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Home / World / How 7.4 tonnes of Venezuelan gold landed in Africa – and disappeared

How 7.4 tonnes of Venezuelan gold landed in Africa – and disappeared



ENTEBBE, Uganda – The government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro sells the gold reserves of his country. Part of it has gone through a secret operation in East Africa, a move that defies US sanctions.

On two flights in early March, at least 7.4 tonnes of gold worth more than $ 300 million were shipped from Venezuela to a Venezuelan refinery in Uganda, officials in Venezuela and Uganda say, a foreign diplomat and a Venezuelan opposition legislator, who concluded that the government of Maduro exported the bars.

The gold arrived on a Russian charter jet in two shipments at the international airport in Entebbe. The Ugandan police spokesman Fred Enanga. The accompanying documents identified the bars, some of which had stamped labels, as Venezuelan central bank property, says a senior Ugandan police officer who has seen the bars and documents. Flight records show that the voyages were originally carried out in Caracas, Venezuela.

The broadcasts reveal a link in a global underground economy many suspect will help Maduro stay in power by circumventing the US-dominated international financial system. Washington has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, imposed financial and other sanctions on Venezuelan officials and institutions, and threatened punishments for others who do business with the regime.

Gold refining at AGR.


Photo:

Esther Ruth Mbabazi for the Wall Street Journal

The stalemate between the two heads of state and government is swinging beyond Venezuela. Around 50 countries support Mr Guaidó together with the US, while others support Mr Maduro. The formerly richest economy in Latin America is starving, oil sales have shrunk and citizens are suffering from days of blackouts and shortages of basic goods.

Gold sales are one of the government's last financial lifesheets, according to US authorities and other government officials.

The gold that arrived at Entebbe, according to the Ugandan police, was located about 500 meters from the old runway by African Gold Refinery Ltd. (AGR) before being exported to the Middle East.

Refinery in operation According to Ugandan police, the country's Financial Intelligence Authority and regional smugglers, part of the processed gold has been smuggled out of conflict-ridden eastern Congo and other African countries.

AGR's gold has entered supply chains at US companies including

General Motors
Co.

.

General Electric
Co.

and

Starbucks
Corp.

Despite US action against the use of so-called conflict minerals from the Congo, the documents submitted to the US Securities and Exchange Commission for 2018 indicate

According to a spokesman, GM prohibits suppliers from engaging in forced or involuntary work or corrupt business practices. GE declined to comment. Starbucks did not respond to requests for comments.

Gilded Age

Uganda does not mince its own gold, but the heavy metal has become its leading export commodity.

Uganda's Gold Production and Export

Cherry Anne Dacdac, General Manager of AGR, says the company has not processed contraband or conflict gold and refuses to comment on the March deliveries. She says that all AGR's business is legal and that it was agreed at a management meeting on March 26th not to accept any transactions related to Venezuela.

AGR has processed and exported more than 38 tonnes of gold since commencing operations, Dacdac says. The scale of its business in 2018 helped to get gold as the main export from Uganda, with little of it being mined.

The refinery, with the support of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, appears to propose to act in court and other documents reviewed by the Journal. A spokesman for Mr. Museveni says the president "supports the work like any other investor" in his quest to change Uganda's economy.

The Maduro government's earlier gold sales were an open issue. Between the end of 2017 and February 1, 2019, the central bank sold at least 73.3 tons of gold, with a market value of approximately $ 3 billion, to companies in the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, the National Assembly Finance Committee announced in February. [19659020] Share Your Thoughts

What should Washington do to prevent gold smuggling? Take part in the following conversation.

The White House announced sanctions on Nov. 1 to halt the sale of Venezuelan gold. Since then, several tens of tons more have been removed from the central bank and secretly exported, say an opposition legislator and a person familiar with the bank's reserves. The bank was without electricity and water for weeks.

"It's a fire sale," says one of the lawmakers, Ángel Alvarado, who is a member of the Finance Committee. "The regime is scratching the barrel and selling everything that is valuable to keep itself alive."

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro with gold bullion at a 2018 cryptocurrency conference in Caracas.


Photo:

Carlos Becerra / Bloomberg News

A US Treasury official said, "The Ministry of Finance has an obligation to hold accountable those who are corrupt in the gold sector of Venezuela."

The Central Bank Venezuelan and Ministry of Information spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment. The Maduro government has made little public talk about its gold sales and routinely rejects sanctions and allegations of misconduct in an international campaign against Caracas.

Mr. Goetz & # 39; Gold

AGR was founded in 2014 by Alain Goetz (54), a Belgian businessman who has been involved in African gold trading for more than three decades.

AGR, about 500 meters from the old runway of Entebbe.


Photo:

Esther Ruth Mbabazi for the Wall Street Journal

It is almost impossible to distinguish gold from its source once it has been refined. The United Nations says gold is the key funding for militias and parts of the military in eastern Congo that are financing a multi-million dollar conflict.

