El Nuevo Herald
October 8, 2007
Despite a history of crime, a Venezuelan entrepreneur has made friends with government, banking and oil officials.
When a widely read Venezuelan society writer described the luxurious birthday bash of Walter Alexander del Nogal Márquez, the list of guests showed the businessman with a shady past was making friends in the government of President Hugo Chávez and the country's new entrepreneurial class.
Among guests at the October 2004 party were Juan Barreto, current mayor of Caracas; pro-government deputy Luís Tascón; and William Ruperti, an oil transport businessman and broker who was loyal to Chávez during the 2001 oil strike.
''As the world turns, it turns and turns, like the syrupy voice of crooner Nelson Ned can attest: Alex del Nogal, emblematic entrepreneur of the current Fifth Republic era and friend of the tenant at the Miraflores presidential palace since his time in Yare,'' wrote Roland Carreño in El Nacional. Yare is a prison in Venezuela.
The world did turn and on Sept. 14, del Nogal was arrested in Milan, Italy, on charges of drug trafficking.
The arrest stirred speculation about how someone convicted in a murder case, free on conditional release from prison and now jailed on drug charges in Europe could have climbed to such heights in Venezuela.
Del Nogal, 39, was sentenced in Venezuela in 1995 to 20 years, 11 months in prison for complicity in the murder of Mario Rodolfo Patti Fajardo, whose body -- with a gunshot to the head -- was dropped from a small plane by del Nogal and an accomplice into the Caribbean Sea near the Venezuelan archipelago of Gran Roque. In that same case, del Nogal was sentenced for involvement in a swindle and for ``taking advantage of things stemming from crime.''
The courts acquitted him of charges connected to a series of bombings in Caracas in 1993 that may have been intended to create chaos in the stock market for the benefit of accomplices.
In his youth, del Nogal was investigated by the Venezuelan Judicial Technical Police and the Venezuelan intelligence service in connection with vehicles stolen in Florida.
His father, William del Nogal, is the subject of a federal warrant in the same case. William, 60, was arrested in November 1992 and released on bail, but he did not return to court, according to documents reviewed by El Nuevo Herald. For that he was charged in a 2001 indictment and deemed a fugitive.
''Father and son were involved in the business, and I believe the father played a very important role in Alex's career as a delinquent,'' Johan Peña, a former Venezuelan intelligence officer who investigated the car-theft ring, told El Nuevo Herald.
Considered by friends and enemies as brilliant and charming, del Nogal managed to accumulate a fortune by surrounding himself with personalities from the government, the banking sector and the oil industry -- defying his own predictions from prison in July 1997.
''People see one as a criminal, and one is left with this stain and society punishes you, even though you try to climb, they go and blemish you and do not forgive,'' del Nogal told the newspaper El Universal.
Del Nogal then wrote a book, Ellos que me golpearon (Those Who Hurt Me) in which he listed those who caused him harm and tried to force him to spend the rest of his life in prison.
LIFE IN MIAMI
Before going to prison, del Nogal, who did not finish studies for a law degree, was regarded as a capable young man -- quick to make money. He left some business footprints in Miami.
According to Florida records, del Nogal joined Venezuelan banker Juan Santaella in the Magna International firm, created in 1989 and left inactive a year later. Daniel Díazgranados, a prosperous entrepreneur and banking broker close to the Chávez government, was listed as a director in the firm. Díazgranados shared prison time with del Nogal when he also was charged with creating economic terror through the 1993 bombings in Caracas.
Under the name Walter del Nogal, he incorporated a firm in 1990 called Renpino Trading, whose director was listed as Evenia Rengifo de Stopello, a well-known Venezuelan clairvoyant who advised several presidents.
''Since Chávez arrived in the presidency, justice is being imparted in Venezuela, rights are being respected and equality of conditions is being observed for all people,'' del Nogal told El Universal.
After obtaining his conditional release from prison in January 2000, del Nogal began a quick climb in politics and business amid a whirlwind social calendar in the well-known restaurants of his brother William.
Most prominent among del Nogal's new businesses has been Financial Corporation, or Fincorp, which features among its clients several agencies of the Venezuelan government, such as the Ministry of Light Industry and the official oil company, PDVSA, according to Julio Montoya, a former opposition deputy and political director of the political party Un Nuevo Tiempo.
''It is no longer just photographs with friends in the government and loans of his plane to officials, but there are also clear economic relations with the national government,'' Montoya said.
The former deputy said he intends to request an investigation of the links between Fincorp and Luís Marín, former manager of Citgo, a U.S. company that belongs to PDVSA, and the current president of the Center for Energy of the Americas in Panama.
''We don't know if Mr. del Nogal is going to be sentenced for drug trafficking or money laundering in Italy, but what we do know is that he has impressive connections with the national government, and with international projects of the government with entrepreneurs abroad, and the prosecutor is not investigating,'' Montoya asserted to the Venezuelan media.
The day after Montoya's allegations, prosecutor Isaías Rodríguez said that before del Nogal's arrest in Italy, his office was investigating del Nogal.
The communications minister, Willian Lara, pointed out that ``there has not been any relationship between Walter del Nogal and the team that directed the electoral campaign of commander Chávez in 2006.''
FRIENDS CUT TIES
In the aftermath of del Nogal's arrest, friends have distanced themselves and no one has come to his defense. El Nuevo Herald tried to contact relatives in Caracas, but they did not return calls.
Barreto, one of the guests at the 2004 birthday party, denied any link to del Nogal.
Ramíro Helmeyer, also sentenced for the Patti murder, and now security advisor to the Chávez government, told El Nuevo Herald in a telephone interview from Caracas that he does not have any connection to del Nogal.
Helmeyer said that three years ago, he and del Nogal became distant because of a personal issue. It happened, he went on, after he attended del Nogal's birthday party.
''Never in my life have I been an associate of this man, never will you be able to obtain a document listing an association with him,'' said Helmeyer, who flew the plane from which Patti was thrown. ``I have no opinion of him, I am not his friend nor his enemy and I don't care what situation he is going through, that is his problem, exclusively his.''