BOGOTÁ, Colombia — A top ally of Venezuela’s authoritarian government has been extradited to the United States, one of his lawyers said Saturday, where he will face money laundering charges in Florida.
The extradition of Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman and financial fixer for President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, represents a victory for the U.S. government, whose efforts to remove Mr. Maduro have faltered in recent years. Mr. Saab was detained more than a year ago by law enforcement officials in the West African island nation of Cape Verde.
His lawyer, Femi Falana, said he was removed from the country on Saturday without the knowledge of his legal team.
If Mr. Saab were to cooperate with U.S. officials, he could help untangle Mr. Maduro’s economic web, aiding authorities in bringing charges against other allies of the Venezuelan government.
But the extradition is also likely to complicate negotiations between Mr. Maduro and the country’s U.S.-supported opposition, which began in Mexico in September, and which the opposition hopes will push Mr. Maduro to allow free and fair elections.
The extradition makes Mr. Saab one of the highest-ranking supporters of Mr. Maduro to be taken into U.S. custody.
Mr. Maduro’s government has maintained that Mr. Saab’s detention is illegal, saying he is a diplomatic envoy and cannot be prosecuted, and his supporters have undertaken an elaborate global public relations campaign to rally support for his cause. At one point, #FreeAlexSaab became a rallying cry among Nigerian social media influencers.
But Cape Verde’s Constitutional Court rejected the diplomatic immunity argument last month and authorized his extradition to the United States to face charges.
In 2019, U.S. prosecutors indicted Mr. Saab for his alleged role in a bribery scheme that siphoned an estimated $350 million from a Venezuelan government housing project.
Washington has also accused Mr. Saab of “profiting from starvation” through his involvement in a scheme in which he and others allegedly made off with large sums of government funds meant to feed Venezuela’s hungry.
According to investigators, Mr. Saab and a business partner bribed top Venezuelan officials to obtain contracts to import food meant for citizens enrolled in a food subsidy program known by its Spanish acronym, CLAP. But Mr. Saab brought in “only a fraction of the food” he was supposed to import, while he “reaped substantial profits,” according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
U.S. officials have said that this was part of a larger plot in which Mr. Maduro’s allies bought less or lower-quality food than specified in contracts and doled out the extra money to loyalists. The CLAP program, they say, has been a critical tool for social control, with food and money used to reward political support and punish criticism.
Mr. Saab is one of several Maduro-linked officials and businessmen indicted by the U.S. government in recent years, including Mr. Maduro himself.
Mr. Saab’s detention was closely watched in Venezuela, where for some he has become synonymous with the worst abuses of the Maduro government.
“Alex Saab must be one of the most detested men” in Venezuela, the journalist Blanca Vera Azaf wrote on Twitter last year. “He built his fortune on the hunger of our people.”
Anatoly Kurmanaev and Ruth Maclean contributed reporting.