Letters From Venezuela: US Places $5 Million Money Laundering Bounty on Country’s Crypto Czar

TL;DR: Letters from Venezuela is an exclusive CoinSpice series, an inside look from a reporter on the ground, documenting the South American nation’s last stand among sanctions, political unrest, international condemnation and concern, economic collapse, and the specter of cryptocurrency possibly demonstrating its main use case. In this installment, Joselit Ramirez, known as the Venezuelan Crypto Czar, has a $5 million bounty placed on his head and is added to the list of the most wanted criminals by US Homeland Security for money laundering.

Venezuelan Crypto Czar Joselit Ramirez Wanted on $5 Million Bounty

Joselit Ramirez, Superintendent of the Venezuelan office in charge of overseeing cryptocurrency developments in the country (SUNACRIP), has been included on the list of Most Wanted criminals by US Homeland Security. The agency is now offering a bounty of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest. According to the Bounty announcement, Ramirez was “indicted in the Southern District of New York for violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the Kingpin Act, and other sanctions imposed by U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC).”

Joselit Ramirez

Ramirez had already been mentioned in other investigations as a prominent member in the organization of Venezuelan officers involved in drug trafficking when the US government put a $15 million bounty on information leading to the capture of the nation’s President Nicolás Maduro, along with other bounties on lesser officials. According to the latest indictment, Joselit Ramirez could have been key in operations to launder money coming from these operations, led by Tareck El Aissami, former Vice President of the country, now the Oil Minister. El Aissami, also on ICE’s Most Wanted list, is being accused of facilitating “shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, including control over planes that left from a Venezuelan air base and routing drugs through Venezuelan ports.”

While the Petro, the national cryptocurrency launched by the Venezuelan government, has not been referred to explicitly in the indictment, it could be an important part of the cases. Venezuela has been facing a fuel shortage as a result of the destruction of its internal crude refining capacities, and it recently got a shipment of fuel from Iran, a country that is also facing economic sanctions stemming from President Trump’s administration. Iranian fuel is now being sold to Venezuelans, who can pay in Petros.

Could The Petro Have Been Used to Sidestep Sanctions?

The Petro has been sanctioned since its creation by the US government, who labeled it as a instrument to sidestep economic sanctions. However, it is unlikely the Petro could have been used to sidestep sanctions directly because of its relatively low popularity on international markets. Venezuela does have a cryptocurrency stash, however, according to statements made last year by unnamed officers of the Central Bank of Venezuela.

Joselit Ramirez

Last year, Bloomberg reported Venezuelan officers were searching ways of using the held cryptocurrencies to pay for goods and services provided to the state oil company, PDVSA. The government was also weighing the option of adding these cryptocurrencies to their international reserves, which were then at an all-time low. However, it seems none of this came to fruition. Selling stashed cryptocurrencies on international exchanges could be pretty difficult: Venezuela would have to provide proof of origin for such digital assets.

More Sanctions for Shipping Companies Transporting Venezuelan Oil

The sanctions do not end there. Recently, the Treasury Department issued more sanctions against four shipping firms transporting Venezuelan oil exports, as reported by Reuters. More sanctions are to further isolate the country and limit the reach of its commercial relations. Marshall Islands-based Afranav Maritime Ltd, Adamant Maritime Ltd and Sanibel Shiptrade Ltd, as well as Greece-based Seacomber Ltd, were the companies sanctioned.

Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, declared the above companies were “transporting oil that was effectively stolen from the Venezuelan people.” Four tankers were designated as “blocked property,” effectively barring them from conducting any operations. This paints an ugly picture for any businesses around the world wanting trade with PDVSA, the state oil company.

The US also recently halted two Iranian companies from shipping more oil to Venezuela, threatening greater economic sanctions to stop their operations worldwide, according to the Wall Street Journal, with the objective of isolating the country even more.

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