Amid the Venezuelan humanitarian and political crisis that resulted in a fight for the presidency, yesterday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) office in Puerto Rico issued a search warrant on the San Juan International Bank (BSJI) over alleged violations of U.S. Treasury sanctions on Nicolás Maduro's government.
El Nuevo Día found out that, specifically, the investigation seeks to identify alleged violations of laws related to Venezuela's state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and certain individuals on the U.S sanctions list, according to the the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
The BSJI is an international bank that has been operating in Puerto Rico for almost eight years with offices in Galería San Patricio in Guaynabo.
Douglas Leff, FBI special agent in charge of the San Juan division said yesterday that no one has been arrested as part of the investigation but that the search warrant was related to money laundering.
In written statements, Héctor Vázquez Muñiz, chief financial officer of Banco San Juan Internacional, rejected the allegations and said they have been cooperating and that are willing to cooperate with the investigation
He also said that the bank has taken all appropriate measures to comply with the U.S. sanctions, and that he is unaware of any transactions that could violate those.
According to Leff, the search warrant was on the work of the Financial Institutions Commissioner's Office (OCIF, Spanish acronym) that led to an investigation conducted by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the FBI.
He said that officials at the OCIF found enough evidence for a federal judge to issue the search warrant on the bank.
"The United States is waging a war against money laundering and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are battlefields in this war," said Leff and added that financial institutions are facilitating funds movement despite U.S. Treasury´s sanctions.
The FBI search warrant was issued nine days after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin amended the sanction list for entities and individuals doing business in the U.S. and designated PDVSA.
Mnuchin designated PDVSA last January 28 at a time when Donald Trump was officially recognizing Juan Guaidó as Venezuela interim president.
Then, Mnuchin said that the “designation of PdVSA will help prevent further diversion of Venezuela's assets by Maduro, and will preserve these assets for the people of Venezuela where they belong."
Mnuchin explained that the “path to sanctions relief for PDVSA is through the expeditious transfer of control to the interim president or a subsequent democratically elected government who is committed to taking concrete and meaningful actions to combat corruption." Mnuchin said during a White House news briefing.
The U.S. has sanctioned officials, individuals and entities related to the Venezuelan government for several years, in August 2017, President Trump intensified sanctions that did not affect PDVSA, until now.
The Treasury described the Venezuelan state-own oil company as a “"a vehicle for embezzlement, for corruption" by Venezuelan officials and businessmen who operate in the U.S through a scheme designed to embezzle and launder, particularly through its US-based parent company Citgo oil
However, U.S sanctions on the Venezuela government also apply to other transactions such as buying Venezuela’s cryptocurrency or bonds issued by Maduro´s government or its entities.
Although he did not offer further details on the work of the OCIF, George Joyner told El Nuevo Día that his office collaborates with state and federal authorities to ensure compliance with all laws and regulations, particularly those against money laundering and bank secrecy violations or fraudulent practices in financial transactions.
He pointed out that when the OCIF revises financial institutions, particularly those under that office, they revise that they are solvent and they also verify that they comply with money laundering and bank secrecy regulations.
The OCIF head said that the FBI actions demonstrated the proactive and vigorous work of the financial regulatory body of Puerto Rico, particularly if they want to settle on the island through the law of IBIs (International Banking InstitutionsO or IFIs (International Financial Institutions).
As a result of two statutes that promote such institutions, many of them settled in Puerto Rico. According to the OCIF records there are 29 IBIs and 51 IFIs on the island.
Joyner explained, that contrary to other jurisdictions, current legislation in Puerto Rico demands that these entities settle on the island and comply with different requirements and criteria, including minimum capital standards. For IBIs, that standard totals $5million whose origin can be proved and that are not committed to other transactions or entity.
The OCIF, according to Joyner, also includes investigations into officials, assets and transactions and businesses in other countries or jurisdictions of origin and added that if they cannot prove the origin of the money, they are not authorized.
Data from the OCIF show that IBIs in Puerto Rico have seen net income for about $4,343 billion between 2004 and the first quarter of 2018.
By the third quarter of 2018, assets were closet o $50,498 billion, that is almost the half of the Puerto Rican financial system.
Recently, and as reported by this newspaper, as a result of laws 20 and 22-2012 aimed at promoting service exports on the island, many IBIs and IFIs as well as cryptocurrency entities have found the island attractive.
Due to the interest of these entities, La Fortaleza filed bill 1177 to strengthen requirements for IBIs, for them to pay OCIF investigations and increase capital standards required.
Joyner stressed that the intention to make clear that illegal activities have no place in Puerto Rico, in referring to the role of the OCIF and the bill filed by the government in the Senate.
An eye on Venezuela
Although the search warrant on the BSJI reached global attention, this is not the first time that the OCIF stops activities that Venezuelan officials or individuals related to that government tried on the island.
Last year, the Federal Justice Department accused several individuals, including Abraham Edgardo Ortega, PDVSA’s executive director of financial planning, of conspiracy to commit money laundering for about $1,2 billion. Ortega pleaded guilty.
As part of that investigation, the Federal Justice Department also accused Marcelo Gutiérrez Acosta y Lara, a Uruguayan businessman and owner of Vestin Bank, an IFI settled in Puerto Rico, with offices in Old San Juan.
Gutiérrez Acosta y Lara was charged for alleged participation in money laundering scheme. According to the case files, Vestin Bank was a good tool in the scheme because it was in was not in the U.S. but was in the U.S because it was in Puerto Rico.
The OCIF cooperated with that investigation where some have pleaded guilty. El Nuevo Día found out that they could not launder funds embezzled from Venezuelan state-owned oil company.
Vestin Bank still operates in Puerto Rico but Gutiérrez Acosta y Lara was asked to leave the entity.