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Deep Suitcase

"A portable rectangular problem"

Thursday, December 4 2008
by Daniel Hopsicker


Two of the four prominent Chavezistas charged with illegally acting on Hugo Chavez’s behalf in the recently-concluded Suitcase-Gate Trial in Miami were inside players in a previous Venezuelan scandal that took place well before Chavez ever took office, the  MadCowMorningNews has learned.


The Suitcase-Gate Trial was supposed to spotlight a criminal Venezuelan elite of Castro-loving Chavezistas, who taunt America, threaten war with Colombia, and give sanctuary to Hezbollah. 

Instead, testimony showed that Chavez's Venezuelan cronies are anything but wild-eyed radicals. The vanguard of the working class drives Ferraris and lives in McMansions in Miami, and is too busy making money, in oil, real estate, and weapons and narcotics to wear masks over their faces, or raspberry-red berets

Both Carlos Kauffmann and the just-convicted Franklin Duran got rich in a major Venezuelan bank scandal during the mid-90's, when South Florida was a pirate’s refuge for some 200 fugitive  bankers who fled Caracas after diverting $7 billion in public funds to their own accounts.

The men had the capitalist connections necessary to participate in the looting a Venezuelan bank oversight agency, FOGADE, that ironically enough had been set up to stop the hemorrhaging at the troubled Venezuelan banks looted by the fugitive bankers. 

Kauffman, 37, is a collector of airplanes and luxury cars who explained on the stand how he was able to amass a fortune of more than $100 million through the simple expedient of bribing Venezuelan government functionaries and entities. 

At the age of 39,  Franklin Duran is reportedly worth $800 million.

Neither man has built a better mousetrap, or done anything more clever than align themselves with a Venezuelan elite which resembles the vanguard of the working class much less than it does a kleptocracy very much like the one which has just looted trillions of dollars from the American economy. 

Real Guidos Don’t Sightsee

The scandal began during the middle of the night on August 4, 2007, when a Citation X luxury jet landed and taxied over to the general aviation terminal at Jorge Newbery Airport outside Buenos Aires and disgorged a handful of passengers to shiver in the chill night August air. August is the middle of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. In Buenos Aires it had been a cold winter. It had even snowed.

Onboard, nestled in the cargo hold, was a soon-to-be-famous suitcase belonging to a portly Venezuelan-American bagman, Guido Antonini Wilson. Stuffed inside Guido’s suitcase were nearly 1600 crisp $50 dollar bills, tightly-wrapped in neat rectangular stacks, almost $800,000.

At the Customs desk stood an attractive and soon-to-be-famous Argentine Customs Agent.  As she monitored her scanner, she noticed something peculiar inside one suitcase.

As María del Luján Telpuk later told authorities, “There were six perfect, dense rectangles. And they didn’t look like books."

When Maria looked up from the rectangles, she later told reporters, almost everyone had faded away. Smelling trouble, the line of passengers in front of her had immediately thinned out. All except for one man, “mysterious” Venezuelan businessman Guido Antonini Wilson.

Maybe Guido, who available evidence indicates is prematurely portly, just didn’t move fast enough to avoid being forced to admit that the suitcase was his.  Or maybe everything seemed too routine to arouse his suspicions.

Guido had already taken twelve trips between Venezuela and Argentina in the past year.

All 12 trips had been one-day turnarounds.  


Deep Suitcase

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that it was a bad time to get caught with a cash-filled suitcase meant for the President of Argentina.

Making headlines at the same time was Argentina’s Economic Minister Felisa Miceli, who  was attempting to explain why $64,000 in cash had been discovered stashed in the bathroom of her government office.

Miceli held a press conference to tell reporters that… she wasn’t that kind of girl.

I was naive, clumsy," she told reporters. "It was a mistake."

The affair, she stated, "makes me look suspicious and that truly hurts. There could have been negligence but I am sure I haven't committed any crime.”

Miceli said, "The situation is much more simple and normal.”

Truer words may have never been spoken.

Miceli was promptly fired.

Even in South America, two stashes of cash making headlines at the same time is one stash too many for an Administration to explain.

So Guido Wilson was caught holding the bag. But he took it like a pro, and didn’t panic. Thinking on his feet, he made a half-joking suggestion to the eight Customs officials surrounding him.

"Since there are eight of you," Guido told the Customs officers, "and $800,000 in the suitcase, if each one of you walked away with $100,000, it would be a perfect split.” 

You have to admire that kind of aplomb. Maybe that’s why the FBI made him an informant.


