SIMON ROMERO / ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
The New York Times
January 12, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela — One day last August, an airport policewoman in Buenos Aires noticed something peculiar as she was monitoring a baggage scanner: the appearance of six perfect, dense rectangles inside a suitcase.
She asked the passenger, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, one of eight people aboard a private plane chartered by Argentina’s national oil company that flew from Caracas, to open the case. “He became frozen and did not say a word,” the policewoman later said in a radio interview.
When he did open it, nearly $800,000 in cash spilled out.
Mr. Antonini, a businessman with Venezuelan and American citizenship, is now at the center of a spy mystery and diplomatic imbroglio involving Argentina, Venezuela and the United States. American officials portray the episode as a rare glimpse into President Hugo Chávez’s use of oil wealth to spread his influence, saying the cash was destined for the campaign of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s new president.
Venezuela and Argentina describe it as an amateurish American attempt to smear their governments. Mrs. Kirchner has called the case a “garbage operation” by Americans, while Venezuela’s official news agency claimed this week that it was a plot by the Central Intelligence Agency.
But American investigators, in court documents, say a concealed recording device they persuaded Mr. Antonini to wear after the cash was seized revealed that Venezuelan spies and businessmen threatened and pressured him to cover up the destination of the cash.
The United States attorney in Miami is prosecuting those men for failing to register as foreign agents. The case hinges on a charge that four Venezuelans and one Uruguayan in south Florida tried to cover up an operation gone badly awry and to prevent Mr. Antonini from going public.
Neither Mr. Antonini nor his lawyer, Theresa van Vliet, responded to numerous requests for interviews.
Thomas A. Shannon Jr., assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said Friday that the Argentine reaction was “regrettable and not positive,” but that the investigation had “no foreign policy purpose.” He said recent statements from Argentine officials indicated that “the Argentines understand that this is a judicial process and that it is best for everybody to allow this to play itself out.”
The case began when Mr. Antonini, 46, returned to his home in Key Biscayne, Fla. Within days, he began cooperating with American investigators, offering them insight into what they contend was an operation in which wealthy Venezuelan businessmen in south Florida plotted with officials as high up as Mr. Chávez’s spymaster and former vice president.
Mr. Antonini may have asked for American help after Argentine investigators sought his extradition. Two days after being caught with the cash, Mr. Antonini was seen in the presidential palace in Buenos Aires celebrating the signing of business deals with Venezuela, according to Victoria Bereziuk, an Argentine secretary who was at the palace and who was one of the passengers in the private plane with Mr. Antonini, according to Argentine investigators.
Alberto Fernández, Mrs. Kirchner’s chief of staff, later denied her assertion, saying the Argentine government had no record of Mr. Antonini being at the palace.
What is clear is that soon after leaving Argentina he agreed to be recorded, photographed and videotaped by F.B.I. agents as he talked to a number of Venezuelans in Florida, who coaxed, cajoled and outright threatened him to keep quiet and accept falsified documents about the origin and intent of the money, American investigators contend. The government made 41 audio recordings and eight videotapes, documents in the case show.
The surveillance took place in a series of restaurants and cafes. In one meeting, on Aug. 23 at Jackson’s Steakhouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Carlos Kauffmann, 36, a Venezuelan businessman, told Mr. Antonini it was not in Venezuela’s best interest for him to have any “problems” in Venezuela. A Venezuelan lawyer assured Mr. Antonini that Venezuela’s national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, would pay for all legal expenses and financial penalties that might result from the suitcase scandal.
But by Sept. 7, when Mr. Antonini met with Franklin Duran, 40, a Venezuelan oil products tycoon and close friend, at a Quarterdeck restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Mr. Duran was telling him that Venezuelan authorities no longer trusted Mr. Antonini and suspected that he was talking to American law enforcement.
