TRENACO SA: unknown Swiss outfit bags $20bn contract from PDVSA

The email came from a fellow journalist at Colombia’s W Radio, asking for information about Trenaco SA and/or Alex Saab. The issue at hand was a contract, believed to exceed $7 billion USD, that Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) granted to Trenaco, through subsidiary PetroMiranda. Readers of this site may remember my previous investigations into multimillion dollar fraud involving Saab and his Fondo Global de Construcción companies in Venezuela, Ecuador, Malta, Spain and so on. To be frank, I did not know about this new Trenaco venture of Saab, but it did not take long to identify a few patterns.

Trenaco SA is a Swiss outfit. Registry information identifies Carlos Enrique Gabaldón Vivas, from Venezuela, as a member of its board. Trenaco has a colorful track record in Colombia. Its website is a joke: its domain was registered by Juan Velasquez in July 2009, and, back then, it used to claim “We are a company with more than 9 years of experience in the market with a highly knowledgeable team.” Right… Oh, did I mention TRENACO’s Venezuelan denomination (TRading ENergy And COal) is not even registered?

From August 2012 till July 2014, Carlos Gutierrez Robayo (bother in law of former Bogota’s Mayor Gustavo Petro) was part of the board. There’s enough information out there suggesting that Gutierrez Robayo is another one of those “successful” entrepreneurs that just happen to get lucky with public contracts. Colombian corruption scandals aside, Trenaco emerged in Venezuela, and participated in a bid (B-131–15–0014) for the construction of oil platforms, pipelines, and drilling in new developments located in Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt (pictured).

The Orinoco Belt region, said to contain the world’s largest oil deposits.

Trenaco doubled its capital last year, from 20 million Swiss Francs to 40 million (about $40 million USD). That was just before the Petromiranda contract was allegedly granted in August 2015.

Alex Saab, a long time topic of research of mine, is allegedly involved. Cilia Flores’s (Venezuela’s First Lady) favourite nephew, Eric Malpica Flores, is also believed to be involved in the process of granting the contract.

Doubting the alleged $7 billion figure, I consulted with Gustavo Coronel, oil expert and member of PDVSA’s first board.

His reply was:

What sets it apart from normal bids is the size. It seems to be a very big job because they are talking about “SERVICIO INTEGRAL DE CONSTRUCCIÓN DE PLATAFORMAS, PERFORACION Y CONEXIONADO DE POZOS PARA LOS NUEVOS DESARROLLOS DE LA FPO (EEMM PETROMIRANDA, PETROJUNIN, PETROURICA, PETROCARABOBO Y PETROINDEPENDENCIA)”. This means ALL the new facilities that might be needed. In this sense it represents a BLANKET contract, although the client appears to be only PetroMiranda, only one of the five different areas of the Faja… I can tell you, however, that such a blanket bidding is totally out of line with good management practices. Once the company wins such a bid they are in control of EVERYTHING that has to be done in the FAJA in this field of operations. This would be a gigantic job. If, as you say, the contract went to one single company (without bidding, or with a murky process?) this would be highly irregular and has to be investigated.

I managed to get in touch with Carlos Enrique Gabaldón Vivas, previously mentioned as current Trenaco’s board member, to ask whether there was any truth to the rumours. Gabaldón Vivas admitted that Trenaco had participated in the bid, but refused to specify whether contract was granted (and related amount), and whether Alex Saab / Carlos Gutierrez Robayo were involved. In his reply he claimed:

“Trenaco S.A. decidió suspender sus inversiones en Latinoamérica hasta que los mercados emergentes se estabilicen.”

Which means “Trenaco decided to suspend its operations in LatinAmerica until emerging markets stabilise.” This argument seems completely out of place coming from a company that is participating in bids and actively seeking contracts.

Would La W Radio risk a lawsuit by going public with inaccurate information?

But then, while I was doing my own investigation, La W Radio published an article about Trenaco, claiming that the company has, in fact, received a few contracts in Venezuela that could “exceed $4.4bn and 99.8bn BsF”.

The article goes on to claim that information comes from projected figures contained in a presentation that Trenaco did, about a joint venture geared at developing some 600 oil wells in Venezuela’s Orinoco Belt.

