Thor Halvorssen Hellum
Thor Halvorssen Hellum (born in Caracas May 16, 1943)—commonly known as Thor Halvorssen[a]—is a Venezuelan-Norwegian businessman who served as CEO and President of the Venezuelan state-owned telephone company, CANTV and later as Special Commissioner for International Narcotic Affairs in the administration of President Carlos Andrés Pérez. In this post he held the rank of Ambassador. While investigating links to money laundering and drug trafficking, he was arrested and jailed on charges of terrorism; he was beaten and mistreated in prison, but later found innocent of all charges. Halvorssen's case was taken up by Amnesty International. The set-up of Halvorssen was reportedly payback for his investigations into presidential corruption, mafia activity, and the money laundering activities of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
He is a former CIA source, because of this, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) during the government of George H. W. Bush refused to work with him as the Special Commissioner for International Narcotic Affairs, citing as reasons "duplicity and manipulation." while the New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau praised his efforts as someone who provided assistance to his office in the fight against the international narcotics business, as well as to federal law enforcement officials of the United States.
Halvorssen, of Norwegian origin, is one of the four sons of a Norwegian war hero, Øystein Halvorssen. His father became the president of General Motors Acceptance Corporation in Venezuela before he began his own business operations. He was also the former Norwegian Ambassador in Venezuela. According to the journalist Gaeton Fonzi, who wrote an investigative story about Halvorssen's life, he led the "jet-setting life style" of a "happy-go-lucky" son of a wealthy businessman. With his twin brother Olaf, he befriended Jerry Wolman, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles football team. The three became partners in real estate transactions and night clubs. Halvorssen graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN) in 1966 and completed a Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania MBA in 1969.
After graduating, Halvorssen returned to Caracas to help run the family businesses. The businesses required little attention; Halvorssen became involved in community service, working at Venezuela's largest charity, the Dividendo Voluntario Para La Comunidad for six years and serving as its President from 1976–1979. He started a program to build sports facilities in the poorest barrios and eventually met future President Carlos Andrés Pérez.
Pérez was elected in 1974 and in 1977 appointed Halvorssen acting president of the Venezuelan state-owned telephone company CANTV; Halvorssen then served as president of CANTV from 1978 until Pérez completed his term. As president of CANTV, he was given a military-intelligence identification card, and worked with Venezuela's secret police and intelligence force. When Pérez was elected President again in 1989, he named Halvorssen Venezuela's Special Commissioner for anti-Narcotic Affairs with the rank of Ambassador.
In the ten years between the two Presidential terms of Carlos Andrés Pérez, Halvorssen traveled extensively, spending time in the Middle East, El Salvador and Nicaragua during the US counter-insurgency in Central America; he would later be defended by Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo and by former Contra leader and Nicaraguan Senator Adolfo Calero. He admitted to have been closely associated with Duane Clarridge, the former head of the CIA's Latin American division, involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and clandestine mining operations in Nicaragua's harbors during the 1980s. He developed contacts with anti-narcotics police in Japan, the UK, and the US; friends commented that he seemed to have developed "a bit of a James Bond complex" during these years, and was "bitten by the James Bond bug".
According to profiles of Halvorssen in magazines who covered his imprisonment, Halvorssen's years of socializing and partying caught up to him, and he developed a drinking problem. When Pérez offered him the position of "drug czar", Halvorssen accepted because, "I went to a detoxification clinic in the US and I was so appalled by what I saw there that I resolved that I would do anything I could to fight drug trafficking." According to Isabel Hilton, writing in the British edition of Gentleman's Quarterly (GQ), observers say that Pérez may have offered Halvorssen the job as a necessary matching gesture when US president George H. W. Bush appointed William Bennett as his Director of National Drug Control Policy, thinking that Halvorssen was still drinking and wouldn't cause problems. Halvorssen performed his duties well, deciding to use his worldwide contacts and intelligence connections to detail the extent of Venezuela's role in the drug world. Halvorssen believed that Pérez wasn't responding to his reports on drug trafficking and money laundering and approached his ally, Venezuelan Senator Cristobal Fernandez Daló. In 1992, he was appointed special overseas investigator of an Anti-Money-Laundering Commission by the Venezuelan Senate. He was a liaison between law enforcement agencies around the world, working on drug and money-laundering cases.
Hilton reveals that Halvorssen was behind the extradition to Italy of the Cuntrera-Caruana Mafia clan members Pasquale, Paolo and Gaspare Cuntrera. Gaeton Fonzi, former U.S. Senate investigator, wrote that "the remaining Mafia in Venezuela do not remember Halvorssen fondly for that". Halvorssen worked closely with Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau investigating the financial affairs of Venezuelan government officials. Halvorssen discovered the secret bank accounts of Venezuelan president Carlos Andrés Pérez, the man who had appointed Halvorssen. The evidence revealed $19 million that Perez and his mistress, Cecilia Matos, had deposited into numbered accounts. This discovery and the airing of the evidence in Venezuela led to the impeachment of President Perez in May 1993.
