Correa described the proposal in a conversation with this reporter. Assange, through WikiLeaks, also leaked stolen emails — allegedly hacked by Russia — that damaged the candidacy of Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 election.
The swap never happened. Assange was eventually handed over to British authorities and the Isaías brothers remained free. Then political winds shifted.
Last year, the Ecuadorian government won a civil case against the brothers in Florida, opening them up to $1.3 billion in damages. Alvin B. Davis, an attorney from Squire Patton Boggs, who represents the Ecuadorian government, declined to comment.
In federal court in March of 2019, ICE made an effort to deport the Isaíases. But U.S. District Court Judge Kathleen Williams blocked ICE’s request, highlighting that the government had detained the pair on allegations for which the State Department “denied multiple requests for extradition.”
After several weeks at Krome detention center, the Coral Gables residents were freed. And then the immigration proceeding was halted due to COVID-19. The case remains open and the pair await a decision on their asylum request.
Freddy Balsera, their spokesman, offered a cryptic statement when asked whether politics had factored into their fate: “Although these questions are valid and worthy of further analysis, we don’t think it is our place to speculate as to the government’s timing or intention, given the sensitive nature of the issue.”
This report was the result of a fellowship funded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism in partnership with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and el Nuevo Herald.