Alex Saab's murky oil deal with the Venezuelan government
Alex Saab will today plead not guilty to money laundering charges in a Florida court. This excerpt offers the story behind our investigation into his dealings with Venezuela’s state oil company five years ago.
February 2016. Caracas, Venezuela—I had made detailed, deep family trees of Venezuela’s ruling family, Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores, after two of her nephews had been arrested in Haiti a few months earlier, in November 2015, in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting. Prosecutors would say the pair tried to make twenty million dollars through drug trafficking to help keep their family in power. At a private airport, I even stumbled upon the plane they used—a Cessna with identification YV2030—when working on another story about the dangerous state of the country’s aviation industry. I’d also put together dossiers on top officials and their business partners.
But none of this led anywhere.
I was shooting in the dark for possible Special Report material. I presented all my ideas—a source for one, a document for another, a tip for another—to Andy, the Reuters bureau chief, and Alexandra at an informal meeting in the office to discuss our ideas on February 22, 2016. Mine were all over the place and Andy pointed that out, leaving me glum. Alexandra, on the other hand, had a much tighter suggestion: sources she had in the oil industry had told her that state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) had put out a $4.5 billion tender, one of its largest in recent years, for a grand project in the Orinoco Belt, the world's largest crude reserve, to build six hundred wells. Bids had come in from Halliburton, Schlumberger and Weatherford, the world’s top service companies, but a tiny Colombian trucking and trading firm with no relevant experience had beat global industry leaders to win the contract. There was something not right here and Alexandra suggested digging.
Foreign oil firms—which would have had to work with Trenaco as the state oil company’s joint venture partners—knew something was amiss. They protested that the company was vastly underqualified and undercapitalized, according to Alexandra’s oil sources. “There were red flags everywhere,” one foreign joint venture partner in Caracas would tell Alexandra.
But what was Trenaco and why did it win against the industry leaders? The company appeared to be linked to a known Maduro crony, Colombian businessman Alex Saab, though, as yet, we had no evidence of that.
Andy suggested I cast my abstract ideas aside and work with Alexandra on Trenaco. Pulling me into a side room immediately afterwards, Alexandra persuaded me that this was the story to follow. And, hey, it would be fun to work on a big investigation together. I’d investigate Trenaco on the Colombian side, in Bogotá, and she’d work on getting more from the foreign oil companies that had complained about the deal from Caracas.
Our job was to demonstrate this with hard evidence, documents rather than rumors, and this was hopefully, said Andy, to be a Special Report. But he’d deal with the internal politics.
I flew into Bogotá on April 14, after a visit to see my grandmother in Slough. The first few days, I met people I knew there, some sources and some friends. Before I’d left for that trip, Alexandra and I had messaged a bunch of people who seemed related to Trenaco on LinkedIn from the office of our apartment one evening. A couple of them had, somewhat surprisingly, responded. One was Carlos (not his real name), who, according to LinkedIn, was a senior executive at Trenaco. He agreed to meet. Often in investigative journalism, the people who are keen to speak with you aren’t the people you want to speak to, so I wasn’t overly hopeful.
Yet, the man who walked into the hotel lobby on Monday, April 18, impressed me right away. Carlos’s demeanor was serious. Over lunch, I explained what I was doing and the little I thought I knew about Trenaco. He smiled knowingly and began to talk. Carlos knew everything, every detail—how it had come about, and how it had begun operating with PDVSA. He flashed his phone and showed me long conversations with all its top executives, and their internal group chat. My eyes were wide open.
We knew that PDVSA’s tender had been published in August the previous year. Alexandra and I had to show that PDVSA’s foreign partners were unhappy with it—her job—and to demonstrate that they were right to be unhappy with it—my job. To do that, I had to show that Trenaco had begun working on the project before it had been formally tendered, that they were not capable of executing it, and, ideally, though not necessarily, that Saab was running the show.
