She was known as the “Iron Lady” in circles of the troubled Venezuelan judicial system for the severity she displayed in enforcing the will of the socialist regime in Caracas, often putting great pressure on lawyers and judges to ensure that judicial decisions followed. the government’s wishes closely, said lawyers who dealt with her.
And his loyalty to the socialist project paid off. Carmen Porras rose rapidly through the ranks and was appointed a member of the Supreme Court of Justice, from where she contributed to the regime’s efforts to turn the nation’s courts into an instrument of political persecution, a phenomenon denounced by the United States Department of State and by various independent organizations.
But once disgraced, Porras turned against the regime she had long defended, meeting with opposition leaders to denounce that she was being forced out of office. Shortly after, she landed in South Florida, where moving away from the socialist ideology she so championed, she concentrated her efforts on accumulating wealth, investing millions of dollars in the local real estate market.
Porras is among hundreds of Venezuelan officials who, after helping build the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, ended up moving to or opening businesses in Florida, a stronghold for exiles who were forced to leave the South American country to escape persecution and dire economic conditions brought about by the socialist regime itself.
Data obtained by the Venezuelan investigative portal Armando.info and the Miami Herald show that there are at least 232 Venezuelan military or members of the country’s Ministry of Defense who have opened companies in Florida. There are also more than 700 companies whose owners or directors are, or were at one time, mid- or high-ranking officials in the socialist regime in Caracas.
Armando.info and the Miami Herald reviewed more than 128,000 records of appointments and removals from public office made in Venezuela since 2007 and matched them with the names that appear as owners or directors of companies registered with the Florida Division of Corporations.
The review of data, which covers appointments made during the middle of the term of the late Hugo Chávez and most of the years of his successor, current leader Nicolás Maduro, revealed the names of 724 regime officials who appear in the registry of Florida companies. Examination of a small sample showed matching birth dates between Venezuelan government officials and Florida company directors in approximately two-thirds of the cases, with the remainder deemed inconclusive due to lack of information.
According to the records examined, eleven of these detected companies belong to Porras and their relatives, several of which were used in the acquisition of at least 10 real estate properties in Florida, valued at more than $3.2 million. The family also opened a company in Panama, where they bought at least three more properties.
Porras did not respond to multiple phone calls and WhatsApp messages sent by the Miami Herald seeking comment. Her daughter, Mariela Salas, and other family members were also contacted via WhatsApp by Armando.info, but those requests were not answered either.
Porras’s life in Florida today is in stark contrast to her past in Venezuela, where she has often served as a staunch supporter of a regime that spends much of its political discourse proclaiming itself a natural enemy of the United States.
Half a dozen former colleagues of Porras told Armando.info and the Miami Herald that she played a significant role in expanding the regime’s control over the Venezuelan courts, an act that ended up eliminating the independence of the judiciary.
“His step was not brilliant, but he was a person faithful to Chavismo from the beginning to the end, until he came out. She had an important position because she, as a magistrate, was in charge of creating the labor courts, and that represented an important assignment of magistrates,” said Miguel Ángel Martín, a Supreme Court magistrate appointed by the opposition-dominated National Assembly. “She always voted in favor of all the orders issued from Miraflores [Palacio Presidencial] and he never acted against those orders, ever.”
After Chávez launched his Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela following his 1998 electoral victory, more than 90% of the country’s independent judges were forced to resign in a purge that subjected the Venezuelan courts to the will of the new rulers. The regime soon suspended competitions to choose new judges, a process that favored the most competent and highly educated candidates, and began appointing judges based on the loyalty that applicants showed to the revolutionary process, Martin explained.
“And she was a part of that, obviously,” Martin said.
A lawyer who said he was persecuted by Porras in Táchira state in the early years of Chávez’s presidency said the former magistrate pressured other judges to ignore evidence and adjudicate according to the regime’s wishes in cases where the government or senior officials had an interest. She “called the other judges and informed them: this is how it is necessary to decide”,
The sources also claimed that Porras moved to fire judges who resisted following the regime’s orders, often accusing them of corruption without providing evidence. Soon after she began to be called the “Iron Lady” for the tight control she exercised over local courts and the harsh treatment she used against those who did not align.
