Inside Miami real estate scam targeting Venezuela’s elite

Scheme involved residences tied to Nicolás Maduro’s stepchildren, ex-oil company exec Luis Carlos de Leon-Perez and businessman Samark Lopez Bello

(Photo Illustration by The Real Deal with Getty and Google Maps)
(Photo Illustration by The Real Deal with Getty and Google Maps)

Venezuelan couple Carlos Castañeda and Genesis Martusciello came to South Florida in pursuit of better opportunities. Both now are in prison for their part in a real estate fraud.

Castañeda, Martusciello and their co-conspirators targeted ex-Venezuelan government officials and business elite with residential properties in South Florida, The Wall Street Journal reported. From 2019 to 2020, the fraudsters impersonated property owners by using fake passports to obtain $10 million in bogus loans. The funds bankrolled a lavish lifestyle complete with trips to Las Vegas and stays at some of the Miami properties.

Jonnathan Gonzalez and Katherine Hansen, another couple sentenced, squatted at a mansion owned by a frontman for President Nicolás Maduro’s stepchildren, the Journal reported, citing Secret Service records.

Castañeda and Martusciello — who had emigrated separately in the last decade and met in South Florida — as well as Gonzalez and five others have pleaded guilty. They are in prison with sentences varying from 28 months to six-and-a-half years. Hansen, who also is a Venezuelan immigrant and pleaded guilty, was released this year.

The scheme capitalized on absentee property owners. Some of the victims had legal woes of their own and had been sanctioned by the U.S., meaning they no longer could travel to their South Florida homes. But the lack of local government resources to go after property theft, and lax lending regulations for hard-money financing, also allowed for the fraud.

For Castañeda and Martusciello, the scheme was retribution of sorts against the cronies of a Venezuelan government the couple saw as corrupt.

“There is a saying that the thief who steals from a thief has 100 years of forgiveness,” Gonzalez told the Journal in a message from prison.

Yet, the scam also allowed them to enjoy the same opulent lifestyle as that of the Venezuelan elite they abhorred.

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Among the properties used in the scheme were a pair of Oceana Bal Harbour condos registered to the wife and mother-in-law of former Venezuelan state oil executive Luis Carlos de Leon-Perez. Leon-Perez pleaded guilty in 2018 to corruption charges in the U.S.

A Pinecrest mansion at 9300 Southwest 63rd Court, with ownership tied to businessman Samark Lopez Bello, was also used in the fraud. While the U.S. had sanctioned Lopez Bello and frozen his assets over allegations he was involved in a narcotics trafficking and money-laundering scheme, the property wasn’t among the frozen assets and could be mortgaged.

Castañeda and a friend also had squatted in a Four Seasons Residences condo owned by Lopez Bello.

In addition, the scam involved a unit at the Mei condo in Miami Beach, The Real Deal reported in October.

Castañeda and Martusciello didn’t respond to requests for comment by the Journal, and Hansen declined to comment.

Lopez Bello, who has denied the charges against him and is fighting the narcotrafficking allegations, told the Journal he hasn’t been compensated for the cars and other property stolen from him.

— Lidia Dinkova