One of the more interesting challenges of following current events in Venezuela is picking one’s way through the universe of local news and social media, experts and political personalities endlessly churning out information and disinformation masquerading as objective news and opinion.
Venezuelan journalism has a very rich history of extraordinarily talented and courageous investigative reporters and analysts. Bocaranda, La Bicha, Poleo and Schmidt, among others, always have been must-reads for this Gringo.
But Venezuelan journalism also has a dark underbelly.
Jose Vicente Rangel calls himself an investigative journalist and objective analyst. But countless others know JVR to be a lifelong conspirator, extortionist, collector of fees and commissions, destroyer of lives and reputations, even as the alleged intellectual author of at least one murder.
Tannous “Tony” Gerges at Reporte Diario de la Economia is another example of Venezuelan journalism’s dark underbelly. This gringo met Gerges in 2005. At the time, almost a decade ago now, Reporte under Tony Gerges was editorially carpet-bombing the Chavez regime’s congenital corruption from Monday-Friday, week after week.
Tony was physically a large man of considerable girth, outwardly brash and confident, a Lebanese-born businessman with a checkered past resulting from allegations that years earlier he had a business associate killed in a money dispute. Several of this Gringo’s friends, including other journalists and businessmen, privately shared personal insights on Reporte and its owner that suggested at least some of the “corruption exposes” were, in fact, shakedowns, extortions, blackmail.
Reporte’s favorite anti-corruption targets under Tony’s direction back then included Banco Bolivar’s owners, and individuals like Eligio Cedeno and Arne Chacon, among others. He also published regular anti-corruption exposes of Rafael Ramirez, various Pdvsa board members, and the new Bolibourgeois elites profiting hugely thanks to crooked deals with the regime.
But Tony Gerges finally pushed the wrong people too hard and too often, and in 2008 Tony’s brother was murdered as a result. Tony was the intended target that day. But his brother Pierre, Reporte’s administrative manager, died instead because he borrowed Tony’s car keys and looked enough like Tony that the shooters apparently were confused.
Practically all Reporte’s exposes of corruption in Pdvsa, were written by Leocenis Garcia. Garcia wrote corruption stories that other Venezuelan and foreign news media wouldn’t touch, often including copies of what appeared to be official internal Pdvsa documents.
Garcia projected himself through Reporte as a fearless, assertive investigative journalist with a dramatic flair. It also seems that Garcia, at his young age, was learning the darker arts from Gerges.
One of Garcia’s favorite targets of corruption exposes was Wilmer Ruperti. But in June 2007 one of Reporte’s veteran reporters, Jose Rafael Ramirez, was arrested by CICPC officials during a videotaped meeting with an emissary of Wilmer Ruperti, where Ramirez was allegedly to receive $5,000 in cash as a down payment on a $400,000 bribe to stop publishing exposes of Ruperti in Reporte. Ramirez spent three years in jail on charges of attempted extortion and was finally released in 2010. Ramirez always has denied that he was to receive any payment from Ruperti’s associate, but the videotape of the meeting suggests otherwise.
That videotape caused a huge headache for Gerges and Garcia, since Ruperti accused both of being involved in the alleged extortion scheme that landed Ramirez in jail. Ramirez subsequently claimed that Tony Gerges defused tensions by negotiating an agreement with Ruperti to stop publishing corruption allegations in Reporte.
As part of the agreement with Ruperti that spared Reporte, Tony Gerges, Leocenis Garcia from further potentially criminal prosecution relating to the extortion charges against them by Ruperti, Tony revealed the identity of his chief informant on Ruperti’s allegedly corrupt Pdvsa dealings, one Francisco Morillo, who had worked with Ruperti’s shipping firm before he joined Pdvsa in 2003-04 for a brief stint in the marketing department that manages the company’s oil export operations.
Apparently Morillo had old grudges against Ruperti. Morillo also was “competing” against Ruperti in the corrupt world of Pdvsa shipping contracts and export cargoes, so he arranged through his connections inside Pdvsa’s marketing department to obtain documents that left no doubt that Ruperti was a crook.
Leocenis Garcia learned the media racket at Reporte, but he was always an entrepreneurial personality seeking a fortune. In May 2008 Garcia and a pair of bodyguards were arrested on charges of vandalizing the offices of Walid Makled’s newspaper in Carabobo state. Garcia denied the vandalism charges, but office security cameras captured images of Garcia in the throes of a physical tantrum.
