Hugo Chávez’s Nurse Stashed Gold Bars in a Secret Vault in Europe, Investigators Allege. Here’s Who They Say Helped Her.
Hugo Chávez’s Nurse Stashed Gold Bars in a Secret Vault in Europe, Investigators Allege. Here’s Who They Say Helped Her.
The Venezuelan strongman’s former nurse, Claudia Díaz, became head of the country’s treasury. She’s now serving a term in a U.S. prison for laundering millions — but European investigators are looking into the rest of her fortune. She didn’t stash it alone.
In April, Díaz was sentenced in the United States for laundering more than $136 million in bribes while she was head of the Venezuelan treasury.
Now underway is a separate European investigation into her alleged use of millions of dollars’ worth of gold bars to launder still more illicit proceeds.
For years, the gold was stashed in a secret vault in Liechtenstein — and reporters tracked down the men she authorized to handle it.
Swiss banker Ronnie Budja and former Venezuelan official José Alcántara de la Torre — who are not charged with any crimes and are living privileged cosmopolitan lives in Europe — may now hold the key to the rest of her fortune.
Other than their wealth and their cosmopolitan lifestyles, Ronnie Budja and José Alcántara de la Torre appear to have little in common — at first glance.
Budja, 41, is a Swiss banker with a seaside Monaco apartment and a penchant for cross-country skiing in the Alps.
Alcántara de la Torre, 43, originally from Venezuela, has a Cypriot passport, a Parisian apartment, and a spot on an acquisitions committee of London’s Tate Modern museum.
But the two men share a secret connection: A document obtained by prosecutors in the European microstate of Liechtenstein grants them both the authorization to remove dozens of gold bars out of a secret vault.
That gold is now under investigation by local authorities, who believe it was stored there as a way of laundering the proceeds of corruption by a former high-level Venezuelan official: The head of the country’s treasury under President Hugo Chávez.
In just a few short years, Claudia Patricia Díaz Guillén, a one-time nurse, had risen from taking the president’s temperature to overseeing billions of dollars of state funds. And though she left the position after Chávez’s death in 2013, in the subsequent years it emerged that she had been among the many elite Venezuelans who enriched themselves while plundering the country of hundreds of billions of dollars.
This April, Díaz and her husband were sentenced to 15 years in prison by a federal judge in Florida. The court found that, while she directed the Venezuelan treasury, the couple had accepted and laundered more than $136 million in bribes from a billionaire media mogul in exchange for letting him buy bonds from the treasury at a favorable exchange rate. (She and her husband are appealing their conviction.)
The prosecution of a former Venezuelan official in the United States — which required her to be extradited from her new home in Spain — was possible because illicit cash from the scheme had flowed through the U.S. financial system.
But the case did not reveal the entire picture. In a sentencing memo, a Justice Department attorney noted that the couple were “additionally in control” of millions more dollars abroad.
The whereabouts and provenance of Díaz’s remaining fortune remain a mystery. But at least some of it appears to have made its way into the Liechtenstein vault.
Prosecutors in the bucolic alpine state allege that, in 2014 and 2015, an offshore company owned by Díaz bought the 250 gold bars, worth $9.5 million, which were then stashed in a private vault she had leased.
The Liechtenstein prosecutors have a “strong suspicion” that the gold — which was gradually removed and sold between 2018 and 2019 — had been purchased with “incriminated” funds, according to filings from the case at the country’s national court.
The existence of the Liechtenstein investigation was previously reported by the Associated Press. Now, following a trail of court records and other documents, OCCRP and its partner Armando.Info were able to identify Budja and Alcántara de la Torre as two of Díaz’s helpers and glean previously unreported information about their backgrounds. Bank statements, orders for the removal of gold, and other documents obtained by prosecutors show that Budja, at least, appears to have played a key role in actually handling the gold.
The two men, who are now living privileged European lives, have not been charged with any crime. But they may hold the key to the whereabouts of the rest of Díaz’s fortune. Their alleged involvement in her apparent efforts to launder money out of her homeland and keep it beyond the reach of international investigators points to the vital role played by various enablers in helping corrupt Venezuelan officials plunder their country.
Budja’s lawyers declined to comment and told reporters they “do not wish to be contacted.” Requests for comment left at Alcántara de la Torre’s Paris apartment received no response.
Díaz’s lawyers did not respond to multiple requests for comment. According to the latest information provided to reporters by Lichtenstein authorities, the investigation against her and several alleged co-conspirators was still active as of this July. Budja was also investigated, but prosecutors did not confirm whether he remains a person of interest today. No charges are known to have been filed.
‘Victory is Near!’
After Chávez’s death in March 2013, Díaz moved to Cap Cana, a luxury resort in the Dominican Republic, leaving behind a posh Caracas apartment where local authorities later found luxury watches, works of art, designer clothes, weapons, and high-end cars.
