A frozen $270 million bank account, yachts, airplanes and luxury homes. Those are some of the U.S. assets that several victims of Colombia's FARC guerrillas hope to seize from a Venezuelan businessman who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2017 for allegedly laundering drug money for the outlawed rebel army.
The businessman, Samark López, who was also named late last month on a list of 'most wanted' drug traffickers by the U.S. government, strongly denies his links to drug trafficking and has assembled an impressive defense team to clear his name.
Among them: Dick Gregorie, a renowned former Miami federal prosecutor with a long record of putting drug lords behind bars.
Gregorie retired last year and told the court in March that there was no evidence of links between López and the FARC.
"There is no evidence, source or document which demonstrates that Samark José López Bello has ever been involved in any narcotics transactions or has conducted any transaction with a member of the FARC," stated Gregorie, who is now managing director of the Miami office of the global consulting firm, Berkeley Research Group (BRG).
So far, no evidence has been presented in the case directly linking Lopez to the FARC, though the plaintiffs hired an experienced former DEA agent who claims López is indirectly tied to the guerillas.
Court records confirm that López faces no drug trafficking or money laundering charges in the United States. The only formal accusation against him is a criminal complaint from a federal court in New York where he is accused of violating the sanctions that prohibited him from doing business with U.S. companies.
The case is moving forward as the Trump administration continues to heap pressure on the regime of Nicolás Maduro, this week declaring "maximum pressure" with an embargo on Venezuelan government assets in the United States.
The civil litigation over López's fortune began in February this year in the federal court of the Southern District of Florida. Four US contractors kidnapped by the FARC in Colombia in February 2003, and released five years later, requested the seizure of the his U.S. assets which were frozen after the sanctions were imposed.
The four U.S. contractors allege that his fortune is linked to the FARC, citing a February 2017 designation by the U.S. Department of the Treasury declaring López as a frontman for Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela's former Vice President, who is considered to be drug trafficker and money launderer by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). El Aissami was also included July 31 on the U.S. list of the 10 'most wanted' drug traffickers, according to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service (ICE) website.
"López Bello is a key frontman of El Aissami and in that capacity he launders drug proceeds," the 2107 Treasury statement said, adding: "López Bello is used by El Aissami to purchase certain assets."
Jeffrey Kolansky, Lopez's lead attorney, told Univision News in a phone interview that his client has been the victim of a campaign of accusations that have not been legally proven.
"López vehemently denies that he has or has had anything to do with drug trafficking in any way or form. He denies that he was an agent ... of the FARC," Kolansky said. "He [Lopez] says he is a legitimate businessman ... and is willing to answer any of the charges filed by OFAC or any jurisdiction in the United States."
López's defense lawyers argue in court documents that he had no link with the FARC. The Colombian government has never mentioned López as a member of FARC, they add.
Kolansky explained that there has been a friendship between Lopez and El Aissami for 15 or 20 years and that therelationship continues on good terms, but that "they never did business at any time," he added.
According to Kolansky, his client does not tire of repeating: "I am not a drug dealer, I am not a drug dealer, that is bull****.
The plaintiffs are claiming López's property based on a 2010 ruling by a federal judge who formally recognized them as victims of the rebel group under the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA). The decision grants them the right to be compensated through the seizure of any property seized from the FARC. Although the guerrillas reached a peace agreement with the Colombian government, the organization continues to be listed as a terrorist by the United States government. Victims aspire to compensation of more than $ 318 million.
To win the case, the plaintiffs' lawyers have to prove that López was a so-called "agent of instrumentality" of the FARC, an ill-defined legal concept that includes financial and logistical ties, according to López's lawyers .
López's fortune consists of a $270 million dollar bank account, airplanes, yachts and several luxury properties in Florida. All the assets were seized by OFAC under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, also known as the Kingpin Act, designed to deny major drug lords access to the U.S. financial system.
The judge in the case has already authorized the sale of the Waku I and Waku II yachts by López. The proceeds of the sale will go to the victims. The sale of the other properties continues in dispute.
Hostages vs. FARC
The four contractors Tom Janis, Tom Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, among others, allege that the members of "the network of El Aissami and López Bello (...) are each an agency or instrument of the FARC" as well as the Cartel of the Suns, a shadowy group of top Venezuelan military officers allegedly involved in drug trafficking.
The plaintiffs cite testimony from experts such as former Colombian Navy officer, Luis Miguel Cote, and former Washington Post journalist, Douglas Farah, president of IBI Consultants.
Based also on numerous media reports and federal accusations, the plaintiffs claim that there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the FARC is complicit with the Cartel of the Suns in transport and export operations of cocaine shipments from Venezuela to Europe or Center America and from there to the United States.
