Golden “stash” Claudia Diaz. In April this year, Diaz and her husband were sentenced to 15 years in prison by a Florida federal judge. The court found that while she was in charge of the Venezuelan treasury, the couple accepted and laundered over $136 million in bribes from the billionaire media mogul in exchange for allowing him to buy Treasury bonds at a favorable exchange rate. (She and her husband will appeal the verdict.)
The persecution of a former Venezuelan official in the United States, which sought her extradition from her new home in Spain, was made possible as the illicit money generated by this scheme went through the financial system USA.
But the case did not reveal the whole picture. In the sentencing record, the Justice Department prosecutor noted that the couple had “additional control” of millions of dollars overseas.
The whereabouts and origin of Diaz’s remaining fortune remain a mystery. But at least some of them, apparently, ended up in the Liechtenstein vault.
Prosecutors in this bucolic Alpine state allege that in 2014 and 2015, an offshore company owned by Diaz bought 250 gold bars worth $9.5 million, which were then hidden in a private vault she rented.
Liechtenstein’s prosecutor’s office has “strong suspicions” that the gold, which was gradually withdrawn and sold between 2018 and 2019, was purchased with “incriminated” funds, according to the case file presented in the country’s national court.
The existence of an investigation in Liechtenstein was previously reported by the Associated Press. Now, by analyzing court records and other documents, OCCRP and its partner Armando.Info have been able to identify Buja and Alcantara de la Torre as two of Diaz’s aides and gather previously unreleased information about their backgrounds. Bank statements, gold seizure orders and other documents obtained by prosecutors show that at least Buja appears to have played a key role in the actual handling of the gold.
The two men, now living privileged European lives, have not been charged. But they may hold the key to the whereabouts of the rest of Diaz’s fortune. Their alleged involvement in her apparent attempts to launder money outside of her homeland and keep it out of the reach of international investigators points to the vital role that various collaborators play in helping corrupt Venezuelan officials plunder their country.
Buja’s lawyers declined to comment and told reporters they “didn’t want to be contacted.” Requests for comment left at Alcantara de la Torre’s Parisian apartment have not been answered.
Lawyers for Diaz did not respond to multiple requests for comment. According to the latest information provided to journalists by the Liechtenstein authorities, as of July of this year, the investigation against her and several alleged accomplices was still ongoing. Buja was also under investigation, but prosecutors have not confirmed whether he remains an object of interest today. As far as is known, no charges have been filed.
“Victory is near!”
After Chávez’s death in March 2013, Diaz moved to Cap Cana, a luxury resort in the Dominican Republic, leaving behind a posh apartment in Caracas, where local authorities later found luxury watches, art, designer clothes, guns and high-end cars.
Her life has not always been so rich.
Diaz was born in the Andean city of San Cristobal in 1973. She trained as a nurse at a military school, received a nursing diploma and an officer’s rank. After several jobs in hospitals and clinics, in 2002 she was hired to work at the Miraflores presidential palace under the leadership of Carmen Melendez, an influential woman who is now the mayor of the largest district of Caracas.
According to Diaz in an unpublished biography obtained by Armando.info, her first meeting with Chavez took place in December of that year, during a tense period when the country’s workers opposed the government during a general strike. According to her, the then president was in a gloomy mood, considering the nativity scene in the courtyard of the palace. “Hey Comandante,” she recalls her cry. “Victory is near!”
A few months later, Diaz’s boss Melendez was appointed head of the national treasury, with Diaz becoming her assistant. Almost immediately, according to the biography, Chavez hired Diaz to work for him too: “I want her to work for you and me at the same time,” he told Melendez.
The young officer, who had just turned 30 at the time, became a nurse and constant companion of the president.
Caring for Chavez was a “24-hour” experience, she recalls in her book, describing a time of “heavy duty, tension, emotional and sensory richness…all contracted and developed within a routine that required me to take his pulse, temperature, put on glasses and other simple signs of concern for his health.
“I helped and served him in everything,” she recalled, “foreseeing his needs – in a paperweight, in the papers themselves, or in any subject he needed. … In the evenings I accompanied him until he fell asleep.”
Diaz’s loyalty was rewarded. In 2008, she received a senior position at the Ministry of Economy and Finance. Three years later, she reached her highest position, becoming director of the National Treasury, which orders, executes and approves Venezuelan government payments.
Her career there lasted several years, but did not outlive her boss. After Chavez’s death from cancer in 2013, Diaz was fired. Her husband left the country for the Dominican Republic, where she joined him in 2014. The couple later settled in Spain.
In the following years, suspicions began to arise that Diaz and her husband might have taken their illegally accumulated wealth abroad. In 2016, their names appeared in the Panama Papers, a major offshore investigation involving the creation of several companies. The Venezuelan government later requested her extradition from Spain based on these reports, but the request was denied on human rights grounds.
Diaz has firmly maintained her innocence of any wrongdoing and has attributed her persecution in Venezuela to the political machinations of the government of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro.
In 2020, Diaz was indicted in a US case that ended up ending her in federal prison.
By that time, investigators in Liechtenstein were already on the trail of another financial instrument that Diaz allegedly used to hold ill-gotten gains: millions of dollars worth of kilograms of gold bars.
Journalists managed to obtain a document describing the case, which gives an idea of the intricate details. The file — an English translation of a request for international legal assistance sent by Liechtenstein investigators to their Swiss counterparts — is ambiguous on several points and presents information in a fragmented form, making it difficult to recover all the details.