Halvorssen worked with Annabelle Grimm, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Venezuela. According to Colombia's Dinero, Grimm became involved with controversial controlled deliveries of cocaine shipments from Venezuela to the US. A DEA investigation uncovered a scandal in which a fellow US agency, the CIA, helped Venezuelan General Ramón Guillén Davila of the National Guard antidrug unit to run a profitable cocaine-trafficking operation. Grimm said she refused to cooperate with the CIA, but was removed from Caracas. Halvorssen became a persona non grata for the new DEA group that took over. Halvorssen appeared to be both a DEA informant and CIA source. Halvorssen denies being a CIA agent, but admits having "cooperated" with the agency.
When Halvorssen was imprisoned on charges (later dismissed) of terrorism, officials in Miami distanced the DEA from Halvorssen and stated that his drug information was considered unreliable. He was reported to have "unusual ties to and knowledge of drug traffickers"; the DEA said it "refused to deal with him, citing as reasons 'duplicity and manipulation.'" Halvorssen denied working with Florida agencies, and human rights advocates who knew him said that, considering his involvement in the fight against narcotrafficking, the accusations were not unexpected.
Arrest and imprisonment
In 1993, while Halvorssen claimed he was investigating the now defunct Banco Latino, he was arrested and imprisoned for 74 days on charges of terrorism that a Venezuelan congressman described at the time as a "set up because he was investigating Medellín Cartel finances and links to Venezuelan businessmen and officials." Halvorssen was one of 12 people charged in a series of six bomb attacks in Caracas in July and August 1993. Police claimed the motive was profit—to capitalize on stock market fluctuations caused by the bombs. Halvorssen denied the charges and claimed he had made no stock or bond transactions in the Venezuelan stock market for two decades.
One of the alleged members of the group of bombers, Ramiro Helmeyer, told police that Halvorssen was the leader. Helmeyer, initially recanted his confession claiming that the police "tortured me so that I would accuse Thor Halvorssen." However, in February 1998, Helmeyer said the bombing campaign was financed by the Banco Latino by way of its president Gustavo Gómez López and that Halvorssen was the key organizer. Helmeyer was a relative of the family that founded the Banco Latino. Halvorssen says he was arrested after a Banco Latino official asked him to come to Venezuela from New York for a meeting with the bank's chairman, but after arriving in Caracas that meeting was cancelled, implying that he was set up.
Halvorssen was held without being charged for eight days. By the time he was released he had still not been charged with a crime—the only thing that kept him in prison was an order of arrest signed eight days after his actual detention. He was beaten while he was in police prison and suffered from mistreatment while in the notorious Retén de Catia prison, ranked among the most desolate prisons in the world by human-rights organisations. International organizations, including Amnesty International, a Nicaraguan cardinal, and members of the British Parliament, protested Halvorssen case. He was found innocent of all charges. After his release, the United Nations-affiliated International Society for Human Rights appointed him director of their Pan-American Committee.
Hilton also covers Halvorssen's investigation of Orlando Castro Llanes, a Venezuelan businessman of Cuban descent. She suggests that Castro arranged for the false charges against Halvorssen and a media campaign to destroy his reputation. According to Hilton, Castro was linked as a money laundering partner to drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in a letter written by Escobar to his attorney; the authenticity of the letter is questioned. Castro had visited Halvorssen in prison with his son who beat Halvorssen while he was handcuffed to a chair. Wire reports and newspaper articles written during his time in prison portrayed Halvorssen as guilty and corrupt. A framework of opinion was created to destroy any credibility Halvorssen could have when testifying in a court of law in the United States. Regarding the charges of terrorism she writes: "In reality, the police case against Halvorssen was non-existent…He was completely exonerated."
Investigative journalist Manuel Malaver in his book La DEA contra la Guardia Nacional de Venezuela claims that Halvorssen was part of parallel underworld of rogue police officers that became involved in a conspiracy to destabilize the government of Ramón J. Velásquez in association with a group of powerful adversaries against the possible presidency of Rafael Caldera or Andrés Velásquez. Presidential elections were scheduled in December 1993 after the impeachment of President Perez in May 1993. Halvorssen publicly responded to Malaver in a 3,500 word point-by-point rebuttal. Halvorssen referred to Malaver as acting in bad faith, malicious, and violating journalistic ethics: "Lamentable, shameful, and cowardly."
