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Venezuela Pushes Forward in Corruption Purge, Arrests 11 Bankers

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Venezuelan authorities arrested 11 high-ranking bankers from the country’s biggest private financial institution, Banesco, and would “intervene in the institution”for 90 days in an effort to stamp out illegal banking practices.

Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab made the announcement in a TV broadcast Thursday, saying that a "surgical" investigation revealed irregularities that had devalued the country's currency.

The takeover of Banesco will see a deputy finance minister placed at the helm of the bank after the bank's executive president, Oscar Doval Garcia, and 10 others were arrested.

Venezuelan investigators said that a large number of suspicious Banesco accounts were linked to addresses in Panama, a country made notorious for being a good place to hide dark money with the release of the Panama Papers in 2016, and Colombia.

Banesco International's president, Juan Carlos Escotet, a Venezuelan citizen who was in Portugal when the arrest happened, said he was planning to return to Venezuela immediately. "I will go to Venezuela with peace of mind to support my colleagues," he tweeted Thursday.

"To the clients of BANESCO, I suggest you continue with BANESCO since under my ownership or not, it will always be the best guarantor of customer deposits," Escotet said in another tweet. And in another, he cautioned "The administrative intervention of Banesco will have a duration of 90 days. It is not a process of nationalization, therefore, the shareholders of Banesco maintain the property of the bank."

Critics of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his populist social democratic policies claim that government corruption and mismanagement are at the heart of the country's economic crisis. The government maintains that the country's wealthy class is sabotaging their socialist policies through economic warfare and by refusing to manufacture certain essential goods in an effort to stoke internal resentment against them, as well as hoarding wealth elsewhere.

The country's financial abuse crackdown came in response to accusations that an international network of financers was manipulating the black market exchange rate to the extent that it values the US dollar at a rate 10 times higher than the country's official exchange rate. So far, 134 arrests have been made and 1,380 bank accounts, mostly with Banesco, have been frozen.

The arrest of the bankers comes amid an anti-corruption purge in the country and follows the arrest of two Chevron employees in late April. "The decisions of the prosecutor's office are based on serious investigations to fight corruption… These two people involved have the right to defense and due process," Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said in a April 25 televised address.

Prior to the Chevron arrests, which the company responded to by evacuating its executives from the country, the attorney general had 80 executives and business partners of PDVSA, the country's state-owned oil company, arrested for graft. "Criminal [PDVSA] administrators colluded with criminal businesspeople to embezzle from the nation," Saab said during a March 20 press conference.

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