Investigating Venezuelan corruption, this prosecutor was jailed after targeting the bosses

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The death threats didn’t keep former Venezuelan prosecutor Luis Sanchez from investigating government corruption, nor did a nearly successful assassination attempt against his supervisor working a multibillion-dollar embezzlement case. But these efforts came to a screeching halt when the main suspect was appointed attorney general of Nicolás Maduro’s regime.

Today, Sanchez, 34, father of a young boy and girl, nears the fourth anniversary of his arrest after the new attorney general accused him, ironically, of corruption. Sanchez has been in prison since then but hasn’t been officially charged with anything. Such are the rules of the game in today’s Venezuela.

Although lawyers have taken Sanchez’s plight to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the former prosecutor is largely a forgotten man, in the hands of a regime free to do with him what it wants with little consequence.

“This has been a nightmare from the start,” said Gloria Pinho, Sanchez’s mother-in-law, a former judge herself who has taken over his defense. “We are all alone in trying to secure his freedom and the whole legal process has been torture: all the obstacles imposed in getting access to the case file, to the police reports, to the evidence, some of which they claimed were held at the Central Bank’s safe.”

Sanchez’s chances of getting out of prison look dim. He threatened the interests of powerful people set on proving that fighting government corruption in Venezuela is more quixotic, and way more dangerous, than tilting at windmills.

“Luis paid the price for investigating them,” said Pedro Lupera, a former prosecutor and Sanchez’s former supervisor who was the target of the failed hit attempt and who now lives in exile in the United States. “Right before the arrest, I had told him that the situation was now too dangerous because I had information that they plan to eliminate you.”

Both men had been investigating a series of contracts awarded without auction by state-run Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) to companies controlled by former governor Tarek William Saab, who was appointed attorney general two weeks before Sanchez was arrested.

It was surprising that Lupera, and then Sanchez as his assistant, were tasked with looking into PDVSA corruption by former Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz. At the time, she was a high-ranking regime official and the investigation was likely to lead to other key officials. She later broke with the regime and fled the country, as did Lupera.

Sanchez is nearing his 46th month of incarceration, said his wife, Mariangela Ramírez.

“The trial has not even started. There are a number of motions that they haven’t decided on yet, so the case is completely at a standstill,” Ramírez said.

The former prosecutor charged with upholding the law now lives in a small cell with five other inmates at the Helicoide prison in Caracas, run by the feared Bolivarian National Intelligence Service.

His family has to regularly bring food and water to him at the prison, which Sanchez shares with some of the very people he had prosecuted. But far from protecting him, prison officials seem to have made sure some of the inmates he put behind bars had access to him.

“When he arrived, a commissar handcuffed him to a set of stairs so that other inmates could reach him. There were people to whom he had issued their arrest orders,” Sanchez’s wife said. “He denies it and I did not see him until a month had passed, but other inmates later told me that he was beaten when he arrived.”

Light in dark places

The corruption investigation also focused on former acting president Diosdado Cabello, often described as the second most powerful man in Venezuela, under the presumption that he was one of the main benefactors of the corruption scheme. Others investigated were current Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López and former vice president Aristobulo Istúriz, who died last April.

“The case had to deal with multiple contracts awarded by PDVSA to shell companies. One of them was Constructora Konkor, and when we went out to investigate it, we found out that it was linked to straw men (partners used as proxy to hide the real owner) of Tarek William Saab, and when you added it all up you saw that all these contracts amounted to more than $3 billion,” Lupera said.

In some cases, the alleged embezzlers showed a total lack of sophistication, including a comical purchasing contract for two printers for PDVSA.

“The printer acquired had a market price of around $1,000, but both were marked up to a value of $153,000 each.”

In other cases, contractors were paid for services that were never provided, Lupera said.

Venezuela is considered among the countries with the highest incidence of government corruption by the advocacy group Transparency International. Top government officials, including Cabello and Maduro himself, face charges in the United States of drug trafficking and corruption. In some cases, the alleged ill-gotten proceeds surpass the billion-dollar mark.

In addition, dozens of high ranking government officials have been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control on charges that range from corruption and drug trafficking to helping Maduro dismantle the nation’s democracy.

An improbable probe

Despite its fame as a graft paradise, the country has seen very few corruption cases brought against government officials in the last two decades, particularly those involving those in high office.

Ortega Diaz, the former attorney general, ended up breaking with Maduro in 2017, but right until then she was one of the regime’s trusted supporters, ensuring the judicial system could not be turned against the status quo. She even was accused later of using the courts to persecute and jail opposition leaders.

The investigation by Lupera and Sanchez ruffled all sorts of feathers and faced many obstacles from the start, to the point that the prosecutors resorted to tricking judges into authorizing search warrants by not including the name of the shell companies.

They also held their cards very close to the chest, avoiding using regular procedures to obtain the warrants, given that the information would leak to suspects almost immediately once a motion was filed.

And from the very beginning both men began to receive death threats, said Ramírez, who is not only Sanchez’s wife but one of his lawyers.

“Inform Luis Rangel Sanchez … that we are aware of the Bariven (a PDVSA affiliate) information that he obtained illegally through the damned traitors of R. Tell him that if it touches that we will blow him up with C4,” read one email sent anonymously through a hotmail account.

The email warned him stop looking at INCAERO, an oil facility expansion program, or “he will have to stick it up his a** because we are going to kill him for being an imbecile. We know that he is receiving orders from another traitor and that he has no idea who he is dealing with. Yesterday, he stayed in the Punta Palma Hotel in room 1301 and he is driving a Silver Runner with the license plate AA947GC.”

That was only one of many warnings the men received. In some cases, it came from people close to them who brought messages from third parties advising them to drop the investigation. In others it came in the form of written anonymous messages, saying there were plans to kill them with bombs.

Breaks on a bus

But the assassination attempt, when it came, was not in the form of a bomb.

The threats had made both men cautious. They routinely switched up their transport for protection.

But Lupera said he was intercepted one day while stuck in traffic in Caracas by two men in military uniforms riding a motorcycle.

“They came to my vehicle and after checking out the tags, they stopped next to me. I was right behind a bus and when the men pulled out their weapons, the bus started to move, revealing that to the right there were around 10 national policemen standing right there,” Lupera said of his lucky break.

Not wanting to start a firefight they would likely lose, the two hitmen pulled away.

The incident, witnessed by another prosecutor close to Ortega Díaz who was also in the car, prompted the prosecutor’s office to assign two bodyguards to Lupera. The guards, however, were not always around and in another event he was in a car chase with assailants trying to force his vehicle to stop.

The corruption case, however, came to a standstill as soon as Ortega Díaz publicly broke with the regime and Maduro appointed Saab, although illegally, as her replacement.

Ortega Díaz, Sanchez and Lupera, among others, were soon after accused publicly by Cabello of running an extortion racket, and two of them fled. Sanchez was the only one still in the country for Saab to arrest.

And nearly four years later, he languishes in a Venezuelan jail cell. He’s largely forgotten by the outside world and untouchable inside his country, where would-be supporters fear the same fate from the regime.

“Until now, the only person that has been advocating publicly for Luis’ release has been me. That’s it,” said Sanchez’s mother-in-law. “No one else has been willing to aid us.”