Key figures in suitcase trial once had close ties

Por Venezuela Real - 11 de Octubre, 2008, 18:57, Categoría: Prensa Internacional

Miami Herald
October 11, 2008

Two former close friends are on opposite sides of the federal trial surrounding the suitcase full of unexplained cash that set off an international scandal.

The two men at the center of an international scandal surrounding a suitcase brimming with cash spent days facing off in a downtown Miami federal courtroom, as a slew of lawyers argued over which one is telling the truth.

But the pair -- star witness Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson and defendant Franklin Durán -- once shared their time in more pleasant ways: baby christenings, outings in fast cars, and family vacations to Europe.

Court testimony and taped conversations presented at the trial -- now in its sixth week -- paint a portrait of two men sharing deep personal and financial ties, including intertwined family relations, bank accounts and political connections. But eventually, their relationship unraveled in betrayal.

Antonini is the Venezuelan businessman and Key Biscayne resident who set off an international firestorm when he was discovered trying to pass a suitcase packed with $800,000 through Buenos Aires airport customs in August 2007. Durán is one of the five men accused of illegally trying to silence Antonini about the origins of the cash, which prosecutors say was a contribution from the government of Venezuela to the Argentine presidential campaign of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner -- a charge both leaders deny.

Though Antonini's testimony has ended, the evidence he gathered against his former friend has been the most damaging in the trial.

Durán and Antonini were once the closest of friends. Antonini had security access codes to Durán's house and at times borrowed his expensive cars. Durán is the godfather to Antonini's small daughter.

In the end, it appeared to be a friendship that became expedient for both when outside pressures -- from three governments and the international media -- overwhelmed them.

Transcripts show Durán encouraged Antonini to follow the wishes of Venezuela's government in keeping quiet about the cash, but his lawyer counters that he was just providing caring advice to a friend who was in a legal bind.

All along, Durán was unaware that his longtime friend had already betrayed him by agreeing to wear a wire for the U.S. government.

U.S. prosecutors have accused Durán, along with four others, of acting as an unregistered foreign agent in a conspiracy to silence Antonini. He was arrested with three others: Moisés Maionica, Rodolfo Edgardo Wanseele Paciello and Durán's business partner and friend Carlos Kauffman. All three pleaded guilty and Maoinica and Kauffman testified in the ongoing trial against Durán, who faces up to 10 years in prison.

Durán's lawyer, Ed Shohat, has said the case is politically motivated, but the judge in the case would not allow him to present that argument at trail.

For days, the pair sat on opposite sides of the courtroom: Antonini, the portly, upper-class investor and Durán, the working-class mechanic turned high-rolling bachelor. Both grew wealthy under the regime of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Durán and Antonini own expensive properties on Key Biscayne, and they were often seen driving around in an assortment of exotic cars.

Antonini ''was an ordinary guy and all of sudden he was riding around in Ferraris,'' said Ken Rijock, an international financial crime expert who used to live in the same condo development as Antonini and who has done extensive research on the new Venezuelan millionaires who have emerged under Chávez. ``He and Durán were like ghosts around here -- they didn't participate much in the community, and they were somewhat covert about their dealings.''

The friendship between Antonini and Durán began with sympathy, according to a taped conversation between Antonini and Maionica. Antonini recounted that sometime around 1990 Durán was dating the daughter of a business associate of Antonini and the father did not approve of Durán because he was the ''poor boyfriend.'' Antonini invited Durán to stay in his house in a town outside Caracas.

''He didn't have any money,'' Antonini said on the recording. ``He was a little piece of sh--.''

But the balance of power in that relationship -- who was helping whom -- changed.

While questioning Antonini in court, Durán's lawyer Shohat took pains to show the close ties between him and Durán.

He highlighted that Antonini had signatory authority on Durán's accounts, that he drove Durán's cars, and that Durán trusted him to create the U.S. companies through which Durán managed his financial empire.

But Antonini said he often used that access to perform tasks for his richer friend: he paid Durán's bills, picked up his mail, made sure his car got fixed and washed.

''Alejandro -- hardly anyone called him Guido -- is like the big guy of the neighborhood, the good-natured fat guy, the one you sent to do bad things and who never said no,'' said an acquaintance of Antonini who asked not to be identified.

Durán and their friends called Antonini -- in a generally affectionate way -- ''Gordo'' or ``fat man,'' when speaking to him on the many conversations taped by the FBI.

Antonini comes from La Victoria, a small city nestled among the mountains southwest of Caracas.

''The Antoninis were a family of position,'' said South Florida Venezuelan activist Maylin Silva, whose family is from La Victoria.

Durán came from a more humble background, growing up in the working-class Carrizal neighborhood outside of Caracas. He attended a vocational college, where he graduated with mechanic's degree.

His specialty became race cars, and through that passion he met the influential businessmen who would launch his entrepreneurial career.

His first deal, a sale of electronics to a discount department store, was made with a loan backed by one of those contacts.

Although he and Kauffman were not overtly political, they were considered allies of Chávez's socialist revolution, and they developed a lucrative relationship with the Chávez government through arms, construction, and petrochemical contracts. Durán built a personal fortune estimated at $100 million.

Kauffman testified in the case that most of their financial success was built on a deep system of bribes and corruption.

In court motions, Shohat called the allegations ''scurrilous'' and were ``calculated to smear both Mr. Durán and the Venezuelan government.''

Others who have done business with the embattled Durán defend his motives and business ethics.
''People think that because he's part of the jet set and he goes out with beautiful women that he isn't a responsible person,'' said Alfredo D'Ascoli, lawyer for the governor of a Venezuelan state to which Durán sold weapons. ``He is a successful professional who believes in the policies of the [Venezuelan] government. That doesn't turn him into a government agent.''

Durán and Kauffman often used the word ''milk'' or a version of it in their company names -- including one which listed Antonini as vice president -- because of its meaning in Spanish.

The saying ''tener buena leche,'' or ''have good milk'' means to be lucky.

Kauffman already faces a difficult future, having spent the last 10 months in prison as his assets were seized by the Venezuelan government. Antonini has been uprooted from his former comfortable life, and is living in an undisclosed location, facing an Argentine extradition warrant and international infamy as the star of ''Valijagate'' or ``Suitcase-gate.''

Their luck, it seems has grown thin.

The question the jury will be answering is whether Durán's luck has run out.

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