A serious plane for serious people

The jet involved also immediately aroused interest. Powered by two Rolls-Royce turbofan engines, the Citation X is the fastest civilian jet ever built, with a top speed of Mach 0.92 (703 mph).  It was a serious plane.

Investigators seemed unable to determine why Argentina's state energy company, which had its own planes, was spending $90,000 on a flight from a Buenos Aires air charter company called Royal Class.  Moreover the Citation X jet carrying Guido’s luggage was flying “off the books,” on an expired temporary U.S. registration.

Yet the Argentine air charter operating the flight, Royal Class—which later “bought” the jet from it's now no longer anonymous American owner—is not being investigated for its role in the scandal, an oversight which may owe something to the fact that Royal Class is owned by the family of deceased Argentine kingmaker Alfredo Yabrán, a multi-millionaire businessman with close ties to the military juntas that ruled the country in the 1970's and 1980's. 

When Guido Wilson told Argentine Customs authorities he would be staying at an address in Buenos Aires that wasn't a hotel, or even the Venezuelan Embassy. It was the headquarters of Aylmer, a company owned by the family of Alfredo Yabrán. 

Can your elephant play the piano?

Alfredo Yabrán was the elephant in the courtroom during the Suitcase-Gate trial that no one wanted to acknowledge. So just who is-- or rather was-- Alfredo Yabrán?

Yabrán was the country’s leading beneficiary of the Argentine privatization of companies in the early 1990's, and, not coincidentally, a close friend of Argentine President Carlos Menem. He grew extraordinarily wealthy during the 1990’s in exactly the same way oligarchs in Russia and Eastern Europe did, by buying huge chunks of his country’s infrastructure for pennies on the dollar.

 In an earlier, simpler time, bank robber Willie Sutton said the reason he stole from banks was because that was where the money was.  Not anymore. Yabrán didn’t steal from banks. 

He stole from governments. 

Yabrán is so well-known that he’s in a political science textbook. In  “Authoritarian Regimes in Latin America: Dictators, Despots, and Tyrants,”  Prof Paul H. Lewis calls Yabran’s operation the “Grupo Yabrán Criminal Organization.”

Argentine newspapers have strongly hinted that Alfredo Yabrán was deeply involved—perhaps even in control of—drug trafficking and money laundering in Argentina. "Investigations into drug trafficking pointed increasingly to a close friend of President of Argentina Carlos Menem's, Alfredo Yabrán," Prof Lewis wrote.

Necklacing for Idiots

Yabrán was so powerful in Argentina that, even though he was one of Menem's closest advisors, his picture had never appeared in a newspaper.  But when one did, it led quickly to his downfall.

 Argentine magazine photographer Jose Luis Cabezas had had the temerity to snap Yabran’s picture one day at the beach. It became the first published photo of the reclusive Yabrán. 

After Cabezas was murdered-- handcuffed, beaten, shot in the head and burned to death in his car--Yabrán went from being an invisible operator in the back corridors of power to being called to testify before Congress, shadowed by the media, and increasingly reviled.

After a judge ordered his arrest, Yabrán reportedly committed suicide, shooting himself at his ranch as police arrived to take him in to be charged with the killing.  But the majority of Argentines believe Alfredo Yabrán faked his own death, and is still alive.

Today his business empire, the “Grupo Yabrán criminal organization,” is run by his son, Paul Yabrán.

Investigators were also puzzled over why Antonini Wilson had been allowed to leave Argentina for Uruguay.

Into the breach stepped Argentina’s Minister of the Interior, Annabel Fernández. Challenged by reporters about why authorities hadn’t questioned Guido the Bagman before letting him leave the country, she explained tartly that Wilson was allowed to leave Argentina without giving testimony because the police "had no right to detain him."

According to Argentine daily El Clarín, she said, "One is not entitled to stop a gentleman and ask him, 'Why did you do that?'

Economy Minister Felisa Miceli had been right. The situation was "much more simple and normal."

Everything was business as usual.


Taking Tango One

Hugo Chávez arrived in Argentina several days later to ink an oil deal worth $200 million in the Presidential Palace. An effort was made to downplay what had happened. A secretary to one of the Argentine officials involved claims Guido was even at the signing ceremony.

Speculation centered on the idea that Guido Wilson’s arrest was probably just a glitch. The plane had landed at Newbery Airport in Buenos Aires at 2.30 in the morning, a time when news reports stated the airport was normally closed.  

Even if it had been open, the Citation X had been cleared to taxi, according to Argentine newspapers, directly to the Presidential Gate, where it would have no doubt received friendlier treatment.  But the gate was already occupied by Tango One, the Argentine Presidential plane.   

