A shadowy syndicate of international fraudsters specializing in smuggling, blackmail, extortion and money laundering scams are behind alleged involvement of some top Nigeria government officials in a deal to sell about 48 million barrels of Nigeria’s crude in 2015, documents seen by PREMIUM TIMES have shown.
On Monday, reports alleged that a huge volume of Bonny Light crude oil purportedly stolen from Nigeria was traced to some storage facilities in various ports and terminals in China, including Qingdao, Zhoushan and Rhizao just as President Muhammadu Buhari was being sworn into office in 2015.
SAMANO SA DE CV claimed it made the discovery of the purported stolen crude oil after its officials were approached by some people in China seeking buyers of the oil.
Counsel to SAMANO, Gboyega Oyewole, a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN), said his client reported the discovery of the stolen crude oil to some senior government officials and requested them to investigate.
Mr Oyewole said the discussion with the officials involved the payment of five (5) per cent whistleblowing compensation for information furnished them. He said the Nigerian officials reneged on the agreement.
But court documents and reports of security and anti-graft agencies seen by this newspaper on Monday revealed that the allegations followed a familiar pattern in several schemes in the past involving SAMANO for which its officials are being chased by Interpol and the security agencies in the United States of America.
Court documents as well as reports from the Nigerian Police and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) identify the ringleader of the syndicate as Marco A. Ramirez, an American, who took refuge in Nigeria years ago.
Mr Ramirez is currently on the wanted list of Interpol and U.S. security operatives for a series of money laundering charges pending against him, including forgeries, blackmail and obtaining by false pretence since 2010.
A sealed indictment against him in a case filed on March 29, 2016, before the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Texas named Mr Ramirez and his wife, Bebe Ramirez of being behind a fraud syndicate that swindled people of millions of dollars through various mail and wire fraud schemes between 2010 and 2013.
His Mexican associate, Jose Salazar Tinajero, has been in and out of jail in South America due to the involvement of his company, SAMANO, in highly sophisticated smuggling and money laundering scams.
Coincidentally, at the time Mr Ramirez was facing charges in the U.S., Mr Salazar was standing trial in Paraguay after being busted in August 2016 for involvement in various crimes, including smuggling of fake gold valued at about $22 million to be sold in Hong Kong.
Messrs. Ramirez and Salazar are accomplices now working through SAMANO SA DE CV, a shadowy company registered in Reynosa, Tamaulipas in Mexico as a marketing company, which has been behind most of their international criminal commercial scams.
Although registered as a trading firm dealing in “all kinds of supplies, equipment, merchandise and goods in general” as well as “professional and consultancy services to government and private entities, court filings showed SAMANO has been involved in more scams than trade.
Registered under the sole administratorship of Mr Salazar, who resides in Mexico, SAMANO has a network of partners and associates across Europe, Asia, America, and Africa, who sniff around for money-making opportunities, especially among senior government officials.
While in Nigeria, Mr Ramirez deployed the SAMANO strategy in its schemes, by hatching a plot to profit from Nigeria’s crude oil money through blackmail, intimidation, and manipulation of the media against top government officials.
Investigations showed that Mr Ramirez’s main targets were mainly key associates of President Muhammadu Buhari and some top officials of the administration, including the current Group Managing Director of the NNPC, Mele Kyari.
A fugitive on the run
Mr Ramirez has been a fugitive wanted in the United States since 2012, a sealed indictment by a U.S. court revealed.
He was indicted for operating a foreign fraud scheme counterfeiting a U.S. Federal Immigration programme used to defraud several nationals, including Nigerians, of more than $3 million.
A grand jury in Texas filed 13-count charges of money laundering against him, his wife Bebe and another accomplice, David Perez Jr. in 2016.
Court documents seen by this reporter showed the Ramirezs conspired to enrich themselves through the perpetration of mail and wire fraud.
Describing the manner of their conspiracy, the prosecution said the Ramirezs received huge sums from clients after misleading them and failing to fulfil their contracts with them.
The document showed the Ramirezs used the proceeds of their fraudulent schemes to “purchase luxury cars, pay off civil judgments, refund other investors who demanded that their funds be returned, enriched themselves while failing to obtain permanent residency status through the EB-5 Visa Programme for the majority of the investors.”
