Thor Halvorssen (businessman)

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For Halvorssen's son, see Thor Halvorssen (human rights activist).
Thor Halvorssen Hellum
Thor Halvorssen Hellum.jpg
Born May 16, 1943
Died July 20, 2014(2014-07-20) (aged 71)
Occupation Businessman, ambassador, and special investigator
Known for Investigating government links to money laundering and drug trafficking

Thor Halvorssen Hellum (born in Caracas May 16, 1943- July 20, 2014 )[1]—commonly known as Thor Halvorssen[a]—was 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.[2] While investigating links to money laundering and drug trafficking, he was imprisoned on charges of terrorism; he was beaten and mistreated in prison, but later found innocent of all charges.[3] Halvorssen's case was taken up by Amnesty International and several other international human rights organizations. The set-up of Halvorssen was reportedly payback for his investigations into presidential corruption, mafia activity, and the money laundering activities of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.[4]

Background and career[edit]

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.[4]

After graduating, Halvorssen returned to Caracas to help run the family businesses. Halvorssen’s commercial activities were wide-ranging and included ownership of Venezuelan insurance company Axxa, and representation of international conglomerates Dunlop, Ericsson, British Cellophane. Halvorssen was also a real estate developer, owning the company that built the 350-room Melia Caribe hotel.

President Carlos Andres Pérez was elected in 1974 and in 1977 appointed Halvorssen, then 34, president of the Venezuelan state-owned telephone company CANTV; Halvorssen served as president and CEO of CANTV from 1978 until Pérez completed his term.[4][5] At 36, Halvorssen became involved in community service, working at Venezuela's largest grant-giving charitable foundation, the Dividendo Voluntario Para La Comunidad for six years[4] and serving as its President from 1976–1979.[6] He started a program to build sports facilities in the poorest barrios with a focus on baseball.

In the 1980s Halvorssen focused his financial support for victims of human rights violations in Central America that had been ignored during the proxy wars between the Soviet Union and the United States by co-founding the Caracas-based Romulo Gallegos human rights organization from where he took up the causes of Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians and focused on violations of human rights by Marxist rebel groups throughout Central American and Colombia. [1] Halvorssen participated in the creation and financing of the “alternative human right forums” that began in Geneva in the early 1990s. Halvorssen served on the boards of the Andrei Sakharov Institute and headed the Pan-American committee of the International Society for Human Rights.

When President Pérez was elected President again in 1989, he named Halvorssen Venezuela's Special Commissioner for anti-Narcotic Affairs with the rank of Ambassador.[4]

After government service Halvorssen lived in Miami where he was an active member of the Venezuelan opposition to the government of Hugo Chávez. [2]

Venezuelan Government's "Anti-Drug Czar"[edit]

As chief of anti-narcotics, 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".[4] 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.[4]

When Pérez offered him the position of "drug czar", Halvorssen says he 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."[7] According to Isabel Hilton, writing in the British edition of Gentleman's Quarterly (GQ), observers say that Pérez may even 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.[4][7] 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.[4][7] 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.[4] 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.[8]

Arrest and imprisonment[edit]

In 1993, while Halvorssen was investigating the now defunct Banco Latino and the Grupo Progreso,[9] he was arrested and imprisoned for 74 days on charges of terrorism,[10] which 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."[8] 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.[8][11]

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".[8] Helmeyer was ultimately convicted of murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Helmeyer lost every appeal and took his case to the Supreme Court. In 1994, Halvorssen wrote a Wall Street Journal editorial stating that he had investigated Banco Latino for money laundering and for being a Ponzi scheme. Halvorssen was arrested in Caracas one day after a Banco Latino official asked him to come to Venezuela from New York for a meeting with the bank's chairman. Halvorssen was warned by a U.S. Treasury Department agent that the meeting with Banco Latino was a trap. Halvorssen went anyway and was arrested.[9][12] Banco Latino went on to become the largest bank fraud in Venezuelan history. While serving his prison sentence for murder, in February 1998, Helmeyer changed his story to say the bombing campaign was financed by the Banco Latino by way of its president Gustavo Gómez López and now said that Halvorssen (who was supposedly investigating Banco Latino) was the key organizer.[13] Helmeyer was a relative of the family that founded the Banco Latino.[11]