"Why is there even a scandal?” Venezuela's Minister of Foreign Affairs gamely asked reporters. "Every day things like this happen in all the countries of the world."

Maybe so, one might have retorted. But its not every day they get caught.

Crack the code... then drive away"

Back in Miami, Guido made a beeline for the local FBI office, where he turned state’s witness. He implicated Franklin Duran, a wealthy Venezuelan businessman, who Guido said was trying to cover-up the source of the cash for Chavez.

Guido rolled.  He agreed to wear a wire. It's a common hazard of the trade.

Surveillance took place in restaurants and cafes, like Jackson’s Steakhouse in Fort Lauderdale, located on sophisticated Las Olas Boulevard. The “Rodeo Drive of Fort Lauderdale.”

Under high beamed ceilings and rich mahogany paneling, Venezuelan "businessman" Carlos Kauffmann, 36, told Wilson it was not in his best interest to have any “problems” in Venezuela. 

Kauffman told Wilson, “Ask for whatever you want. The President even told me you could have a license to sell Argentine beef in Venezuela.”

The tapes caught Duran telling Wilson that Venezuelan authorities no longer trusted him, and suspected he was talking to American law enforcement. If he didn’t cooperate, Duran told Guido Wilson,  his children could be in danger.

Four foreign nationals—including two wealthy South Florida Venezuelans—faced federal charges of being unregistered foreign agents for the Venezuelan government.

The only one of the four who didn’t plead guilty was Franklin Duran, who prosecutors said made several hundred million dollars funneling bribes to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's government.

A fifth remains at large... Antonio José Canchica Gómez, an agent of Venezuela’s DISIP intelligence service, met with Wilson while staying at the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel in Hollywood FL.

Along with thousands of slots and card games, the casino holds contests called “CRACK THE CODE,” and “DRIVE LIKE A SECRET AGENT.” The top prize is a car like James Bond drove in the latest bond movie.

"Brownie you're doing a heck of a job."

According to testimony at his Miami trial, Durán and co-conspirator Carlos Kauffmann had a history of corrupt business dealings with the Venezuelan government, at national and state level, and with the armed forces.

An international elite in both the U.S. and the Latin countries that somehow doesn't have to play by the same rules as mere mortals. The world is apparently full of people like Bush buddy Michael Brown, the "brownie" who did such a "great job" at FEMA in New Orleans after the hurricane.

They have no bright news ideas to benefit humanity. What they have, instead, is access.

It's Crony Capitalism writ large. The enrichment of the well-connected.  Wealth flowing to a small group of people who are already wealthy and well connected. 

Oligarchs, plutocrats, and fat cats. No nations. No people.  No West. No third world...

Just one holistic system of systems, one vast, immanent, interwoven, multi-national dominion of dollars...the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet.

That is the natural order of things; the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure.

Those are the primal forces of nature.

And when they get caught, like in Suitcase-Gate, they retreat into their wealth and carelessness, until someone takes care of the problem for them, or makes sure that the sanction is not particularly onerous.

Community service. Two years in Lompoc.


"We all knew the sorry truth."

Franklin Duran and Guido the Bagman drove in last year's Gumball Rally, which was cancelled after a fatal crash between a Gumball driver's Porsche 911 Turbo, going over 100 miles per hour, and a red VW Golf carrying an elderly Macedonian villager and his wife.

A Gumball Rally driver who also handled race PR came upon Duran right after he'd crashed his car, and later wrote, "It was the fourth serious accident of the day. The remains belonged to a £325,000 yellow Porsche Carrera GT."

"The guy was driving like a complete idiot," one of the rally competitors later told me. "My co-driver was with him earlier. He was so concerned by his driving that he insisted he stop the car so that he could rejoin me."

"Miraculously, the driver of the crashed yellow Carrera, Franklin Duran, walked away from the wreckage shaken but unhurt.  The 67-year-old VW Golf driver and his wife, Vladimir and Margarita Cepuljoski, were less fortunate. Both were killed."

"We all knew the sorry truth. The drivers condemning Venezuelan oil tycoon Duran had also been pushing the definition of safe driving all day. That afternoon, the rally finally dispersed. All left behind them the wreckage of the Rally. A few drove the planned route to an almost empty hotel in Berlin; others headed for Prague, for the Euro tunnel, or private jets."

"No one from the rally attended the funerals of Vladimir and Margarita Cepuljoski."


Sunday: The Suitcase-Gate Chickens Come Home to Roost




The FRANKLIN SCANDAL: A Story of Powerbrokers, Child Abuse & Betrayal