Mr Ramirez fled the U.S. and settled in Nigeria where he managed to infiltrate government circles and made himself known to prominent persons in the country as an American businessman. He used his access to obtain sensitive government information used against officials in Nigeria and abroad.
In September 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote to Nigeria to seek Mr Ramirez’s extradition to face charges in the U.S. for the crimes he committed in the country.
Since March 2019, Mr Ramirez, along with Mr Salazar and their Nigerian accomplice, Francis Ibomor and others at large, have been facing charges of extortion, blackmail and obtaining by false pretence brought against them in case file at a Federal High Court in Abuja by the federal government through the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation.
The charges against them were made after repeated complaints from senior government officials and top businessmen in the country, some of who had fallen victim to the plot of the syndicate and lost huge amounts of money.
Official court records obtained by this newspaper showed that among those who reported extortion by the syndicate to the Nigerian Police included Air Commodore Mohammed Umar and one Ahmed Saleh who accused the suspects of defrauding them of $45,000.
The particulars of the offences Mr Ramirez and others were accused of are contained in a statement filed at a Federal High Court in Abuja by Akutah Pius Ukeyima, an assistant chief state counsel.
The statement accused the defendants of being in possession of forged documents they used to intimidate and harass top Nigerian government functionaries and putting them in fear of injury to their persons and reputation, thereby dishonestly inducing them to habitually deliver certain oil contracts to him.
Mr Ramirez is as well facing two separate criminal trials both at the Federal Capital Territory High Court in charge No. FCT/HC/CR/147/2016, and at the Federal High Court, Lagos in Charge No: id/2763/2016, both respective charges preferred against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
Police Report indicts SAMANO
An interim Nigerian police investigative report on Messrs. Ramirez, Salazar and their Nigerian accomplices exposed their criminal activities in Nigeria.
The 23-page report, dated April 29, 2019, and signed by DIG Anthony Michael Ogbizi, detailed how police investigators trailed the duo and their victims to uncover their criminal activities following a petition from the Attorney-General of the Federation’s office.
The report established that Mr Ramirez, who neither have residence permit nor work permit, first visited Nigeria on the invitation of one Habib Mohammed, who worked at the Nigerian Embassy in New York, to promote the US Visa programme in 2014.
That visit enabled him to meet many other Nigerians in both the government and the private sector, including Ahmed Saleh, a Kano-based businessman who later became one of his victims after he was duped of $45,000.
Mr Saleh, who provided information and document that nailed them, told the police that shortly after he was introduced to Mr Ramirez, he started bringing different business proposals and introducing different companies to him.
He said Mr Ramirez later invited Mr Salazar into the country after the Mexican claimed he had documents to show that some Nigerian crude oil stolen in 2015 were in China.
Mr Saleh, who is well connected within government circles, took Mr Ramirez and his partner, Mr Salaza,r to Air Commodore Mohammed Umar, who he claimed, was knowledgeable about oil matters.
But Commodore Umar immediately told them the Nigerian government had already established a committee on recovery of ‘stolen crude oil’ in China, and that it had most of the information it needed.
Again, Mr Saleh said the Commodore told them that the Chinese government already indicated interest to buy the crude.
Disappointed with that information, Messrs Ramirez and Salazar were said to have requested if Mr Umar could assist them to have a direct allocation of crude oil from Nigeria, a request Mr Saleh said was turned down because he did not have the power or influence to do so.
Regardless, he said he still introduced them to Mele Kyari who was then the Head of Crude Oil Marketing. But Mr Kyari told the duo that the possession of a refinery was one of the major requirements from prospective bidders to qualify to bid.
When the NNPC called for bidding, SAMANO also submitted documents but failed to qualify.
Police findings confirmed that while it was true that the criminal duo met Mr Kyari by virtue of his position as head of crude marketing department of the NNPC then, “There is no evidence that Mele Kyari ever received any gift, or promised any benefit to the suspects, or involved in any suspicious transaction with the suspects.”
The report further established that “There are suggestive influences that the suspects are skilful fraudsters/schemers who do not have any verifiable legal business in operation in Nigeria.”
The police said the criminals wanted to blackmail and exploit Mr Kyari’s “gentle disposition” and “patriotic move” to ensure that the actions of Messrs. Saleh and Umar did not drag officials and the government into disrepute.
