Luisa Ortega, Venezuela’s former chief prosecutor, stands for a photograph following an interview in Bogota, Colombia.( Photographer: Ivan Valencia/Bloomberg)

Exiled Venezuela Prosecutor Says Maduro War on Graft Is a Farce

(Bloomberg) -- Venezuela’s former chief prosecutor says the government’s anti-corruption crackdown is a facade to cover a power struggle among the ruling party elite.

“This is no purge” of corrupt officials, Luisa Ortega said in an interview. “This is a fight for territory.”

President Nicolas Maduro’s administration has ramped-up arrests at state oil giant Petroleos de Venezuela SA, netting dozens of top executives and two former ministers. Ortega, who was ousted from her post as the nation’s top prosecutor in August, says Maduro and other senior members of the administration have long been aware of widespread graft at the company known as PDVSA and other state institutions, but suppressed investigations to protect political allies.

Previous probes into the nation’s oil industry or state complicity in currency exchange fraud schemes were routinely stymied by senior members of the government, the Supreme Court and Maduro himself, Ortega said.

“Every time we acted we faced an obstacle, and the Supreme Court would issue a decision to prevent criminal prosecution,” she said, in an interview in Bloomberg’s office in Bogota, where she is now living.

Split With Maduro

Ortega, a close ally of former President Hugo Chavez, served as the nation’s top law-enforcement official from 2007 to 2017. Once an ardent defender of the socialist regime, she split with Maduro earlier this year when he moved to consolidate power by gutting the opposition-led National Assembly, sparking months of bloody protests. Ortega’s criticism of Maduro’s government contrasts with her earlier reticence amid the scandals of the Chavez era.

After Maduro’s allies fired Ortega, the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of her lawmaker husband, German Ferrer, accusing him of running an extortion racket out of the prosecutor’s office. The couple deny the charges, and fled to Colombia.

Ortega says she repeatedly tried to crack down on illegal practices and neglect at PDVSA, launching more than 300 investigations into the company, but was repeatedly blocked from prosecuting by top company executives, such as former Oil Ministers Eulogio Del Pino and Nelson Martinez. Following a fatal 2012 Amuay refinery explosion that killed more than 40 people, Maduro himself halted her investigation into company negligence, she said.

The Real Battle

“He told me, this cannot be, you’re going to jeopardize the revolution,” she said.

Now, dogged by U.S. sanctions and with Venezuela’s economy in ruins, Ortega says Maduro is trying to shore up power prosecuting his inter-party rivals. 

Maduro named Major General Manuel Quevedo as the replacement for Martinez and Del Pino last month, days before the pair were arrested. On Tuesday, authorities said that they opened an investigation into Venezuela’s long-time oil czar, Rafael Ramirez, who quit his post as ambassador to the United Nations last week amid a deepening feud with Maduro.

“Maduro was never concerned with fighting corruption,” Ortega said. “This is battle among mafias.”

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.