Attack on oil fields follows US expats’ departure from Venezuela

Written by By Staff Writer, Isaac Rauch, CNN

Just over a month ago, when Henry Romero was sentenced to 26 years in prison for allegedly participating in a plot to sabotage two Venezuela state-owned oil companies, he was considered the key suspect in an investigation that targeted corrupt management.

Now, the 46-year-old Andean engineer is now caught up in an American-Venezuelan dispute that’s targeting five of his former colleagues from a defunct engineering company.

American security firm Blackwater and its affiliate Academi were the first to come under scrutiny. Along with independent security firm HEMSI, both services were contracted to protect the companies’ employees.

But just before Venezuela’s own counter-terrorism unit could arrive in April 2016, the two American security firms left the country.

Between them, they provided close to $10 million in in-country security and “some of the country’s best, most dangerous guards,” a local business consultant in Caracas told CNN.

A year later, the region’s security firms are hunting for new employees and opportunities.

Blackwater left Venezuela in June 2016. Academi left in December.

What next for Venezuelan engineers jailed over alleged oil sabotage plot? Four years later, eight employees remain in prison.

Blackwater was contracted to a Venezuelan defense contractor, Edwin Moraev, who has worked with the US government in its war on terror. A former former national security advisor to Venezuela’s former President Hugo Chavez, Moraev was hired by the state oil company PDVSA to hire private guards for at least two international projects, which were eventually scrapped.

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It has also emerged that both Blackwater and Academi were reportedly provided luxury offices inside the Venezuelan presidential palace, Miraflores.

Blackwater also attempted to hire some Venezuelan government officials, including engineer Rudy Romero, who is currently in jail along with Henry Romero. Romero has also been sentenced to 26 years for allegedly authorizing payments to a dozen other people.

But the courts have yet to rule whether Gustavo Gonzalez, a former PDVSA employee, was involved in this plot.

Edoardo Sala, a founder of Flynos, a security consulting firm, was supposed to be a head of a contractor team from Academi. According to court documents, Sala negotiated contracts for the Blackwater protection contracts, as well as the payroll and building of the Blackwater offices in Miraflores.

Sala, who was based in Florida, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Blackwater was out of the country when the attack on the two energy companies took place.

Academi, contracted by Sempra Energy, has a temporary presence in Venezuela. After the June 2016 incident, the company did not make any payments.

For its part, PDVSA insists it had no involvement in the attack and is investigating the alleged crimes by its former employees. It has asked the Justice Department to bring their case before a US court.

The US has no extradition treaty with Venezuela, but Venezuela does have an extradition agreement with the country — which has played a part in resolving hundreds of crimes.

The country has hundreds of unsolved crimes and the justice system is believed to be corrupt. Only a handful of crimes in the country are investigated in detail.

Some lawyers suggest if the accusations against the former employees are proven, there may be opportunities to secure Venezuela’s extradition of the ex-employees and their colleagues.

Additional reporting by CNN’s Stella Olam

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