Findings also showed the duo threatened to publish damaging reports about activities of top government officials as “a ploy to put fear and pressure” on them so they can succumb to their demands.
The police also found official government documents in their possession when Ramirez was arrested in 2019, forcing investigators to conclude that SAMANO had become a threat to national security.
Allegations Against Nigeria
In the letter by its legal adviser, SAMANO claimed to have discovered crude oil abandoned in storage tanks in China ports following information by a client in Dominican Republic who it claimed wanted to buy the crude.
SAMANO claimed to have contacted the authorities in Nigeria through its representative, Mr Ramirez, who said he later got in touch with his friend, Hamman Saleh, “to investigate and obtain authorization” from the Nigerian government to participate in the sale of crude oil.
Besides, the company claimed Mr Saleh informed them that the Nigerian government officials said they were not aware of any Nigerian crude oil in China ports.
However, on the company’s insistence that the company had to deliver the evidence physically to appropriate government officials in Nigeria, Mr Salazar was reportedly invited to Nigeria in August 2015.
On arrival in Abuja, Mr Salazar claimed there was a meeting with late Abba Kyari to whom he claimed to have delivered the evidence of the abandoned oil in company of Air Commodore Muhammed Umar.
In June 2016, SAMANO said it was one of the companies invited to meet President Buhari during his visit to Washington DC.
Mr Ramirez stated that he was invited again by Mr Saleh to come for a meeting with Mr Umar with further proof of their claims.
They group also claimed Mr Umar requested them to address all the “information collected” on the abandoned oil to Mele Kyari, who was then the head of the Crude Oil Marketing Division of the NNPC.
SAMANO claimed at the end of “several negotiations and conversations” with both Messrs. Kyari and Umar, they “promised to reward him with 5% of the market value of the 48 million barrels when sold at $75 per barrel, the price Nigeria’s light crude oil sold was sold at the time.
Despite the agreement, SAMANO said it learnt later “in October and November” from its source that the abandoned crude oil was sold following a sales authorization by the NNPC.
They claimed all efforts to get the reward they were promised was rebuffed by the NNPC, resulting in their decision to sue the NNPC in Mexico or London.
SAMANO said it resolved to invoke the provisions of the Whistleblower Policy of the Federal Ministry of Finance to compel the NNPC to pay the 5% whistleblower compensation on the total value of 48 million barrels of oil at $75 per barrel.
The Big Doubt
Experts say it was impossible to ship 48 million barrels of crude oil out of the country illegally, nor dispense even a barrel of oil in China without the involvement of the government of the Peoples Republic of China prior to November 2018.
While the issue of illegal oil bunkering has thrived in Nigeria for long, the experts said it was a long shot to claim 48 million barrels of the country’s oil were ‘abandoned’ in China in 2015, when daily oil production was below 1.6 million barrels. This will imply that the entire crude production of one month was ‘abandoned’.
However, the report of the Police investigation into the petition against Marco Ramirez, Jose Salazar, Francis Ibomor and other accomplices, accused them of criminal intimidation, threat to life, and conspiracy using forged documents to intimidate and blackmail.
Although three of the suspects are at large, the police said two of them are currently standing trial following a petition by the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation.
On SAMANO’s claim that it secured an agreement with Mele Kyari and Commodore Umar for 5% value of the purportedly stolen oil and all its logistics expenses, the report said they provided no proof of that.
As the company’s affidavit in a Mexican Court revealed, SAMANO planned to rely on WhatsApp conversations it had with these people as proof of an agreement.
The report said the implication is that in essence, there was no legally binding agreement with NNPC. Only pieces of electronic messages exchanged.
Nigeria’s Whistleblower policy provides that if the government can recover stolen or concealed assets through information provided by a whistleblower, then he/she may be entitled to between 2.5%-5.0% of the amount recovered.
However, to qualify for the reward, the whistleblower must provide the government with the information it does not already have and could not otherwise obtain from any other publicly available sources. The actual recovery must also be because of the information provided by the whistleblower.
However, indications are that SAMANO did not provide any information or evidence of the abandoned oil in China. Even by the company’s own admission, Nigerian officials doubted its claims and requested for proof, which was not provided.
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