Halvorssen was held without being charged for eight days.[7] 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. Halvorssen was beaten and suffered from mistreatment while in the notorious Retén de Catia prison, ranked among the most cruel prisons in the world by human-rights organisations.[4] International organizations, including Amnesty International, a Nicaraguan cardinal, and members of the British Parliament, protested Halvorssen case. Halvorssen was exonerated and his order of arrest rescinded. No files were ever charged against him. After his release, the United Nations-affiliated International Society for Human Rights appointed him director of their Pan-American Committee.[3][8][9]

In GQ magazine, Isabel Hilton also covers Halvorssen's investigation of Orlando Castro Llanes, a Venezuelan businessman of Cuban descent and owner of the Grupo Progreso.[14] Hilton states that Castro was involved in arranging the false arrest of Halvorssen and the 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;[7] the authenticity of the letter is questioned by Castro's attorney.[4] 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."[7] Armando Valladares describes Halvorssen's decision to serve as anti-Drug Czar as "quixotic" for having "simultaneously took on the entire banking sector without a budget or structural support in the government."

During his time in prison, when there was an all out media campaign against him, Halvorssen was supported by the New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau who 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.[8]

When Halvorssen was in prison, officials in Miami distanced the DEA from Halvorssen and stated that his drug information was considered unreliable. The head of that office at the time was Tom V. Cash. Cash, ultimately was involved in covering up the fraud of convicted criminal Allen Stanford of Stanford Bank and had to resign in disgrace from his job at Kroll Associates for both protecting Stanford's reputation and for investigating U.S. Senate investigators rooting out corruption.[3][4] [5].[6] One of those investigated by Cash was Jonathan Winer of the office of John Kerry. [7] [8] Winer had worked closely with Halvorssen in the 1990s. Kroll, coincidentally, is also the firm that was hired by the banks Halvorssen had been investigating for money laundering: Banco Latino.[8] When Halvorssen was in prison, Tom V. Cash had stated that Halvorssen had "unusual ties to and knowledge of drug traffickers"; the DEA said it "refused to deal with him, citing as reasons 'duplicity and manipulation.'"[15] 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.[8] Meanwhile, Senate investigators like Jonathan Winer and the New York District Attorney continued to stand by Halvorssen. Another critic of Halvorssen was opinion columnist Manuel Malaver, who published a weekly opinion column in Venezuelan media, 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.[13][16] 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."[12] Malaver's accusations, in his book, contain opinions and provide no statements of fact about the accusations he makes against Halvorssen.

Intrigue and mutual accusations[edit]

Three weeks after Halvorssen's release, Banco Latino folded and its directors were charged with numerous crimes.[17] 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.[18]

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.[18] 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.[19]

Orlando Castro and his attorneys 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 (a book by an opinion columnist flatly states it was US$7 million[16]) to investigate whether Castro Llanes was using drug money, to thwart Castro Llanes' bitterly contested hostile takeover for control of the bank.[20] 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.[16][21]

A small group of shareholders, supposedly all members of a 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 an unnamed 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.[11]

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.[16] After Malaver's book was published Orlando Castro was indicted by Robert Morgenthau for Grand Larceny. Orlando Castro was tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison in New York. He died in 2014.

Charles Intriago—attorney for Orlando Castro and former federal prosecutor, as well as editor of Money Laundering Alert, the newsletter financed by Orlando Castro, 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.[9][20] 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 plead 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.[20] 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 prison sentence Castro was extradited to Venezuela to stand trial for bank fraud.[22] He was convicted and sent to El Junquito prison.

Movie rights[edit]

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).[citation needed] Bestselling British investigative author David Yallop wrote a novel, Unholy Alliance, that included the story of his own involvement in Halvorssen's case.