Even before the Venezuelan deliveries, the AGR had alerted the Ugandan authorities to investigating allegedly smuggled gold processing According to the Ugandan police, the country's Financial Intelligence Authority, regional smugglers and Congolese mine officials, they come from conflict areas in Congo and South Sudan and Zimbabwe, much of which later leaves Uganda's gold.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, in white, with Alain Goetz and gold flakes at the AGR 2017.


GAEL GRILHOT / AFP / Getty Images

Sydney Asubo, Executive Director of the Financial Intelligence Authority, Uganda's government agency responsible for combating money laundering, reports smuggling activities to the authorities and requests prosecution. No charges had been filed pending the completion of an investigation by the Ugandan government inspection of the AGR on suspicion of tax evasion, smuggling and money laundering. Ali Munira, a spokeswoman for the regulator charged with investigating corruption and other abuses, confirms that there is an investigation, but refuses to comment on the details.

Mr. Götz and Ms. Dacdac of AGR state that they have complied with Ugandan and other laws. Mr Goetz denies that there are probes. Ms. Dacdac says she is not aware of any investigations by the Financial Intelligence Authority or the Inspectorate.

Gold at AGR in Entebbe last year.


Photo:

Esther Ruth Mbabazi for the Wall Street Journal

The 2010 US Dodd-Frank Act contained provisions to prevent companies from using commodities that fund the Congolese conflict by tracking what they buy. The law does not make the purchase of these materials illegal. AGR was included in the supply chains of 237 US listed companies in their 2018 filings.

Mr. Goetz has sold AGR and retains control of Goetz Gold LLC, a trading company in Dubai. Goetz Gold still cares about the gold coming from the AGR, he says. AGR's Dacdac did not respond to a request to comment on whether Goetz Gold was handling the company's gold. Uganda's business register shows that the AGR shares of Mr. Goetz were sold to AGR International Ltd. in February 2018. transferred to the Seychelles. Ms. Dacdac states that the company is owned by individuals and companies of Middle Eastern origin.

Secret Mail

On March 2, the red-tailed body of a Boeing 777 of a Russian charter company, Northwind Airlines, landed at 6:35 pm in Entebbe, having been launched by Caracas more than 13 hours previously, as Flightradar24's website shows , Nordwind did not respond to requests for comments.

Police and private security forces gathered on the tarmac to get the cargo from the jetliner, which did not carry any passengers, says a person who witnessed his arrival.

Airport handlers removed heavy packages Wrapped in brown cardboard that did not go through the airport's regular customs procedures, says Ugandan police spokesman Enanga. Less than an hour after landing, the parcels entered the AGR compound across the street from the airport under a private security escort.

The cardboard contained 3.8 tons of Venezuelan gold. Two days later, another 3.6 tonnes arrived at the refinery from the same Caracas aircraft, says Enanga. When the Minerals Department of the Police, which was informed about the unusually large shipments, raided the AGR on March 7, the first lot had disappeared and was exported to the Middle East, with the final destination being Turkey, he says.

The Senior Ugandan The policeman and Mr. Goetz say the gold was sent to Goetz Gold in Dubai. AGR's Dacdac did not respond to a request for comment as to whether the company exported the gold to Goetz Gold. Mr Goetz says Goetz Gold did not send it to Turkey.

The Ugandan police seized the other 3.6 tons of bars with labels identifying them as Venezuelan Central Bank property, says the senior official who saw them. Some labels seemed to be scratched, as if someone had tried to disguise their origins, says the official. Papers with the bars showed that they were from the 1940s.

Mr. Götz and Ms. Dacdac of AGR say the police never attacked the refinery and never seized gold. Ms. Dacdac states, "The AGR has provided all the necessary documentation to prove that the respective transactions have been reported and recorded by the Ugandan Inland Revenue."

Precious Cargo

The government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro sells the gold reserves of his Country According to officials in Venezuela and Uganda, in March gold passed a refinery near Uganda's main airport.

Gold went across the road to Gold Refinery in Africa .

Ingots wrapped in cardboard circumvent customs

Later exported gold, some of them to the Middle East.

The AGR stated that it had "submitted all necessary documents".

The Boeing 777 from Nordwind Airlines flies twice to Uganda.

Documents identify cargo as Venezuelan Central Bank Gold.

No passengers on both flights.

Northwind did not answer any requests.

Entebbe

International

Airport

Broadcast 1: On March 1, the North Wind-charter plane leaves Caracas and arrives at Entebbe Airport in the early morning of March 2.

Return flight: On March 2, the plane flies to Tanzania. On March 3, it returns to Caracas.

Broadcast 2: On March 4, the plane leaves Caracas and arrives in Entebbe with another gold broadcast.

Gold moves across the road to African Gold Refinery .

Ingots packed in bypass customs boxes.

Gold was later exported, some to the Middle East.

AGR claims to have "submitted all necessary documents".

Northwind Airlines Boeing 777 flies twice to Uganda.

Documents identify cargo as Venezuelan Central Bank. Gold.

No passengers on both flights.

North Wind did not respond to requests.

Entebbe

International

Airport

Broadcast 1: The North Wind-chartered Caracas plane leaves on 1 March and

arrives at Entebbe airport early in the morning of March 2.