Her life had not always been so full of riches.
Born in the Andean city of San Cristobal in 1973, Díaz trained as a nurse at a military school, obtaining both a nursing degree and a rank as an officer. After several stints at hospitals and clinics, she was hired in 2002 to work at the Miraflores presidential palace under Carmen Meléndez, a powerful woman who is now the mayor of the largest district of Caracas.
As Díaz tells it in an unpublished biography obtained by Armando.info, her first encounter with Chávez took place that December, during a tense period when the nation’s workers stood up against the government in a general strike. As she tells it, the then-President was in a somber mood, contemplating a nativity scene in the palace courtyard. “Hey, comandante,” she recalls shouting. “Victory is near!”
A few months later, Díaz’s boss Meléndez was appointed head of the national treasury, and Díaz became her assistant. Almost right away, the biography reads, Díaz was recruited by Chávez to also work for him: “I want her to work for you and me at the same time,” he told Meléndez.
The young officer, then just turning 30, became the president’s nurse and constant companion.
Taking care of Chávez was a “24-hour” experience, she recalls in her book, describing a time of “intense responsibilities, tensions, emotional and sensory richness … all wrapped up and developed within a routine that required me to take his pulse, his temperature, put on his glasses, and other simple signs of dedication to his health.”
“I helped and served him in everything,” she recalled, “anticipating his needs — the paperweight, the papers themselves, or any object he needed. … In the evenings I would accompany him until he fell asleep.”
Díaz’s devotion was rewarded. In 2008, she received a senior position at the Ministry of Economy and Finance. Three years later she reached her highest role, becoming director of the National Treasury Office, which orders, executes, and approves Venezuelan state payments.
Her career there lasted for a few years — but it did not outlast her boss. After Chávez’s death from cancer in 2013, Díaz was dismissed. Her husband left the country for the Dominican Republic, where she joined him in 2014. The couple later settled in Spain.
The Gold Shuffle
In the following years, suspicions began to emerge that Díaz and her husband may have taken illicitly accumulated wealth abroad. In 2016, their names appeared in the Panama Papers, a major investigation into the offshore world, in connection with the establishment of several companies. The Venezuelan government later requested her extradition from Spain on the basis of those reports, but the request was rejected on human rights grounds.
Díaz has steadfastly maintained her innocence of any wrongdoing and attributed her prosecution in Venezuela to political machinations by the government of Chavez’s successor Nicolás Maduro.
In 2020, Díaz was indicted in the U.S. case that would eventually land her in federal prison.
By that time, investigators in Liechtenstein were already on the trail of another financial vehicle Díaz allegedly used to retain corruptly obtained funds: Millions of dollars’ worth of one-kilogram gold bars.
A document describing the case was obtained by reporters, providing a glimpse of the convoluted details. The file — an English translation of a request for international legal assistance sent to by Liechtenstein investigators to their Swiss counterparts — is ambiguous on several points and presents the information in a scattershot fashion, making it difficult to reconstruct the full details.
What it makes clear is that the Liechtenstein prosecutors obtained evidence that the gold bars had been acquired on Díaz’s behalf using allegedly criminal proceeds — and that Budja, the Swiss banker with a penchant for skiing, played a key role in their handling.
According to the file, 250 bars of gold were acquired in 2014 and 2015 by Amaze Holding Limited, an offshore company
Registered in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
of which Díaz was a beneficial owner, for about $9.5 million. They were then stored in a private Liechtenstein vault rented by Díaz on behalf of herself and her underage son.
The document states that Budja acted as a representative of both the company and Díaz in the purchase of the gold and that he also “physically received” the bars, though it is unclear whether he deposited them in the vault himself.
It also cites a letter, written by Diaz, that indicates Budja was one of two men empowered to “empty the vault and dispatch all of its contents.”
Several years later, he appears to have done just that. Over the course of 2018 and early 2019, as Díaz was fighting a legal battle in Spain to prevent her extradition to Venezuela, Budja sold a nearly identical amount of gold bars from the same vault and deposited the proceeds in Swiss bank accounts.
To establish these facts, Liechtenstein prosecutors relied heavily on documents provided by a representative of Liemeta AG, the Liechtenstein-based precious metals trading company that managed the storage of the gold. A representative of the company did not respond to requests for comment.
It is unknown how exactly Budja entered Díaz’s inner circles, though social media posts hint at a personal connection: In the early 2010s, he appeared to be in a romantic relationship with the daughter of a Venezuelan Díaz associate also mentioned in the Liechtenstein files.
The mother of Budja’s partner, Norka Josefina Luque Martinez, was listed alongside Díaz as a beneficiary of the offshore company that purchased the gold.