A former judge, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Porras wanted to create a judicial system [en Táchira] only with his allies and threatened to fire those who did not follow his orders.
Porras’ actions, according to the half dozen sources interviewed, were in line with the process of transforming the country’s judicial system into a tool for political persecution at the service of the regime.
The phenomenon, which has been denounced by several independent non-governmental organizations, was described in 2021 by a United Nations report that declared that the independence of Venezuela’s justice system had been “deeply eroded,” to the point that it plays an important role in the repression of the regime against the opponents.
“Based on the investigations and analysis carried out, the Mission has reasonable grounds to believe that instead of providing protection to the victims of human rights violations and crimes, the Venezuelan justice system has played a significant role in the State’s repression of the government crimes,” he said. Marta Valiñas, president of the UN investigative mission, at a press conference held in September 2021.
Porras’ loyalty did not go unnoticed by high-ranking regime officials who in 2004 approved his appointment to the Supreme Court of Justice, where he enjoyed great power and influence for more than a decade.
From there he continued to help the regime cement its control over the courts, but his luck changed suddenly in 2015, when the top figures of Chavismo decided to appoint new magistrates before the new deputies of the opposition-majority National Assembly took office.
The maneuver was necessary for the regime, since a large number of magistrates were planning to retire the following year, who would be appointed by parties opposed to Chavismo.
It was then that Porras turned against the regime and, in a meeting with opposition leaders, denounced that she was being pressured to retire early. Despite her best efforts, she was eventually forced to resign and left Venezuela soon after for Miami.
Porras, however, had ties to South Florida real estate long before she arrived. Her husband, retired Venezuelan army colonel Luis Roa Vivas, had purchased a three-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium in 2008 for $151,000, and the following year the couple opened a company in Florida, Inversiones Sofia LLC, which they used to purchase other properties, as the records show.
In 2009, they used the company to buy a residence in Doral, a city in Miami-Dade County densely populated with Venezuelan exiles. The four-bedroom property, which features a Jacuzzi and pool, is currently valued at more than $560,000.
The expansion of the family’s digital footprint in the real estate market also extended to Panama, when his daughter Onelymar Salas bought two apartments in August 2009, valued at $118,000 each.
In October 2011, Salas purchased a spacious four-bedroom residence in Doral for $420,000, according to Miami Dade property records. Family friends told Armando.info reporters that she was the first family member to emigrate to the United States while her mother served on the Venezuelan Supreme Court.
Two weeks after Porras was forced to resign from the Supreme Court, she began using Inversiones Sofia LLC to buy property in South Florida.
In 2016, it acquired two new properties in Doral through Inversiones Sofia. The first, a three-bedroom house, was purchased on September 7, 2016 for $180,000, while the second, a two-bedroom house, was purchased for $258,000.
The family’s next step was in 2019, when their daughter Mariela Salas bought a $180,000 property, which she sold a couple of years later for $225,000. Her mother and her stepfather bought two different properties, houses for which they paid $294,000 and $412,000.
In January 2020, Inversiones Sofía continued to accumulate local properties, acquiring a $225,000 apartment, followed by their most expensive purchase to that point, a newly built 3,690-square-foot home in Doral, valued at $800,000 at the time.
That home was registered to the daughter, Onelymar Salas, and her husband, Wilson Lastra, a former Venezuelan judicial official who identifies himself as a Florida realtor on social media.
While there may be legitimate answers to questions about the source of the money used to purchase the family’s large real estate portfolio, those who knew her in Venezuela were surprised to learn that the former Iron Lady had become a successful investor in Miami, opining that she could hardly have made it on a government salary, which by the time she was forced to resign was about $585 a month.
But those consulted said that she proved to be ambitious and very steely in her way to the top, something that caused much pain among the independent judges who were expelled.
“He left a long trail of tears, despair and frustration in Táchira,” said one of the lawyers, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Especially among decent people and officials.”
This story was originally published on December 6, 2022 5:00 a.m.