While the latter may not be in dispute, the issue is López's supposed connection to the FARC and the Cartel de the Suns. That relationship, according to the testimony of former DEA agent Paul Craine, was clear due to Lopez' close ties to El Aissami, and the latter's link to the FARC's cocaine business.
Craine, who worked for the DEA for 30 years, much of it in Colombia, described El Aissami in court testimony in June as a key player in the links between the Venezuelan government, the FARC and the cocaine trade.
"El Aissami used his accomplice Samark López Bello and López Bello front companies, such as Yakima Trading Corporation, to launder drug proceeds from El Aissami's participation in the trafficking of FARC drug shipments through Venezuela," Craine wrote in his statement.
Gregorie backs Lopez
To support their case, Archer & Greiner, the Philadelphia firm representing Lopez, cited the opinion of Gregorie. In addition to stating there was no evidence López had FARC ties, Gregorie concluded that the Cartel de the Suns "is not the FARC," but was rather an organization "allegedly headed by high-ranking members of the Armed Forces of Venezuela."
Gregorie retired from the Justice Deprtment in 2018 after a distinguished 42 year career. Much admired in legal circles, he famously helped convict Panamanian general Manuel Antonio Noriega on drug trafficking charges in 1992. He also led the prosecution of leaders of the Cali and Medellin drug cartels.
In recent years, he led the investigation and prosecution of Venezuelan businessmen, officials and military who invested the proceeds of corruption in the United States or were involved in drug trafficking.
Gregorie told Univision News that he had no "conflict of interest" in participating as an advisor to López's defense team.
Several expert witnesses for the plaintiffs reaffirmed their claims at an evidentiary hearing in June under probing from defense lawyers.
Farah told the hearing that in 2016 López's name "began surfacing in our contacts with our sources who were describing different drug trafficking structures and how they were laundering money." The analyst added that Lopez was "a key actor in those structures."
"Your Honor, I move to strike his testimony. It's all speculation," one of López's attorneys, Jeffrey Scott, said in reference to Farah's testimony. "He hasn't presented any foundation for any of this other than surmising that someone who has money is connected with some kind of drugs and lives in Venezuela." Judge Scola denied the request, but insisted on asking for concrete evidence of López's links to drug trafficking.
Craine told the court that López had "very close relationships with high-ranking officials in Venezuela," and had received numerous contracts from the Venezuelan government. Meanwhile, most of El Aissami's wealth "was based on his relationship with criminal activity associated or sourced by the FARC," he added.
El Aissami is currently Minister of Industries and National Production.
Under questioning from the judge, Craine conceded there was no direct connection between López and the FARC. However, in describing the business relationship between Lopez and El Aissami, Craine said it consisted of "providing money laundering and other financial resources to Mr El Aissami and the laundering of proceeds that come from El Aissami's activities with the FARC, that that is the connection."
Asked to be more specific, he said: "Financial support and support for laundering funds, purchase of properties, generally of a financial nature," Craine said.
The defense has not addressed in court the issue of the origin of López's fortune. At the time he was hit with sanctions by OFAC in 2017, the 44-year-old businessman explained that he was engaged in oil and housing for the Venezuelan government.
Kolansky, López's lawyer, assured Univision News that his client is an "efficient and effective businessman" who accumulated his fortune in construction, oil and food businesses, although he clarified that the latter has no relation to the CLAP food program that distributes the Venezuelan government and has been a source of corruption scandals.
"PDVSA owes him hundreds of millions of dollars," Kolansky explained. "He made his money the old fashioned way, by working for it," he added.
The lawyer explained that his client lived part of the year in Venezuela as well as spending time in the United States.
Cars and villas
Among the properties pursued by the victims are also a Gulfstream 200 Luxury Jet aircraft; a 2014 Rolls-Royce, a Bentley Continental Coupe, a Ferrari and a Cadillac Escalade and three properties at the Millennium Tower in Miami's Brickell banking district.
Last May, the Dominican Republic authorities together with U.S. federal agents, raided two villas at the Verón complex in Punta Cana, both said to belong to López.
Gregorie is not the only former senior U.S. government official to join Lopez's legal battle. After OFAC imposed the sanctions against him, Lopez hired a lawyer, Richard Newcomb, who formely directed the OFAC.
Newcomb left the Treasury Department in 2004 and currently works as chair of international trade at DLA Piper, a large Washington D.C. law firm. He represented López for a year and a half until Kolansky took over the case.
As Univision reported in February 2017, López hired Newcomb to prepare a due diligence report on his assets in order to operate in the United States. Newcomb's favorable report enabled Lopez to open bank accounts and make million dollar purchases of materials for his housing projects in Venezuela.
* David Adams contributed to this report.