Venezuelan nationals John Carlos Sanchez Rojas, 42, and Victor Fossi Grieco, 51, are being held after US customs authorities discovered that the plane they were flying had an estimated 104 kg (230 pounds) of gold hidden in a secret compartment.
ABC affiliate WPLG reported that Rojas and Greico were arrested in Fort Lauderdale last Friday after their Cessna flew in from Caracas, with the gold, estimated to be worth about $5 million, said to have been hidden in the aircraft’s nose section.
According to the affidavit of Homeland Security Investigations special agent Shauna Willard, the gold was discovered after customs agents noticed loose rivets on the plane’s nose compartment.
The men did not declare the precious metal in their customs forms, although Rojas and his wife did declare carrying $24,000 in cash. After the gold was found, Rojas reportedly told officers that the precious metal had been obtained “from multiple sources in Venezuela” and intended to be sold in the US. The men said they would have received a commission for its safe delivery.
It’s not clear where the gold came from, and whether this was an attempt by government-aligned forces to bypass US sanctions, or the work of some criminal organisation. However, Rojas said that the persons who supplied the smugglers “had previously smuggled gold into the US.”
Joseph Rosenbaum, an attorney for Rojas, told the Miami Herald that “it may be that there was no violation of the law,” adding that lawyers were “looking into it and planning to turn over every stone. It’s very early.”
The men are currently being held in a Broward County jail. If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in jail.
The US has targeted Venezuela’s economy, including its energy and gold industries, with several waves of sanctions aimed at crippling the country and destabilising the government of President Nicolas Maduro. In recent months, a gradual sell-off of Venezuelan gold has been reported, with amounts ranging from $40 million to $570 million.
Previously, the Bank of England, Deutsche Bank and Citigroup had seized over a billion dollars in Venezuelan gold, with the BoE blocking access to about 80 tonnes of the precious metal, with DB confiscating 20 tonnes more after Caracas failed to make interest payments on a gold swap agreement originally set to expire in 2021, Citigroup selling off several tonnes of gold after the bank missed a payment deadline in March. The Venezuelan government reportedly had no means of paying off the Citigroup loan or otherwise accessing the precious metal, since its assets and operations in the US have been frozen since January.
Earlier this month, Mining Weekly reported, citing Venezuelan Central Bank data, that the country’s gold reserves had fallen by over $1 billion in the first six months of 2019, from $5.67 billion to $4.62 billion, and from 128.76 to 102.40 tonnes total. About one third of that amount is thought to be held by the Bank of England, meaning Caracas can’t access it.
The Venezuelan government has been forced to sell its gold to raise hard currency amid Washington’s unrelenting sanctions pressure and economic blockade, which Caracas has called a form of “economic warfare” which has “translated into the suffering of many Venezuelans."
Earlier this year, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza estimated that US sanctions had cost Venezuela about $30 billion in lost revenues over the past year-and-a-half, with a February report earlier calculating that the US’s financial blockade had cost the country the equivalent of between $260 billion and $350 billion between 2013 and 2017.