Saturday, May 21

Banca Privada d’Andorra: the PRI’s black hole

An office of the Banca Privada d'Andorra (BPA), in September 2019.
An office of the Banca Privada d’Andorra (BPA), in September 2019.Javier Martin

On February 27, 2012, it was presented as an anodyne day at the headquarters of the Private Bank of Andorra (BPA). Under the scrutinizing gaze of its owners, the brothers Ramón and Higini Cierco, the top of the bank examined the balance sheets of Latin America in the boardroom. Argentina, Uruguay, Panama…. Everything seemed to work like a greased motor. But there was an exception. “The procedures will begin to put an end to the presence in Mexico,” the bank briefly reflected in a minute of its control committee.

The prediction was not fulfilled. And the BPA maintained its commercial network in Mexico until March 2015, when the US Treasury pushed for the bank’s intervention for allegedly acting as a money launderer for criminal groups such as Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant that perpetrated the America’s largest bribery plot. But what happened in 2012 for the financial institution to threaten to leave Mexico, the second largest economy in Latin America? A bank for the rich that was disappearing from a country that that year registered 1,900 fortunes of more than 30 million dollars, according to the Wealth-X firm?

EL PAÍS has had access to internal bank documents, police reports and confidential audits that clarify some of these unknowns. And they explain the eventful journey of the entity in Mexico. A story that mixes murky fortunes, high officials of the Treasury, drug traffickers with briefcases and prominent men of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Or, what is the same, a corporation that united under the protective mantle of banking secrecy figures of organized crime with PRI members such as the governor of the State of Mexico, Alfredo del Mazo; former deputies Óscar Lara Arechiga and Francisco Arroyo Vieyra; the lawyer for former President Enrique Peña Nieto, Juan Ramón Collado; and Senator Sylvana Beltrones, daughter of the former president of the tricolor Manlio Fabio Beltrones. All cases revealed by this newspaper.

To understand this story, we must go back to October 2006. The Mexican Ministry of Finance and Public Credit authorizes the opening of BPA in this country. With lures such as the confidentiality of bank secrecy, the stability of old Europe and an oiled commercial network little given to asking questions about the mysterious fortunes, the bank is making a dent in the country.

Only one year passes. And 71 families and 10 companies make up the initial client portfolio of this institution piloted more than 9,000 kilometers from Mexico City. High officials, university leaders, candidates, businessmen and lawyers close to power … All of them take refuge in their shameful money in the brand new and reserved Mexican BPA.

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A senior Treasury official, pioneer

Giovanni Zenteno was coordinator of the governmental Mexican Institute of Social Security in 2006. And he had no problems landing in the Cierco family entity, despite the fact that the financial institution should have prevented him due to his status as a high-ranking official. “The decision to open an account abroad was due to security and fiscal reasons,” confesses by mail Zenteno, who was also Secretary of the Treasury of Chiapas (1994-2000) and national coordinator of the Permanent Commission of Fiscal Officials (1999- 2000). The former tax chief avoids specifying how much he hid in Andorra. The Prosecutor’s Office of the European country investigated him in 2017 for his connection with a firm related to the former governor of Veracruz Javier Duarte, who was sentenced in 2018 to nine years in prison for diverting public resources through a web of shell companies. He was not the only one. Last year, the Andorran public ministry kept open several dozen investigations into Mexican fortunes in the BPA and, when the bank intervened, in 2015, these investigations amounted to 80, according to sources familiar with the case.

Zenteno was part of the first litter. A portfolio that included Juan Sigfrido Millán Lizárraga, governor of the PRI for Sinaloa between 1993 and 2004, and with whom this newspaper has not been able to contact. Also, to an irregular list of profiles. A former deputy director of Institutional Relations of the Federal Electricity Commission, the current president of the Governing Board of a university in Guanajuato, a businessman from Sinaloa who was shot to death in Guadalajara in 2007 …

One year after birth, the BPA-Mexico shed is about to collapse. The chauffeur of the subsidiary sends a report to Andorra that reveals that their bosses, Manuel Urdangaray and José Miguel Díaz, launder four million dollars a month from the drug. They work in the shadows, he says, for a Venezuelan client, Gabriel Ignacio Gil Yáñez, a former adviser to the government of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013). And they charge a commission of 1.5% for acting as a money washer. The management reports the case to the Andorran and Mexican authorities. And it reduces it to a mere incident of laundering. Yáñez’s connection with the drug trafficker is obviated. It also ignores that the mechanism to inject crime money into the system is channeled through the Mexican exchange house ByB.

