Straw Owner Links Maduro’s Stepsons to Florida Companies
An investigation by Sayari has uncovered more than 20 companies linked to a fixer who the U.S. government alleges is a “straw owner” of companies on behalf of the stepsons of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. These companies may represent vectors for Maduro and his associates to move money out of Venezuela—including through the United States.
Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced new sanctions as part of its efforts to punish corrupt actors and cripple the Venezuelan government. Among others, the sanctions targeted Maduro’s three stepsons, referring to them as gatekeepers to Venezuelan public officials.
However, the U.S. Department of Justice has separately linked the stepsons to broader money-laundering efforts by Maduro associates. Sayari’s investigation identified 22 companies in Florida, Mauritius, Panama, and Venezuela linked to Mario Enrique Bonilla Vallera, who allegedly serves as a “straw owner” for the three stepsons.
Setting up the Straw Owner
Yoswal, Yosser, and Walter Gavidia Flores are the stepsons of sanctioned Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from a previous marriage of Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores. Media coverage of the brothers has largely focused on their alleged involvement in embezzlement and money laundering schemes.
At first glance, the brothers appear to have deftly covered their tracks in public records databases. Major open source corporate data aggregators do not reveal any obvious links between them and foreign companies. Venezuelan government employment records available through Sayari Search show Yosser and Walter as employees of the national legislative assembly and a government public works foundation, respectively. However, based on this evidence, it appears that the brothers’ financial activities are largely outside the public record.
Identifying the Straw Owner
Fig. 1: Shareholders of a company tied to Yoswal Gavidia.
We redacted the names of most of these related parties. However, the 50% shareholder, Mario Enrique Bonilla Vallera, is notable.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice charged him with conspiracy to commit money laundering. Prosecutors targeted Bonilla in Operation Money Flight, a U.S. investigation into an elaborate, billion-dollar embezzlement and money laundering scheme by multiple Venezuelan public officials, their families, and their financial fixers in Venezuela, Europe, and the United States that operated between 2014 and 2018.
In one court filing related to the case (see Fig. 2), U.S. prosecutors describe Bonilla as a “straw account owner” for the Gavidia Flores brothers. A straw owner is a fixer and stand-in under whose name assets and companies exist as a proxy for the true beneficiaries.
Fig. 2: U.S. prosecutors detail the role of Mario Bonilla as a stand-in for Maduro’s stepsons.
Bonilla’s International Network
The Southern District of Florida declared Bonilla a fugitive in September 2018, and his case remains open. Bonilla has left a long paper trail, however. Venezuelan public records archived in Sayari Search reveal that he was formerly an employee of the Venezuelan attorney general’s office. This is a somewhat ironic career choice, given his current legal troubles.
Public records also show that he is a current or former related party of at least 22 companies in Florida, Mauritius, Panama, and Venezuela. Several of these companies are current Venezuelan government contractors. All but a handful were created between 2014 and 2018, when prosecutors allege the conspiracy was active. Some of the companies incorporated mere months before Bonilla’s indictment.
Furthermore, an individual who is a co-shareholder of six Venezuelan companies with Bonilla is also a member of five Florida LLCs Bonilla is connected to. Maduro’s stepson Yoswal Gavidia himself is also associated with one of those Venezuelan companies, according to public records. This suggests that this second individual, who has not been publicly identified by U.S. prosecutors, may also be a straw owner for Maduro’s stepsons or other relatives.
Any one of the other related parties of any company linked to Yoswal or Mario Bonilla could represent a potential investigative lead. More broadly, focusing on identifying straw owners like Bonilla is a useful tool in cases involving a well-known or politically exposed person (PEP). The exact implications of this for each investigation will be different. However, this typically means allocating more initial effort to closely scrutinizing connections between the target and their personal associates. Doing so, it’s possible to identify particularly salient or durable relationships. Establishing that connection can reveal a whole network that would otherwise fly under the radar.