It is clear from this that the Liechtenstein prosecutor’s office obtained evidence that the gold bars were purchased on Diaz’s behalf with allegedly criminal proceeds, and that Buja, a Swiss banker with a penchant for skiing, played a key role in their investigation.
According to the case file, 250 bars of gold were purchased in 2014 and 2015 by the offshore company Amaze Holding Limited, of which Diaz was the beneficial owner, for approximately $9.5 million. They were then stored in a private vault in Liechtenstein that Diaz rented for herself and her minor son.
The document states that Buja acted as a representative of the company and Diaz in purchasing the gold and that he also “physically received” the bars, although it is not clear if he placed them in the vault himself.
It also cites a letter written by Diaz, indicating that Buja was one of two people authorized to “empty the vault and send all of its contents”.
A few years later, he seems to have done just that. During 2018 and early 2019, while Diaz fought a legal battle in Spain to prevent her extradition to Venezuela, Buja sold almost the same amount of gold bars from the same vault and deposited the proceeds in Swiss bank accounts.
To establish these facts, the Liechtenstein prosecutor’s office relied heavily on documents provided by a representative of Liemeta AG, a Liechtenstein-based precious metals trading company that managed the gold storage. A company representative did not respond to requests for comment.
Origin of Buji
Exactly how Buja entered Díaz’s inner circle is unknown, although social media posts hint at a personal connection: in the early 2010s, he appeared to be in a romantic relationship with the daughter of Díaz’s Venezuelan partner, also mentioned in the Liechtenstein files.
Aside from his connection to Venezuela, Buja appears to have led a grandiloquent European life.
Born in Zurich, he has built a career in banking, including at the Swiss bank Julius Baer, which had previously been reprimanded by the Swiss authorities for failing to comply with anti-money laundering regulations, especially in connection with cases involving Venezuela.
Buji’s sister Natalie also worked at the bank, where, according to documents obtained by journalists, she managed the account of a former deputy minister of Venezuela, against whom corruption cases were initiated in Spain and the United States.
The reporters found no evidence that any of the siblings committed any wrongdoing at the bank. In response to a request for comment, Natalie Buja wrote that she did not want to be contacted by journalists.
In 2017 and 2018, Ronnie Buja invested millions of dollars in several investment companies registered in Luxembourg.
At one Liechtenstein company, BV Diamonds, he was on the board of directors along with Daniel Vogt, a Swiss who, according to the Liechtenstein prosecutor’s file, personally removed 90 kilograms of gold from Diaz’s vault on Budja’s orders. (The file does not indicate who physically handled the rest.)
According to the Liechtenstein investigation, a company owned by the Vogt family was involved in the handling of gold, and almost all relevant documents bore the seal of the company. Vogt did not respond to requests for comment.
Today Buja has an address in Monaco and competes in cross-country skiing in the Swiss Alps.
The other person authorized to take Diaz’s gold, Alcantara de la Torre, is not described in the Liechtenstein files as having taken any specific action.
But his past is intertwined with both hers and Buja’s.
Alcántara de la Torre was also born in Venezuela and has also served at least once as an official, serving as a middle director in the finance ministry with Diaz since 2008, although he has held the position for less than a year.
Like Diaz, his life path took him outside the country after Chávez’s death.
In 2013, he hired specialist law firm Henley & Partners in an attempt to obtain a Maltese passport – one of the best in the world in terms of visa access and ease of travel – which requires an investment of 600,000 euros. It seems he didn’t succeed.
However, in 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 citizen of Cyprus. (Cyprus canceled its golden passport program in 2020 after it was linked to dozens of people involved in corruption and money laundering cases.)Alcantara de la Torre bought an apartment that same year in a prestigious area of Paris, where, according to the building’s staff, he still occasionally stays. (Requests for comment left in the apartment were not answered.)
In addition to their common connection with gold, Diaz, Alcantara de la Torre and Buja did business together in other ventures. In 2015, they became partners with Goodfellas, a private company registered in the Isle of Man. And in 2016, Alcantara de la Torre became a co-owner of Midas Group, a Monaco-based company founded by Buja and later renamed JR Group. The purpose of these companies could not be established.
Buja and Alcantara de la Torre also seem to share an interest in contemporary art, both having donated to the Serpentine Galleries, an exhibition in the British capital’s Kensington Gardens.
In the late 2010s, Alcantara de la Torre joined the Latin American Purchasing Committee at the Tate Modern in London. According to the Tate, he remained a member as early as March 2022.
Buja has also made other charitable donations, as a donor to an AIDS research fund and attending a high-profile fundraising gala in Milan in 2017.
At the end of 2018, when the Liechtenstein gold vault was almost completely empty, Alcantara de la Torre and the Monegasque company Bugi JR Group were dissolved.
“I made a lot of money”
What happened to Diaz’s gold proceeds is unknown, except that some of it was transferred to Swiss bank accounts.
But the origins of Diaz’s finances seem to be well established. The U.S. Attorney said that Diaz “acted knowingly and deliberately” to enrich herself at the expense of public funds, despite the fact that she was the person whom “the people of Venezuela entrusted to be the steward of their national wealth.”
Despite such responsibilities, she claimed that she did not even know how much she herself earned.
“I made a lot of money, but I didn’t have time to spend it,” she said in a rare interview with Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “I saved up,” she told a reporter. “I am a civil servant who has earned money for his work.”
When asked how much her salary was when she was treasurer, she replied, “I don’t remember.”