More than 200 arrested in Venezuela crackdown on ‘speculators’

The various denominations of Venezuela's bolivar are on display at the central bank in Caracas - the country says it is cracking down on currency "speculators"

Caracas (AFP) – Venezuelan authorities have arrested more than 200 people since April as part of a crackdown on alleged currency speculators as the country battles world-record hyperinflation, Vice President Tareck El Aissami said Friday.

“We have arrested 216 people directly involved in these criminal acts, who are awaiting trial,” Aissami told reporters in Caracas, adding that arrest warrants had been issued for a further 201 people.

He said the government of President Nicolas Maduro was targeting organized crime gangs involved in money smuggling and speculating against the dollar in an operation called “Paper Hands.”

He said the “epicenter” of the smuggling operation was the Colombian city of Cucuta, where he said criminal gangs were “under the protection of the government of Colombia, directly by President Juan Manual Santos” — a virulent critic of Maduro.

“We have seized 12 billion bolivars in cash — some $150,000 according to the official rate, and $5,000 on the black market — that were ready for smuggling. This physical money was transferred to Colombia and was going for three times its nominal value,” he said.

Venezuela is going through a severe economic crisis, with its annual inflation rate close to 14,000 percent, contributing to a rapidly depreciating bolivar. 

Maduro — who has presided over a free-falling economy since 2013, leading to chronic food and medicine shortages — has said the country is the victim of an “economic war.”

El Aissami told reporters the authorities had carried out 78 raids as part of the investigation and frozen more than 2,000 bank accounts, 90 percent of which were held in Banesco Bank.

Last month, authorities released 11 directors of Banesco, the country’s biggest private bank, who had been arrested for alleged speculation against the national currency.

El Aissami also announced the arrest of seven people in the southern state of Bolivar as part of a separate crackdown called “Operation Metal Hands.” Those arrested had tried to smuggle 2.5 tons of gold out of the state, he said.

“We have issued arrest warrants against 28 more people…to dismantle the bands that are dedicated to smuggling metals….specifically gold,” he said.