At one point, two of the suspects, according to prosecutors, offered Mr. Antonini $2 million in hush money. On another occasion, prosecutors said, Mr. Duran told Mr. Antonini that if he did not cooperate his children could be in danger.
On Oct. 27, Moisés Maionica, 36, another Venezuelan suspect, told Mr. Antonini by phone that an “emissary” was being sent from Venezuela to meet with him at a Starbucks in Plantation, Fla.
The emissary was Antonio José Canchica Gómez, an agent of Venezuela’s Disip intelligence service, according to investigators. The next day Rodolfo Wanseele Paciello, a Uruguayan also charged in the case, drove Mr. Canchica to the Starbucks. Coded language had been agreed upon in advance.
“Christian,” Mr. Antonini muttered in Mr. Canchica’s direction at the Starbucks.
The code word accepted, Mr. Canchica assured Mr. Antonini that he would be “skillfully and discreetly helped,” American prosecutors charge, and that he, Mr. Canchica, was the “last link in the chain.”
When the 40-minute meeting was over, Mr. Paciello drove Mr. Canchica to the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel, seven miles away. But Mr. Paciello, apparently to try to lose any trailing car, drove 43 miles instead of seven, making constant shifts and turns in direction and going 35 miles on the Florida Turnpike, where the speed limit is 70 miles per hour.
It was, American investigators contend, an attempt at countersurveillance. It did not work. The F.B.I. was watching the whole time, an agent testified in court last month. Three days later, Mr. Canchica left Miami by plane. On Dec. 12, the F.B.I. arrested the three Venezuelans and Mr. Paciello, the Uruguayan.
Mr. Canchica, the fifth suspect, remains at large. American officials, who requested anonymity because of the diplomatic delicacy of the case, said they believed he had fled to Cuba, beyond the reach of American intelligence services.
No investigation of Mr. Antonini or those involved in the alleged cover-up has been initiated in Venezuela, opening its government to charges that it is reluctant for the truth to emerge.
That leaves the burden of proof foremost with federal prosecutors in the United States.
With a trial in the case still months away, some important questions remain unclear: Who gave the orders to the Venezuelan businessmen to pursue Mr. Antonini on American soil? Where did the money in Mr. Antonini’s suitcase come from? And what motivated Mr. Kauffmann and Mr. Duran, two highflying Venezuelan tycoons enmeshed in the scandal who have pleaded not guilty to the charges?
The State Department says that prosecutors in Miami initiated the case without orders from Washington, and that the indictments were not motivated by any desire to smear Mr. Chávez’s government. A senior United States official said that the State Department learned of the case soon after the investigation began but did not interfere.
Mr. Duran’s lawyer, Edward R. Shohat, in Miami, said the case should be of no concern to the United States. “Here, in essence, Venezuelan citizens are accused of trying to influence the conduct of another Venezuelan citizen with respect to a seizure of currency in Argentina, which, if such conduct amounts to an obstruction of justice, could only affect proceedings in Argentina,” he said. “No United States interest is implicated.”
This is not the first time the United States Attorney’s office in Miami has pursued a hostile government based on the statements of people involved in an investigation.
Thomas Mulvihill, the assistant United States attorney leading the case, also accused Cuba’s Fidel Castro in the late 1980s of acting as a go-between in cocaine trafficking out of Colombia, claims that were never substantiated. In February, a former professor at Florida International University and his wife were convicted of acting as unregistered agents of the Cuban government.
But the current case is unusual because the statute has almost always been used in cases where people are accused of trying to spy on expatriate communities, or where the suspects were viewed to be dangers to national security, legal experts said.
This time, Mr. Mulvihill insists, the suspects in question have implicated themselves.
“The taped conversations indicate clearly they were doing the bidding of a foreign government, and those taped conversations are in their own words,” he said in a Miami courtroom last month.
Simon Romero reported from Caracas, and Alexei Barrionuevo from Miami and Rio de Janeiro. Vinod Sreeharsha contributed reporting from Buenos Aires.