What is the fate of the controversial Puerto Azul development project? It’s a question that’s difficult even for Minister of Tourism Manuel Heredia to answer directly. That is because there hasn’t been much by way of communication between the investors and the ministry. Despite the ongoing process of environmental clearances, Heredia says there isn’t much to report on other than the sluggish pace at which the project is progressing. The multimillion dollar tourism development project on Northern Two Cayes was billed as arguably the single largest tourism investment in the country. It involves massive infrastructure development such as an airport, but the project has had to be scaled down because of environmental concerns. The Minister of Tourism, who went to Cannes when the project was unveiled, says there is little information to go by.
Manuel Heredia, Minister of Tourism
“I believe that Puerto Azul, at this point, they are in….I wouldn’t say completely out of the picture, but I know that they continue with their environmental studies. I don’t know how soon that will be completed, but definitely it is almost on a standstill at this point.”
“But any idea why it is taking so long? Is it a money issue…”
“Well for months I have been able to speak directly with the investors or promoters of this project, so there is very little more that I can say on that.”
Development leader of Puerto Azul involved in major Ponzi Scheme
Puerto Azul, the proposed multi-million dollar tourism development within the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, has turned out to be nothing more than a ponzi scheme. On Tuesday, January 17th, media houses from Switzerland reported that Domenico Giannini, the man behind Puerto Azul, and Fabio La Rosa, had been arrested by financial police. According to reports, both men have extorted money from over 200 private investors under the name of the luxury development, Puerto Azul.
The arrest warrant was issued by the financiers of the Provincial Command of Varese against seven persons. Five were sent to prison while two remained under house arrest. Both Giannini and La Rosa were among those sent to prison. During the arrest, officers also confiscated over 18 million Euros in assets (26 properties, 27 land shares of 10 companies, 6 cars and 18 bank accounts). Over 20 searches were performed between the accused parties’ offices in Italy and Switzerland.
“The surveys, conducted by the military of the Tax Police of Varese under the direction of the Public Prosecutor of Busto Arsizio, with the coordination of the Deputy Public Prosecutor, Luigi Furno, have enabled, after a year of complex investigations, to unravel an international criminal organization, with bases in Italy, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Caribbean and London , and dedicated to serious fraud, embezzlement, illegal financial and banking activities, abusive saving collection, obstructing supervisory functions, recycling information, self-laundering, falsification of documents, and impersonation,” stated La Provincia di Varese, a Swiss media house.
Swiss media house, Varese News reported that “they sold to unsuspecting citizens a dream project for the construction of a hotel complex of extra luxury “8 stars”, known as “Puerto Azul”. Investors had been made to believe that it was a luxurious resort to be built in a Caribbean atoll, off the coast of Belize.” Apparently the development was nothing more than a farce, as the entire project was just a means to commit fraud and embezzlement.
Reports are that even Hollywood stars who invested in the Puerto Azul development were caught up in the fraud. Celebrity investors like John Travolta and Andrea Bocelli were completely unaware of Giannini and La Rosa’s real plans, and were even used to promote the Puerto Azul concept. “The method employed by the association included the signing of contracts and artificial simulators (example of “real time sharing”), created in order to ensnare customers and induce investment , through transfers made on “bank accounts”, interposed between accounts of the organization (located in Switzerland, Luxembourg and Belize) and customer accounts, starting with the primary purpose of evading the supervision of credit institutions over its promoter’s mandated and customers portfolio location,” indicated La Provincia di Varese in their report.
Click here to read the rest of the article and see more photos in the San Pedro Sun
The Puerto Azul project - we've been reporting on it since 2014 when pictures emerged showing Ministers Erwin Contreras, Juniour Heredia and the PM's wife Kim Barrow rubbing shoulders with Hollywood stars in Cannes, France. They were there for the launch of the Puerto Azul project, a mega luxury resort to be built on Northern 2 Caye and Sandbore Caye - within the Lighthouse Atoll, close to the Blue Hole. The project was described as having zero environmental impact by no less than its celebrity spokesperson John Travolta. Here's how he put it at the Cannes event talking about the supposed 8 star resort:...
John Travolta, Puerto Azul Ambassador "I am represent Puerto Azul new resort, that's 100% green in its building and its sustainability and it's also going to be the first 8-star resort in history."
Kelly Preston, Puerto Azul Ambassador "But they've also decide to do something that's unprecedented and they've develop the Tree of Dreams Foundation which they will give 20% of their net profits per year to the surrounding people in the villages."
Well, there aren't any villages close by - but the talk sounded real good, so much so that the ministers of Economic Development and Tourism - along with the PM's wife - were happy to tag along to Cannes for the ride. In June of 2014, we challenged the Tourism Minister about the message his presence sent:..
FILE: June 13, 2014 Jules Vasquez, 7News "What has been made of your trip to Cannes and that you were there and the investors paid. How would you respond to the criticism you've been wine and dine by these investors and they bought your approval?"
Hon. Manuel Heredia Jr., Minister of Tourism "Jules, you know me better than everybody else, this is one of the most honest politician that exist in this country I think. We went over there yes on an invitation by Puerto Azul to look at a model concept that they had."
Jules Vasquez "Will you support it, are you sufficiently convinced having gone to Cannes?"