Return flight: On March 2, the plane flies to Tanzania. On March 3

it returns to Caracas.

Broadcast 2: On March 4, the plane leaves Caracas and arrives in Entebbe

with another gold broadcast.

Gold moves across the street

. African Gold Refinery .

Ingots packed in bypass customs boxes.

Gold was later exported, some to the Middle East.

AGR claims to have "submitted all necessary documents".

Northwind Airlines Boeing 777 flies twice to Uganda.

Documents identify cargo as Venezuelan Central Bank. Gold.

No passengers on both flights.

North Wind did not respond to requests.

Entebbe

International

Airport

Shipping 1: On March 1, the North Wind-charter plane leaves Caracas and lands

in the early morning of March 2 at Entebbe Airport.

Return flight: On March 2, the plane flies to Tanzania. On March 3, she returns to Caracas.

Broadcast 2: On March 4, the plane leaves Caracas and lands in Entebbe

with another gold broadcast.

Northwind Airlines Boeing 777 flies twice to Uganda.

Documents identify cargo as Venezuelan Central Bank gold.

No passengers on both flights.

North Wind did not respond to inquiries.

Broadcast 1: In March 1, the plane chartered by North Wind

leaves Caracas and

arrives in the early morning of March 2 at

Entebbe Airport.

Return flight: On March 2, the plane

flies to Tanzania. On March 3

it returns to Caracas.

Broadcast 2: On March 4, the plane

leaves Caracas and lands in Entebbe

with another gold broadcast.

Gold moves across the road to African Gold Refinery .

Ingots in bypass customs packaging.

Gold was later exported, some to the Middle East.

The AGR stated that it had "submitted all necessary documents". [19659119] Entebbe

International

Airport

It was not the first time that the authorities identified Venezuelan gold handled by Mr. Goetz. Last year, the central bank sold Venezuela's gold to three trading companies in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, as the Venezuelan Parliament's Finance Committee announced in February with 21.9 tonnes of gold.

Mr. Goetz says that some of the Venezuelan gold came through Goetz Gold, but that it came from a company outside Venezuela and did not violate US sanctions, as the contracts were signed before 1 November.

After the US sanctions, the buyers of the central bank dried up. At the end of January, when another 777 Northwind was at Caracas airport, Venezuelan opposition lawmaker José Guerra, a former central bank economist, accused the parliament that the plane was there to fly 20 tonnes of gold out of the bank.

The US publicly pressured the buyers of the bank in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates "My advice to bankers, brokers, traders, intermediaries and other companies," warned a tweet of national security adviser John Bolton on January 30: "Do not handle gold, oil or other Venezuelan goods stolen by the US." Venezuelans from the Maduro mafia. "

Two days later, Abu Dhabi-based Noor Capital, which had previously bought 27.4 tonnes of Venezuelan gold, according to the Venezuelan Parliament's Finance Committee, announced that it would stop such purchases. Flightradar24 shows that the Boeing 777 has returned to Moscow.

Noor Capital declined to comment on a February 1 statement confirming that she had bought 3 tonnes of gold from the Venezuelan central bank on January 21 and had denied any illegal activity.

A gold bar is weighed at AGR.


Photo:

Esther Ruth Mbabazi for the Wall Street Journal

Two months later, when Ugandan police stated that the confiscated Entebbe gold shipment was in detention, President Museveni's relief came. In a letter dated 26 March, Uganda's Attorney General William Byaruhanga ordered the release of the gold and the removal of officials from the AGR. the police spokesman.

The order to release the gold, Byaruhanga wrote in the letter, came from President Museveni, whom he had met the previous day at the State House in Entebbe. "The AGR will be instructed from now on," the letter says, "until further notice of any further import of gold from Venezuela to refrain", with the US sanctions are cited.

The pressure on Uganda and the AGR was reinforced by US diplomats who had done wind of the shipments, says a person familiar with the pressure.

Mr. Museveni's spokesman said the president had instructed the Attorney General to release the confiscated gold after the investigators released the imports. Mr. Byaruhanga did not respond to requests for comments. Ms Dacdac of AGR says the company has not asked for the intervention of Mr Museveni.

From there disappear the traces of Venezuelan gold. At some point in March, two tons of gold were offered for sale in Turkey at a significant discount to market prices, say the persons familiar with the matter. The origin was listed as Uganda, but customs documents showed that it came from Venezuela's central bank vault.

Since no buyer could be found, a second attempt was made to sell the gold at a steeper discount, one of which The People says, adding that it is not clear if someone has bought it. According to Goetz, Goetz Gold did not sell Venezuelan gold in Turkey.

The Venezuelan gold history has a twist, says the person familiar with the reserves of the central bank: The ingot almost certainly came from America in Turkey in the 1940s, says the person, as a payment to Venezuela for oil, during World War II was delivered.

Melted gold at AGR.


Photo:

Esther Ruth Mbabazi for the Wall Street Journal

Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at gabriele.steinhauser@wsj.com and Nicholas Bariyo at nicholas.bariyo@wsj.com


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