Carlos told me that Saab had begun hiring staff and buying equipment six months before the contract was even tendered. They knew they were going to win, he said. A handful of Trenaco executives, he said, took weekly private jet trips back and forth to Caracas and were whisked from the airport in a convoy of armored vehicles to a reserved floor in the city's top Marriott hotel. Saab, Carlos said, led Trenaco and was close to top figures in Maduro's government and PDVSA.
I knew that five years earlier, in November 2011, Saab had signed an agreement on behalf of another of his ventures, a Bogotá-based construction company named Fondo Global de Construcción, to build social housing for the Venezuelan government. He had appeared on state television signing the deal alongside Hugo Chávez and Colombian president Carlos Manuel Santos. Alexandra and I had looked up Fondo Global’s details in Venezuela’s companies registry. Its address had been the same as that of Trenaco.
Carlos’s revelations were a bombshell. And, if he could show me evidence that demonstrated them to be true, then we had our investigation. He scrolled through the WhatsApp messages to show me evidence for what he was saying. I looked carefully—and wanted screenshots, which he said he’d send me. He also showed me a photo of a letter, on Trenaco letterhead, which appeared to be signed by Saab, and that identified him as Trenaco’s president—something Saab would deny.
Carlos received a phone call in the middle of our lunch. Excited, I pulled out my own phone and typed up some notes in a message to Alexandra. You never know, especially in the early stages, if or when a source is going to go silent and so it’s good to get as much as possible as quickly as possible—while not frightening them. Plus, I couldn’t forget any of this—and I wanted to make sure Alexandra had a record of everything I was hearing. “WOW!” she responded. “Can he help us prove the tender was crooked? Can he show any links to Maduro? When did Saab take over?” All good questions that focused me on what mattered.
Carlos hung up and we kept talking. He went into more detail about his own relationship with the company and said he’d look more carefully through the messages and emails he had, and we could meet again.
Carlos had made clear he was scared—and that we should take precautions about how and where we spoke. He liked that I had worked in hostile environments and that I had a technical background. Ultimately, sources often have very little incentive to speak to journalists. What’s really in it for them? We couldn’t offer money or visas, like intelligence agencies may do. And how was he to know anything about our motivations or even competence? How did he know I wasn’t receiving money from Saab or Venezuelan authorities?
I worked hard to persuade him that talking to me was worth the significant cost. I pleaded to his sense of justice but also revenge. He’d lost out significantly because of Saab and Trenaco’s management. Revenge was a delicate one as, of course, like money, it could incentivize people to exaggerate their claims, or outright lie. We had to be careful and verify everything Carlos told us.
Once he’d left, I raced up to my room and called Alexandra. We collated what we had—and what we needed to make our story watertight.
“This guy has everything,” I said.
“This is better than I could have imagined,” she responded.
Alexandra and I planned to message—but not overwhelm—Carlos that evening with some follow-up questions. We were scared he might go quiet. For now, he opened the only door into the company. We’d eventually have to attack it on multiple fronts. Carlos hadn’t wanted to give me phone numbers for the other executives or Saab—and I hadn’t wanted to push too hard. I had to balance wanting everything immediately with what he would be able to give me longer term. Thankfully, he had already sent me some documents and screenshots of WhatsApp messages that included Saab, but it wasn’t enough for a Special Report yet.
Back in Caracas, Alexandra and I collated our thoughts and formally told Andy all we now knew, and what we hoped for, and then spoke with Kieran, Andy’s boss, on the phone. He would pitch the story to Reuters investigative editor Michael Williams—but not yet—and act as a messenger between us and him, via Andy. It seemed an overly layered process, but Andy and Kieran knew which internal levers to pull, so I left them to it.
“Can we find out more about Saab?” Kieran asked. “Can we show Trenaco started buying stuff for contract months before the tender was even published?” They were the right questions, and some we could already answer. It was wonderful to have him on board. Kieran was sharp.