Intrigue and mutual accusations
Three weeks after Halvorssen's release, Banco Latino folded and its directors were charged with numerous crimes. They are still fugitives. Depositors lost billions of dollars. Orlando Castro Llanes fled Venezuela and was ultimately extradited from Miami to New York to face charges of grand larceny and theft.
Castro's own banks also collapsed leaving depositors unable to recuperate their savings. On April 4, 1996, Castro Llanes was indicted in New York by District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Castro's son and grandson were also arrested on charges of a scheme to defraud in the first degree. They were also under investigation by the US Federal Reserve for laundering more than US$3 billion. The three Castros were convicted on grand larceny charges on February 19, 1997, and in April of that year sentenced to various prison terms. The larceny involved defrauding depositors of the Banco Progreso International de Puerto Rico of as much as US$55 million. His crime also cost the government of Venezuela more than US$8 million.
His adversaries claim that Thor Halvorssen was used to prevent Castro Llanes from buying the prestigious Banco de Venezuela in 1990. While working as Venezuela's government drug czar, Halvorssen was hired by the board of the Banco de Venezuela for US$1.2 million (other sources mention US$ 7 million) to investigate whether Castro Llanes was using drug money, to thwart Castro Llanes' bitterly contested hostile takeover for control of the bank. According to Castro Llanes, he was never accepted in exclusive political and economic circles and was considered unfit by the Venezuelan elite to lead the country's most important banking institution.
A small group of shareholders, all members of the elitist Caracas Country Club, joined with the Banco Provincial, the powerful industrial group Grupo Polar and Finalven opposing the Banco Consolidado of José Alvarez Stelling, the Grupo Progreso Latinoamericano of Orlando Castro and the Grupo del Banco Unión. According to a member of the board of the Banco de Venezuela, Halvorssen was contracted to prevent at all cost that Castro would become the major shareholder and would control the bank. Halvorssen concluded that Castro Llanes was laundering drug money and was involved in other financial irregularities and handed over the material to allies in the Congress who had parliamentary immunity. Castro's adversaries started a media campaign to discredit him.
According to Malaver, Halvorssen allegedly received US$ 7 million from the bank to demonstrate that Orlando Castro was a drug trafficker. According to Malaver the accusation of drug trafficking against Orlando Castro was false.
Charles Intriago—a Miami lawyer and former federal prosecutor, as well as editor of Money Laundering Alert and the well-known host of a biennial national money-laundering conference that attracts justice and law enforcement authorities, came to Castro Llanes’ defense and countered that Halvorssen ran a "smear campaign" and fed lies to US officials. It was later disclosed that Money Laundering Alert had received its seed money from Castro. Intriago's activities came under investigation of the House Government Reform Committee where he repeatedly pled the Fifth Amendment when asked about his involvement with Castro and his own illegal campaign contributions to the re-election campaign of President Bill Clinton. Despite Malaver and Intriago's claims that Castro was an honest businessman being smeared by Halvorssen, Castro was convicted and sentenced to prison in 1997. After completing his sentence Castro was extradited to Venezuela to stand trial for bank fraud. He was convicted and sent to El Junquito prison.
Halvorssen became entangled in a turf war between the CIA and DEA and lost backing of both the agencies when he said Guillen was innocent. According to the former head of an intelligence unit who worked with both the DEA and the CIA: "what happened to Halvorssen was the result of a collision of some mighty forces. He thought he was enough of a fancy dancer to play games with the big boys and get away with it. Nobody is wearing white hats in this one. I would bet the DEA put some pressure on Orlando Castro to get himself an inside track into Banco de Venezuela. For some reason – most likely it had used the bank in the past or was still using it for some covert funny business – the CIA didn’t want that to happen. So both agencies were trying to squeeze each other out, but Halvorssen was in the middle and got his testicles caught in the wringer."
New York film producer Marla Shelton purchased the rights to Halvorssen's life story while working for Academy-Award nominated director James Ivory of Merchant Ivory Productions. The script titled "Smoke and Mirrors" was written for the screen by Venezuelan architect and author Alex Ceppi (writer). Bestselling British investigative author David Yallop wrote a novel, Unholy Alliance, that included the story of his own involvement in Halvorssen's case.
Halvorssen's older brother, Erik, also graduated from the UPENN (in 1963) and his younger brother, Stein, attended Columbia University. His twin brother, Olaf, graduated from UPENN in 1966 was boyfriend of actress Candice Bergen and is a recipient of Norway's Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit. Østein and Stein were knighted by King Olav V.