La W Radio claims to have a copy of one of the contracts granted to Trenaco, for $803 million USD, related to just one development. Similar contracts were allegedly granted for similar amounts. The article claims that Trenaco is having financial difficulties in Colombia (debts of some $40 million USD, while increasing capital by half that amount in Switzerland), though one of the most sensational claims is that Alex Saab’s Fondo Global de Construcción became Trenaco’s controlling party in July 2015, adding that Alvaro Pulido took part in Trenaco’s board meetings.

There are a few interesting issues here, perhaps the most obvious being that Trenaco’s board member Gabaldón Vivas stated very clearly in his reply to my questions that Alex Saab has nothing to do with Trenaco. Then there’s that amount in BsF granted: 99.8 billion. That’s either $15.7 billion USD, $8.3 billion USD, or $580 million USD depending on which official rate of exchange is applied. Given that this is PDVSA, operating in undoubtedly the most important sector of Venezuela’s economy, it would not be a stretch to think that the State will guarantee that Trenaco gets whatever capital it needs in hard currency.

Jaime Francisco Sánchez Yánez, brother of Saab’s partner Luis Eduardo Sánchez Yánez, with President Rafael Correa.

La W Radio politely printed Saab’s explanations as to his non-involvement with the multimillion dollar fraud his Fondo Global de Construcción pulled in Ecuador. Despite his “clarifications” there is a clear trail that links him with the Ecuadorian scam. Sources very close to Saab revealed that he exerted tremendous pressure on Galo Chiriboga, Ecuador’s Attorney General. In addition, a brother of one of Saab’s Venezuelan partners (Luis Eduardo Sánchez Yánez, wanted in Ecuador) is a special advisor to President Rafael Correa (pictured). No wonder that Ecuador’s Attorney General’s probe into Saab’s deals is going nowhere fast. Of note, Amir Nassar, Venezuelan lawyer that Saab dispatched to London to meet me, is also part of the investigation in Ecuador.

Alvaro Pulido, another partner of Saab of Colombian origin (also wanted in Ecuador), also gets a mention in the article. I believe La W Radio got it slightly wrong in that respect. For Pulido’s real name is German Rubio, a once drug cartels associate who was extradited to the U.S. according to sources familiar with Saab’s businesses.

The stellar performance of Alex Saab in Venezuela is easy to explain, if consideration is given to his close relationship with Colombian narco senator Piedad Cordoba. Cordoba was a fixture in Hugo Chavez’s relations with FARC narcoterrorists and, as a matter of fact, has received plenty of support and funds from the Venezuelan caudillo, whose passing did nothing to curtail Saab’s spiraling ventures in Venezuela. Quite the contrary. William Amaro, personal secretary of President Nicolas Maduro and wanted in connection to drug money, is one of the people that guarantees access and contracts for Saab. A leak to this site even claimed -unconfirmed- that Saab was part of Nicolas Maduro’s official committee in a trip to Vietnam and China last year.

Emails to PDVSA requesting comment have gone unanswered. When I pressed Gabaldón Vivas for further information, he went quiet. I also searched -without success- PDVSA’s website for evidence of contract having been granted to Trenaco, after all such information should be made public as per current legislation.

There’s no reason, however, to doubt La W Radio’s claim of having documents that prove that contracts were indeed granted to Trenaco. Knowing Saab’s trigger-happy and utterly irresponsible lawyers, La W wouldn’t have risked to publish stuff it couldn’t support in court. If indicated amounts are true, this may well be one of the largest corruption scams ever perpetrated by PDVSA. For how come a $40-million-dollar company, that will have to subcontract all work, gets to be granted such an important and valuable contract? I understand Saab has been for a while in the crosshairs of U.S. Federal Agencies. His sons apparently are within easy reach. With the late flurry of detentions, indictments, and probes related to Venezuela, its contractors and high officials, it may be just a matter of time till he starts wearing orange.


I have been researching and writing about corruption since 2002: first in vcrisis.com, then in blogger.com, Semana (Colombia), El País (Spain), La Prensa (Panama), Tax Justice Network, etc. The last site I launched, infodio.com, was banned by the Venezuelan regime. You can follow me on Twitter and Medium. Originally published at infodio.com.