Venezuelan tycoon protects US fortune from victims of FARC rebels

An appeals court has overturned a Florida federal judge’s order seizing the US fortune of a sanctioned Venezuelan billionaire with alleged cartel ties to satisfy a $318 million judgment for US victims of a Colombian terrorist kidnapping.

Samark López is one of Venezuela’s most powerful businessmen, with close ties to that country’s socialist government. He was charged in New York for allegedly violating sanctions freezing his considerable US wealth, including yachts, planes, luxury Miami real estate and a $269 million Citibank account.

Tuesday’s ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a 2020 order by Judge Robert Scola of Miami awarding those stranded assets to three former U.S. defense contractors held for years by the Forces revolutionary armies of Colombia to satisfy an earlier judgment against their former captors. , a US-designated terrorist group.

López has long denied any connection to the FARC. With testimony from Dick Gregorie, a former prosecutor who put hundreds of narcos behind bars, including General Manuel Noriega of Panama, his lawyers argued that the US government and plaintiffs had produced no evidence linking López even indirectly. to the rebels.

The argument convinced the appeals committee, which sent the case back to the lower court and ordered that Lopez’s frozen assets could only be paid out to FARC victims if a jury finds a relationship exists.

In a unanimous opinion, Appeals Judge Adalberto Jordan likened the allegations against López to a popular board game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which involves linking the Hollywood star to other actors through their roles in six films or less.

“Common sense dictates, however, that the more attenuated the connection, the harder it will be to prove,” said the three-judge panel’s decision, which has not previously been released. “This evidence, considered collectively and taken in the light most favorable to the López appellants, created significant questions of fact as to whether Mr. López and his companies were agencies or instruments of the FARC.”

López’s legal troubles in the United States stem from his designation in 2017 as a narcotics kingpin alongside his close friend, Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s powerful oil czar. The United States then accused López of leading El Aissami to hide proceeds from multi-ton cocaine shipments when he was interior minister and governor of Aragua state, home to the largest port in Venezuela.

The FARC were not mentioned by name when López and El Aissami were sanctioned and the only known criminal charges against the pair are for allegedly chartering private flights to the United States in violation of sanctions, not drug trafficking.

During a February hearing in Miami, López’s attorney, Adam Fels, argued that much of the evidence against his client was hearsay and that he deserved at least a trial before his assets. not be shared among the victims of a crime that did not even take place in Venezuela.

In 2012, a federal judge in Florida awarded Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes $318 million to be paid from bank accounts and assets seized from FARC-linked individuals.

But the men had mostly been unable to collect until President Donald Trump signed into law the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act in 2018, which allowed victims of terrorist groups to seize assets already blocked by the US government under the drug law.

The three former Northrop Grumman employees were captured by guerrillas when their plane crashed due to engine trouble during a drug enforcement flight in 2003. Their pilot, Tom Janis, was killed by the rebels.

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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