- a Halvorssen Hellum is known commonly as Thor Halvorssen. Per Venezuelan naming conventions, his full legal name includes both his father's (Halvorssen) and mother's (Hellum) surnames. His full, legal, Venezuelan name distinguishes him from his son, Thor Halvorssen Mendoza. (See Thor Halvorssen - Presidente. The Human Rights Foundation. Retrieved on July 21, 2007. (Spanish) Also see re: Francisco Usón—Political Prisoner and Prisoner of Conscience. Human Rights Foundation. Retrieved on July 21, 2007.)
- (Spanish) Datos Genealógicos Página 355 (Páginas de Familias). Datos Genealógicos Página 355 (Páginas de Familias). Retrieved on July 21, 2007
- "Thor Halvorssen". Latin America Weekly Report, Section: Venezuela; Politics; WR-93-45; Pg. 538. November 18, 1993.
- Nifong, Christina. Former Venezuelan Drug Official Freed; Christian Science Monitor. Boston, Massachusetts: December 24, 1993.
- Fonzi, Gaeton. "The Troublemaker". The Pennsylvania Gazette (November 1994).
- Robinson, Linda; Brian Duffy. "At Play in the Fields of the Spies", US News & World Report, November 29, 1993. Retrieved on 2007-07-22.
- Scott, David Clark. Venezuelan Anti-Drug Official Fights His Foes From a Prison Cell: Evidence suggests Thor Halvorssen was framed by Colombian drug lords and their Caracas `friends'; Christian Science Monitor. Boston, Massachusetts: December 20, 1993.
- (Spanish) Presidentes del DVC. Dividendo Voluntario para la Comunidad A.C. Retrieved on July 21, 2007
- (Spanish) Presidentes de CANTV. CANTV.com. Retrieved on July 22, 2007.
- Historical Encyclopedia of U.S. Independent Counsel Investigations, Gerald S. Greenberg, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000, p. 57
- Hilton, Isabel. "Presumed Guilty". Gentlemen's Quarterly (GQ) UK: July 1994.
- (Spanish) Sweeney, John. "Bombas por negocio", Dinero, November 1, 1993. Retrieved on 2007-07-22.
- Chua-Eoan, Howard G. "Confidence Games", Time, November 29, 1993. Retrieved on 2007-07-22.
- (Spanish) Malaver, Manuel (2001-08-29). "Recuerdos del terrorismo caraqueño". Tal Cual. Archived from the original on 2007-07-14. Retrieved 2007-03-03. For a response by Halvorssen on this article, see: (Spanish) Recuerdos Certeros del Terrorismo Caraqueño
- (Spanish) La DEA contra la Guardia Nacional, El Universal, August 6, 1999
- (Spanish) Thor Halvorssen niega pertenecer a la CIA, El Universal, November 8, 2003
- (Spanish) Recuerdos Certeros del Terrorismo Caraqueño, open letter by Thor Halvorssen
- Halvorssen, Thor. The Americas: The price of vigilance in Venezuela's banking community. Wall Street Journal. New York, N.Y.: March 4, 1994. pg. A9 Available online here.
- (Spanish) 'Me reclutaron para el golpe seco', El Universal, February 21, 1998
- Index of articles, Orlando Castro Llanes. Ashenoff and Associates, Inc. Retrieved on July 21, 2007
- (Spanish) Ball, Carlos. Banco Latino y El Compadrazgo Mercantilista en Venezuela. aipenet.com Retrieved on July 21, 2007.
- Sullivan, John. "New York Jury Convicts Three Venezuelan Bankers of Defrauding Depositors". The New York Times (February 20, 1997)
- Venezuelan Financiers Indicted in New York, The New York Times, April 5, 1996; see also: The New York criminal case of Orlando Castro Llanos. Ashenoff and Associates, Inc. Retrieved on July 21, 2007.
- Farah, Douglas. "Ex-Prosecutor Linked to Alleged Obstruction Effort". The Washington Post, September 16, 1999; Page A23. Available at ashenoff.com. Retrieved on July 22, 2007
- (Spanish) "Remembranzas de Orlando Castro", Dinero, May 1996. Available at ashenoff.com Retrieved on July 21, 2007
- Orlando Castro y su hijo quedaron en libertad anoche, El Universal, July 16, 1999
- A Maverick Mogul, Proudly Politically Incorrect, The New York Times, August 19, 2007
- A Long Day’s Journey into Knighthood. The Pennsylvania Gazette (June 28, 2007). Retrieved on July 21, 2007.
- (Spanish) Thor Halvorssen - Presidente. The Human Rights Foundation. Retrieved on July 21, 2007
- (Spanish) Malaver, Manuel (1999). La DEA contra la Guardia Nacional de Venezuela, Caracas: Gama editores ISBN 980-07-5728-7