Venezuela has recently been experiencing a shortage of all foreign currencies due to a substantial drop in oil prices, the country’s central source of US dollars. It has gone through an economic contraction of close to three percent and is fighting a very high rate of inflation which is currently more than sixty percent.
Because of these financial difficulties, the government-determined exchange rate of the Bolivar, (Venezuela’s currency) has skyrocketed from approximately 4.25 Bolivar for 1 US dollar in 2013, to the current 6.29-1 legal rate of exchange (Source: Bloomberg 5/15/2015).
But the rate of exchange on Venezuela’s black market dwarfs the legal rate as US dollars become more precious to purchase items considered to be “essential goods” such as food and medicine that are not manufactured in Venezuela. These items make up around seventy percent of all imported products. The difference between the official exchange rate and the black-market rate can be up to as much as an exorbitant one-thousand percent. Recently, one U.S. dollar could be exchanged for close to three hundred Bolivars.
Due to this unique situation in the country, drug cartels have found a way to amass huge profits by carrying away loads of these essential products such as gasoline, imported medicines and foodstuffs to Colombia where they are traded for drugs, and dollars which are then brought back and sold in Venezuela making mammoth profits. These highly lucrative smuggled goods have bankrolled the rise of paramilitary groups, which now control significant strips of territory between the Venezuelan and Colombian border.
Allegedly, cashing in on the action, under the ruse of running a enterprise that would lend money to Venezuelan businesses so they could trade with companies in the United States, Martin Lustgarden Acherman, a Venezuelan-Austrian residing in Miami-Dade County perpetrated a scheme where he would fly drug profits out of Columbia; route them through his bank accounts in South Florida as well as other locations, and then exchange the funds for the local currency in Venezuela after flying the laundered currency back to that country.
The recent violence in Venezuela’s Capital of Caracas and other major cities, hand-in-hand with a collapsed economy has left store shelves sparsely filled. American cash is king on the black market, which in many cases has become the lifeline for local businesses so they are able to conduct commerce outside the country.
Earlier this month, federal authorities arrested Acherman, charging that he used his bank accounts here in South Florida to take advantage of the economic crisis in Venezuela to the benefit drug cartels, not businesses. He was arrested in Miami with Salomon Bendayan and Rama Krishna Kuchibhotla according to The Venezuelan Daily Brief.
Specifically, the federal government has charged that Acherman used his three Bank of America accounts located in Doral as conduits to launder $100 million in drug profits originating in Colombian back into Venezuela where he allegedly exchanged the proceeds for local currency at excessive black market prices.
Earlier this week federal prosecutors stated in court that Acherman “quarterbacked an international scheme to move U.S. dollars around on behalf of drug cartels and paramilitary organizations in Colombia… He takes advantage of the unique situation in Venezuela… has made a business of gathering U.S. dollars and making them available in places they are hard to come by such as Venezuela.”
Acherman has been charged with money laundering, conspiracy and obstruction and is being held pending further action. His lawyer commented that some of the government’s charges were “fantasy”, but did not provide further comment.