I went back to Bogotá a few days later to meet Carlos again and obtain public documents from the Colombian government’s corporate registry. The building was a ten-minute walk from my hotel, modern and with a library. The process to get documents, though, was unbearable. The authority had digitized their records but hadn’t made them searchable. So, I had to go to a computer, type in the identifier of the companies in which I was interested—Trenaco and Fondo Global de Construcción, both of which I believed were related to Saab—and then look through each document individually. I would then write down, on a separate piece of paper for each document, an identifier, company name, and the company’s identifier. I wanted hundreds of these things to see if Saab was mentioned in anything related to Trenaco.
I’d then wait in line and hand my sheets to a cashier who would type the details I’d pulled from one system into another. The cashiers would only handle six sheets at a time, so I’d go through the entire process for six documents and then return to the back of the line. It took about half an hour for each set of six documents.
Within forty-eight hours, I‘d return and receive the physical documents, which I'd re-scan and put through optical character recognition software to make them searchable—as should have been done in the first place. It was painstaking work, and I could have fielded it out to a stringer. But I didn’t want to be the type of person who did that, and, frankly, was embarrassed to ask, and even pay, someone else to do such an absurd task. I was relatively patient, though, engrossed, while standing in line, by videos on my phone of a Harvard lecture series on computer science, presented by the charismatic David Malan. I was still very much tweaking my Venezuela Econ apps and, while I knew well how to code, build, and ship my ideas, I was missing some fundamentals. What happens in a computer’s memory when you set an integer or a string variable? How efficient is a bubble sort algorithm compared to a merge sort? My relationship with computing was like that with music: I could play the piano and guitar well but was never fully sure of key signatures and scales. I knew from physics the great value of understanding fundamentals. That coupled with Malan’s energetic teaching style kept me engaged while I waited in line.
Sadly, a deeper knowledge of computer science was all I’d gain. Saab’s name didn’t appear on a single public Trenaco document, so this wasn’t going to help us. His name did appear on the Fondo Global documents, but we knew it would, given his TV appearance years earlier signing a deal with the Venezuelan government. A scan of his national identification card in the Fondo Global paperwork allowed us to confirm his age and other details—important when cross-referencing, but that was it.
The most important part of this trip, though, wasn’t standing in line at the Chamber of Commerce. Carlos and I met again and, this time, he seemed far calmer and more open with me. He was happy to give me phone numbers for other key executives—and Saab himself. My patience had paid off. I wouldn’t message Saab immediately, of course, but I began to meet others who had worked at high levels at Trenaco.
The best way to verify something is with documentation or tangible evidence. Carlos had given us lots of that but not everything was documented. And, even if it were, it was always good to get corroboration and stories lining up. One tactic was to pretend I knew less than I did and have sources tell me the same stories, hopefully both corroborating what I knew and adding more to it.
I met with two other Trenaco executives in Bogotá that week. All of them told me Saab was in full control of Trenaco, and gave me evidence for that. Carlos and some of the others showed me internal Trenaco correspondence which would hugely bolster our case. Alexandra and I needed to work through it all once I got back to Caracas, and get an editor on board.
That same month, back in the office in Caracas, Alexandra and I began a back and forth with Kieran on edits for the Trenaco story before he then passed it onto Williams. In an email to Kieran and Andy, Williams suggested cutting all “sweeping” statements and adding a paragraph summing up what we didn’t know about the Trenaco deal. “Say what you don’t know,” is an important rule in investigative journalism. It was good advice and the sort of rigor I wanted from an editor.
In Bogotá, I’d seen WhatsApp messages, purportedly with Saab and the other executives, but how did I know that Carlos and the others hadn’t colluded to simply name this number Saab in their phones? I couldn’t trust anyone on anything without evidence. I’d have to get in touch with Saab using the number. Contacting him was something we’d have to do regardless before publication, to give him a chance to comment on our allegations. Everyone deserves the right to reply. So on June 15, 2016, I messaged the number I’d been given for Saab on WhatsApp and introduced myself
“We’ve done a huge investigation into Trenaco and its contract a year ago with PDVSA,” I wrote. “I’d be very grateful if we could meet or speak by phone, email or message about this topic, please.”
Fifteen minutes later, I received a response.