Thor Halvorssen married Nelly Yanez de Halvorssen (1986-2014)

Halvorssen's older brother, Erik, also graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and his younger brother, Stein, attended Columbia University.[4] His twin brother, Olaf, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1966 and was a recipient of Norway's Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit. Øystein and Stein were knighted by King Olav V.[23]

Halvorssen Hellum's son is film producer and human rights activist Thor Halvorssen Mendoza, founder of the Human Rights Foundation,[24] and his wife is Nelly.[4] His nephew is Venezuelan political leader Leopoldo Lopez.


Halvorssen Hellum died on July 20, 2014, due to a head injury suffered after a fall at his Miami home. [25]


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.)
  1. ^ (Spanish) Datos Genealógicos Página 355 (Páginas de Familias). Datos Genealógicos Página 355 (Páginas de Familias). Retrieved on July 21, 2007
  2. ^ "Thor Halvorssen". Latin America Weekly Report, Section: Venezuela; Politics; WR-93-45; Pg. 538. November 18, 1993.
  3. ^ a b Nifong, Christina. Former Venezuelan Drug Official Freed; Christian Science Monitor. Boston, Massachusetts: December 24, 1993.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Fonzi, Gaeton. "The Troublemaker". The Pennsylvania Gazette (November 1994).
  5. ^ (Spanish) Presidentes de CANTV. Retrieved on July 22, 2007.
  6. ^ (Spanish) Presidentes del DVC. Dividendo Voluntario para la Comunidad A.C. Retrieved on July 21, 2007
  7. ^ a b c d e f Hilton, Isabel. "Presumed Guilty". Gentlemen's Quarterly (GQ) UK: July 1994.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h 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.
  9. ^ a b c 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.
  10. ^ Malaver, Manuel (2001-08-29). "Recuerdos del terrorismo caraqueño" (in Spanish). 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
  11. ^ a b c (Spanish) Sweeney, John. "Bombas por negocio", Dinero, November 1, 1993. Retrieved on 2007-07-22.
  12. ^ a b (Spanish) Recuerdos Certeros del Terrorismo Caraqueño, open letter by Thor Halvorssen
  13. ^ a b (Spanish) 'Me reclutaron para el golpe seco', El Universal, February 21, 1998
  14. ^ Index of articles, Orlando Castro Llanes. Ashenoff and Associates, Inc. Retrieved on July 21, 2007
  15. ^ Robinson, Linda; Brian Duffy. "At Play in the Fields of the Spies", US News & World Report, November 29, 1993. Retrieved on 2007-07-22.
  16. ^ a b c d (Spanish) La DEA contra la Guardia Nacional, El Universal, August 6, 1999
  17. ^ (Spanish) Ball, Carlos. Banco Latino y El Compadrazgo Mercantilista en Venezuela. Retrieved on July 21, 2007.
  18. ^ a b Sullivan, John. "New York Jury Convicts Three Venezuelan Bankers of Defrauding Depositors". The New York Times (February 20, 1997)
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ a b c Farah, Douglas. "Ex-Prosecutor Linked to Alleged Obstruction Effort". The Washington Post, September 16, 1999; Page A23. Available at Retrieved on July 22, 2007
  21. ^ (Spanish) "Remembranzas de Orlando Castro", Dinero, May 1996. Available at Retrieved on July 21, 2007
  22. ^ Orlando Castro y su hijo quedaron en libertad anoche, El Universal, July 16, 1999
  23. ^ A Long Day’s Journey into Knighthood. The Pennsylvania Gazette (June 28, 2007). Retrieved on July 21, 2007.
  24. ^ (Spanish) Thor Halvorssen - Presidente. The Human Rights Foundation. Retrieved on July 21, 2007
  25. ^ Valladares, Armando (July 22, 2014). "Venezuelan executive, human-rights advocate Thor Halvorssen dies in South Florida". Miami Herald. Retrieved 5 January 2015. 


  • (Spanish) Malaver, Manuel (1999). La DEA contra la Guardia Nacional de Venezuela, Caracas: Gama editores ISBN 980-07-5728-7