She is referred to in the document as a “front woman” for several Venezuelan officials and described as playing an “important role within the embezzlement of Venezuelan public funds.”
According to earlier investigations by OCCRP partner Armando.info, based on a set of offshore records known as the Pandora Papers, Luque had several offshore companies that had dozens of contracts with several Venezuelan ministries. She and her daughters have purchased luxury real estate in France, the United States, and Spain.
Luque is not known to have ever faced any criminal charges, though the investigative file obtained by reporters shows she was investigated in Liechtenstein along with Díaz and several others. She did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Aside from this tie to Venezuela, Budja appears to have lived a high-flying European life.
He was born in Zurich and built a career in banking, including at the Swiss Bank Julius Baer, which was previously reprimanded by Swiss authorities for failing to comply with anti-money laundering regulations, especially in connection with cases involving Venezuela.
Budja’s sister Nathalie also worked at the bank, where, according to documents obtained by reporters, she managed the account of a former Venezuelan deputy minister who is facing corruption proceedings in Spain and the United States.
Reporters found no evidence that either sibling engaged in any wrongdoing at the bank. In response to requests for comment, Nathalie Budja wrote that she does not wish to be contacted by reporters.
In 2017 and 2018, Ronnie Budja co-invested millions into several investment vehicles registered in Luxembourg.
In one Liechtenstein company, BV Diamonds, he sat on the board alongside Daniel Vogt — a Swiss man who, according to the Liechtenstein prosecutors’ file, personally picked up 90 kilograms of gold from Díaz’s vault on Budja’s orders. (The file does not specify who physically handled the rest.)
According to the Liechtenstein investigation, a company belonging to Vogt’s family was involved in the handling of the gold, with almost all of the relevant documents bearing the firm’s stamp. Vogt did not respond to requests for comment.
Today, Budja maintains an address in Monaco and participates in ski races in the Swiss Alps.
The other man authorized to remove Díaz’s gold, Alcántara de la Torre, is not described in the Liechtenstein files as having taken any specific action.
But his background is intertwined both with hers and with Budja’s.
Alcántara de la Torre was also born in Venezuela and also had at least one stint as an official, working as a mid-ranking director in the finance ministry along with Díaz from 2008, though he held his position for less than a year.
Just like Díaz, his life path took him outside his country after Chávez’s death.
In 2013, he hired the specialist law firm Henley & Partners in an attempt to obtain a Maltese passport — one of the world’s best in terms of visa access and ease of travel — which requires a 600,000 euro investment. He does not appear to have succeeded.
However, the same year he also applied for a Cypriot passport, which was granted through an investment of at least 2.5 million euros. In April 2014, he became a Cypriot citizen. (Cyprus canceled the golden passport program in 2020 after it was linked to dozens of people identified in corruption and money laundering cases).
Alcántara de la Torre also bought an apartment that year in an exclusive Paris district, where he still sometimes stays, according to building staff. (Requests for comment left at the apartment were not answered).
In addition to their common connection to Díaz’s gold, Alcántara de la Torre and Budja did business together in other ventures. In 2015 they partnered in a private company called Goodfellas, registered in the Isle of Man. And in 2016, Alcántara de la Torre was added as a co-owner to Midas Group, a Monaco company established by Budja that was later renamed JR Group. The purpose of these companies could not be established.
Budja and Alcántara de la Torre also appear to share an interest in contemporary art: Both have donated to the Serpentine Galleries, an exhibition in the British capital’s Kensington Gardens.
In the late 2010s, Alcántara de la Torre joined the acquisitions committee for Latin America at the Tate Modern Gallery in London. He remained a member as recently as March 2022, according to the Tate.
Budja has also made other philanthropic donations, stepping forward as a donor to an AIDS research foundation and attending a high-profile fundraising gala in Milan in 2017.
At the end of 2018, when the Liechtenstein gold vault was almost entirely emptied, Alcántara de la Torre and Budja’s Monaco company, JR Group, was dissolved.
‘I Earned a Lot of Money’
What happened with the proceeds of Díaz’s gold is unknown, beyond the deposits of some of it into Swiss bank accounts.
But the origins of Díaz’s finances appear to be well-established. A U.S. prosecutor said Díaz “acted knowingly and deliberately” to enrich herself from public funds, despite being the person “entrusted by the people of Venezuela to be a steward of their national wealth.”
Despite such responsibilities, she claimed to not even know how much she herself had been making.
“I earned a lot of money, but I did not have time to spend it,” she said in a rare interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “I saved,” she told the reporter. “I am a public servant who earned my money for my work.”
When asked how much her salary was when she was treasurer, she replied, “I do not remember.”
Additional reporting by Audrey Travere and Atanas Tchobanov (BIRD).
Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.