World News

Jets, Horses and Bribes: How a Venezuelan Official Became a Billionaire as His Country Crumbled

Posted November 23, 2018 4:46 p.m. EST

QUITO, Ecuador — The opulent lifestyle of the Andrade family was as spectacular as the economic collapse of the country it left behind.

Venezuelan immigrants, the family lived in a mansion in Florida surrounded by show horses, as neighbors peeked over the property line in awe. The family patriarch, Alejandro Andrade, had been a bodyguard of the late-president Hugo Chávez before rising to powerful positions in his government.

This month, Andrade will be known for something else: On Nov. 27, he is expected to be sentenced for taking bribes as Venezuela’s treasurer, in a money-laundering scheme that made him a billionaire.

Venezuela is facing its worst economic crisis in modern history. Inflation and devastating shortages of food and medicine have forced more than 3 million people to flee the country, according to the United Nations.

But among those who have left Venezuela is a small clique that made untold fortunes, including government officials, well-connected businessmen and military leaders who siphoned off billions of dollars. Many argue that this deep-rooted corruption laid the groundwork for the collapse of Venezuela today.

The beneficiaries even have a name: The “boligarchs,” a term often used for the new oligarchy that emerged under Chávez’s Socialist-inspired “Bolivarian Revolution.”

“How could it be that a government employee had 60 horses?” said Franklin Hoet-Linares, a Venezuelan lawyer who lives a short distance from Andrade’s house in Wellington, Florida, near West Palm Beach.

Andrade’s plea agreement, and an indictment outlining the bribes he received, were unsealed this week in U.S. District Court in Florida. They offer a window into how fortunes were amassed by Venezuela’s elite before they decamped to South Florida.

With his powerful position in Venezuela, Andrade collected a stunning array of bribes, the documents assert, including three private jets, a yacht, horses and “numerous high-end watches.” In his guilty plea, Andrade admitted to receiving more than $1 billion in bribes.

He is one of many Venezuelan officials accused of enriching themselves from state coffers or illegal activities.

U.S. officials imposed sanctions this year on Diosdado Cabello, one of Venezuela’s most powerful politicians, accusing him of drug trafficking, extortion and embezzling government money. Venezuela’s interior and justice minister, Nestor Reverol, is under indictment in the United States for receiving payments to help traffickers transport cocaine.

And President Nicolás Maduro’s inner circle — including his wife, his defense minister and others — “systematically plunders what remains of Venezuela’s wealth,” U.S. officials contend. Several of them are also under sanctions.

The U.S. government’s case against Andrade is, in fact, built around another Venezuelan billionaire, Raúl Gorrín, who owns the news network Globovisión and has been living in Miami.

Gorrín asked Andrade — identified as “Foreign Official 1” — to help him secure the lucrative rights to conduct foreign currency exchanges for the Venezuelan government, according to the federal documents.

When Andrade received a bill for $174,800 to transport his horses, he simply sent it to Gorrín, who paid the invoice from his personal bank account in Switzerland. In 2012, Gorrín sent a $20 million wire transfer from a Swiss bank to purchase an aircraft for Andrade, according to Andrade’s plea deal. Separate charges against Gorrín, including nine counts of money laundering, were unsealed this week.

Andrade has forfeited his assets — including real estate, aircraft, horses and bank accounts — and faces a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. Gabriel Jiménez, a Venezuelan in Chicago who owned a bank used to pay the bribes, also pleaded guilty, U.S. officials said. In Venezuela, Andrade was known by the nickname “the One-Eye,” after a common story that Chávez hit him in the eye by mistake during a baseball game. The two originally became close when Andrade participated in Chávez’s failed attempt to take power in a 1992 coup.

In 1998, when Chávez ran for president and won, Andrade served as his bodyguard. A decade later, he had risen up the ranks to a much more prominent role, as the head of the treasury.

Then in 2012, not long before Chávez died of cancer, Andrade moved to Florida.

The Andrades were perhaps best known in the United States for their horses, with a lavish collection of steeds and their colorful names, like Bon Jovi and Hardrock Z.

“He had a lot of horses,” said Elizabeth Madden, an American Olympic-medal winning equestrian. “You see that in this industry, people buying horses and stuff like that. You don’t know where the money comes from.”

The daily life of Andrade’s son, Emanuel, a show jumping competitor, remains chronicled on Instagram, where pictures can be seen of a jet-set lifestyle with competitions in London and Madrid.

In one photo, Emanuel Andrade is riding a horse in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Another picture that circulated on Latin American news sites shows him posing next to Kendall Jenner, the American model.

The elder Andrade became known in Florida social circles, too, according to McLain Ward, an Olympic equestrian medalist who said Andrade sponsored young rider events, often ones in which his son was competing.

But beyond that, the details on the family were vague, he said.

“We knew that he was a Venezuelan living here, but about his family, not so well,” said Ward, who said he sold two horses to the Andrades a couple of years ago. “We knew they were involved in the government in some way.”

Hoet-Linares, the Venezuelan lawyer who lives close to the Andrade mansion, said he remains angry at the profiteering of well-connected Venezuelans while many people in the country do not have enough to eat.

Two years ago, he said, he accosted Andrade at a party about the sums he had taken and the possibility of using money to reconstruct Venezuela.

“I said, ‘Look, let’s find a way to help the country,'” Hoet-Linares recalled. “I think he was a little surprised. He said, ‘I’m off to a trip, we can talk when I’m back.'”

Hoet-Linares says he did not hear back. But while the seizure of Andrade’s assets is a step in the right direction, he said, it’s far from enough.

“The most perverse thing about Venezuelan corruption is that the money that they take internationally and in the U.S. does not go to the treasury of Venezuela,” he said. The equestrian community this week was also at a loss for what to make of the amount of money that the Andrades had amassed.

“If he’s as strong of a rider as I think he is, he’ll bounce back,” Allie Rose Crowell, an equestrian competitor, wrote on Facebook about Emanuel Andrade in reaction to the news.

“But I’m not forgiving people who steal a billion dollars from one of the poorest nations on the planet, and using it for their own self interest.”