The alleged motive for the tantrum was that Makled was behind on payments he promised to Garcia in return for publishing stories to launder his reputation. Makled at the time still owned Aeropostal airlines, a newspaper and a range of import/export, transportation, freight forwarding and warehousing companies, but since at least 2006- was widely suspected of being an international drug trafficker with dozens of Venezuelan military officers on his payroll. Garcia’s public relations work had been intended to clean up Makled’s image and portray him as a legitimate businessman. It also ensured Garcia wouldn’t write exposes about Makled like the ones he had done on Ruperti.
Garcia was incarcerated for two years following his rampage in Makled’s offices, and finally was released in 2010 simultaneously with his former Reporte colleague Ramirez, reportedly through the intercession of (at the time) Interior and Justice Minister Tareck Al –Assaimi.
Garcia picked up where he left off and began growing his 6to Poder media group from a small tabloid daily into a diversified media group. 6to Poder was aggressively anti-chavista during this period and continued to feature punchy exposes of the Bolibourgeoisie, but Garcia’s exploits always were haunted by hints of extortion involving prominent personalities who bought advertising or paid outright for good coverage in 6o Poder, or better yet no coverage at all if one happened to be very prominent or potentially controversial. Why would a class outfit like Seguros Altamira advertise in a low-end tabloid like 6to Poder, you might ask? And indeed, the list of rumored victims of Garcia’s shakedowns included some of the biggest named in Caracas finance and industry. An expose would be threatened, an intermediary would offer to “help” – it was entrepreneurial journalism, Caracas-style.
Not everyone went for it: the banker Juan Carlos Escotet filed a defamation lawsuit against Garcia and 6to Poder, for example. But Garcia showed surprising deftness, including a talent for turning victims into allies: according to the media one of his key financial backers is a Luis Oberto, a one-time target of Garcia’s exposes.
Meanwhile, Garcia’s media empire grew to include interests ranging from online radio broadcasting to slickly packaged HD porn. When Garcia was arrested again in July 2013 he was accused of holding large amounts of undeclared national and foreign currency in both domestic and offshore accounts, totaling over US $3 million amongst several bank accounts in Puerto Rico, Monaco and Switzerland. Nice work if you can get it.
Fast forward to March 2014, and the emailed press release that landed in my inbox a few days ago announcing that Leocenis Garcia has just launched a new division of his recently resuscitated Sexto Poder media group called 6to Poder Libros. I say “recently resuscitated” because only a few short months ago in 2013 Leocenis Garcia was jailed, his assets seized, his 6to Poder group shut down, and ultimately he wound up staging a dramatic public hunger strike in defense of his allegedly abused human and economic rights.
But with one foot seemingly in the grave amid reports by his sister of critical renal failure and bloody urine, somehow Garcia was liberated from his legal tribulations and his rights and properties were fully restored, raised Lazarus-like by a hidden hand. Garcia capped his resuscitation in December 2013, and the revival of the 6to Poder group, with a press conference in which he announced a new inclusive editorial line at 6to Poder – which previously had been seemingly the scourge of Bolibourgeois corruption.
The press release announced that 6to Poder Libros has six books ready for immediate publication, including one titled “Francisco, Pope of the Poor” by Jose Visconti. Another book is titled “The Secrets of Power” – “about the interviews that paralyzed the country,” according to the PR blurb.
But the first book launched by 6to Poder Libros will be “The Night of Judas” – which the emailed press release describes as a “polemical investigation by the journalist Juan Avila with unedited documents about the case that took the media entrepreneur Leocenis Garcia to prison and provoked the cessation of his editorial group’s activities until his liberation.”
The only quibble this blogger has with the book is that it’s fiction masquerading as fact. The book narrates a story, but one man’s history can be another’s fable. Indeed, Leocenis perhaps unwittingly admits as much in the book’s prologue, stating “Los judas siempre terminan ahorcados” – roughly, “The Judas always hang in the end.”
As Don Quixote is quoted as saying in Thomas Shelton’s 1620 translation Cervantes Saavedra’s History of Don Quixote: “You are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle, ‘Avant, black-browes’.”
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