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BPA tries to put out the fire. But he does it halfway. The entity maintains a relationship with the bank of the suspected employee Díaz, according to a September 2017 email from the deputy general manager, Xavier Mayol.

The institution of the Cierco brothers overcomes the issue. And, despite the blows of the 2008 financial crisis, it grows. He does it with his own name, that of his delegate Joan March Masson. The executive succeeds in making the operator of an unknown European country covered by lakes, forests and ski resorts spread out in silence in the halls of power as a guarantee of discretion. The figures support him. The financial institution attracts 122 clients in Mexico in 2010 and adds 192.6 million in business volume. In 2012, there are already 174 enigmatic Mexicans who move 243 million in the entity, according to internal data.

Run 2013. And BPA closes its embassy in Mexico, but maintains its presence in the country. Until the bank’s intervention in 2015, Masson piloted a team of three employees who lacked a fixed salary. And, with the spur of the commissions, it knocks in silence at the door of the wealthy fortunes. It is dropped at receptions and cocktails of power.

The bank offers a turnkey opaque service. An elaborate shed that extends its subsidiaries to Panama and Switzerland. From its tentacle of the Central American country, it manufactures a long list of companies off shore to shelter the glassy fortunes.

With growth, problems also start. The institution begins to attract Politically Exposed Persons (PEP), a label that in financial jargon identifies public officials or former leaders susceptible to receiving funds tainted by corruption.

The former half million dollar deputy

Luz del Carmen López Rivera, former federal deputy of the PRI and founder and president of the mining company Santa Lucía SA de CV, announced in May 2012 to the bank that she wants to place half a million dollars in BPA under the shield of her company Harrigay Entreprises SA , according to a report by the Andorran Police. The former parliamentarian has not responded to this newspaper’s questionnaire.

The builder’s nine million

Another internal document reveals that engineer Bernardo Quintana Kawage, former CEO of ICA Construcción Urbana, deposited a total of 9 million dollars in 2011. “He is the son of the president of one of the most important construction companies in Latin America with 35,000 employees,” note the managers. This newspaper has tried unsuccessfully to obtain the version of this manager, who held the national vice presidency of Public-Private Associations in the Mexican Chamber of Construction.

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Another point more. Four Mexican companies announced in August 2014 their intention to resort to the labyrinthine sheds of the BPA to enter three accounts numbered $ 70 million. The money, the companies tell the bank, comes from a lawsuit won against the Mexican Treasury that started in 1990.

Since 2015, the year of the bank’s intervention, the ideas and comings of the members of the Mexican prosecutor’s office to Andorra have been as discreet as they are constant. During the mandate of former President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), the former Attorney General’s Office (PGR) sought a shortcut to save the millionaire assets of some of the Mexican clients trapped in the networks of Judge Canòlich Mingorance and the prosecutor Alfons Alberca, two hunting dogs that have made more than one provost of the PRI sleepless. Through the presentation in the courts of Andorra of reports on the “legitimate” origin of the fortunes investigated for money laundering, they achieved the provisional file of cases such as that of Juan Ramón Collado, Peña Nieto’s lawyer, who moved 120 million dollars ( 107 million euros) in 23 accounts between 2006 and 2015. After being arrested in Mexico for similar crimes, the lawyer’s case was reopened.

“The so-called non-exercise of criminal action (neap) has been the trick that was used then to boycott some of the investigations of the proteges of the previous Government,” says an official familiar with the investigations. The Mexican Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the prosecutor Alberto Alcántara, who has already been dismissed, and three of his trips to Andorra “for unusual and irregular” on the suspicion that he interceded on behalf of Collado.

The minutes of the Prevention Committee, the watchdog of the financial institution that watches, in theory, to prevent dirty money from landing in the BPA deposits, could not be more explicit. They collect 59 mentions of Mexicans between 2007 and 2015. Or, in other words, one in three Mexican clients who knocked on the door of the Cierco brothers’ bank was a suspect. Another blow of mud: The main directors of the extinct entity are being investigated by the Andorran Justice in various cases for their connection with a string of crimes such as money laundering.

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