Hon. Manuel Heredia Jr., Minister of Tourism "Well a model concept and what we will see in writing and so is two different things you know. The only thing that I can tell you, I don't even know if this will succeed or not, but whatever the case, the exposure the country has gotten, BTB or the government could have never paid for that exposure over there."
Jules Vasquez "You have accepted a gift from them which was going over, I imagine they paid for you and...."
Hon. Manuel Heredia Jr., Minister of Tourism "Well Jules, wherever even if in San Pedro, let us go to Elvi's and have dinner and have this meeting. What is wrong with that?"
Jules Vasquez "But out to France on the riviera is not San Pedro."
Hon. Manuel Heredia Jr., Minister of Tourism "You know very well they can do whatever they want, but at the end of the day nobody can buy me. There is not a soul that can tell me that I have been bought for any particular thing. I am a humble honest politician."
Well, indeed, we can't pay for that publicity - in fact we wouldn't want to because the whole Puerto Azul thing has blown up - turns out - it was all just a big scam, according to Italian authorities. They call it a Ponzi scheme which bilked investors out of their money.
This morning, in a major operation orchestrated by Italian police, twenty searches were conducted between Italy and Switzerland and arrest warrants were issued for 7 people - including masterminds, and self-styled project developers, Domenico Giannini and Fabio La Rosa - seen in those same photos from Cannes.
The Italians say the pair set up an international criminal organization with bases in Italy, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Caribbean and London , dedicated to serious fraud, embezzlement, illegal financial and banking activities, falsification of documents and impersonation.
And the main hook in the operation was Belize's iconic Blue Hole and the idyllic, and fantastical resort nearby which they never built. Seems, it was all just a con to get investors - like Travolta and so many others - to put their money - in a scheme which was never produced any project. Now, veterans in Belize's investment ecosystem smelled a rat every early on - I mean, an 8 star resort!? Really? And we knew something was wrong when John Mills, an investor who had a lien on the property came forward in mid - 2015 saying the Puerto Azul group hadn't even paid for the island:...
FILE: April 16, 2015 John Mills, Debt Holder - Northern 2 Cayes "Puerto Azul is not closed on the islands. They signed a contract to purchase Northern 2 Cayes in March 2013. The first payment was to be made in March 2014. They did not make that. The second payment was to be made in March 2015 and they did not make that. The issue is that they have been 2 years into this and they failed to file an environmental impact assessment. Also, in their press releases they said that the project is in an advanced stage - that they sold 63 time shares and they are going to have 300 sold by the end of the year and that they are going to have an inauguration at Christmas. All is this is interesting since they don't own the islands right now."
According to Italian news reports, over 200 private depositors and investors invested substantial amounts of money amounting to about 20 million euro. Authorities over there have since seized 18 million Euros in fraudulently gained assets. We'll keep following the story.
GOB’s Investment Czar: Not Surprised At Puerto Azul
Two days ago we told you how the whole Puerto Azul project blew up in an international scandal as a massive ponzi scheme. Italian police say the developers defrauded tens of millions of dollars form investors by proposing a project which never materialized. That has put Belize in the worse kind of limelight, since a fantastical "8 star" resort near the Blue Hole was the centerpiece of the Puerto Azul scam. The resort was never built, but the developers did engage the Belizean government, and even got the Ministers of Tourism and Investment to appear at their launch party in France. Chair of the Cabinet Investment Committee Godwin Hulse never went to that party and today we asked what was his reaction when news broke that Puerto Azul was all a front to defraud investors:...
Jules Vasquez, 7News "Were you surprised?"
Hon. Godwin Hulse, Minister of Agriculture "Absolutely not. I was not surprised at all. Actually, the first time the project came and you know we had several meetings. I had my issues, I could catalogue them for you; one, was to put an airstrip anywhere near the reef. As an engineer I know that would not have work. Two, they were going to raise commercial paper and I had made it clear to them in a meeting. That is fine when you put that on paper, but show me the money. Anybody can come with certification that you can raise a billion dollars or two. But banks don't release money that easily and to tell me that 'oh money is no problem.' Anybody who tells me money is no problem, I get very excited, because money is always a problem to raise. So I was not surprised at all."
Jules Vasquez, 7News "Sir, but did they take us for a ride? They'd used up significant psychic and administrative energy. You all had to review stuff from them, you all had to engage and these were basically con men."
Hon. Godwin Hulse, Minister of Agriculture "Well I am not sure they took us for a ride. Because remember we do have a clear investment policy and a program, a fine point program. In fact we developed it pretty much after Puerto Azul. Puerto Azul came kind of in the middle of that and it was a learning process that we could in fact in the future know where to say no and know where to say yes."
"So, there two guys; one working out of Europe, one working out of the DR, were no surprised at all to me because at the end of the day we would not have moved forward until they have established some clear proof that money was available and they couldn't do that."
Jules Vasquez, 7News "But is it something that you all could have had the good sense to simply dismiss out of hand. These people weren't serious. They did not have a title for the property to say 'see we own Sandbore Caye.'"
Hon. Godwin Hulse, Minister of Agriculture "But Jules, I don't know what you mean by "dismiss out of hand?" We sent they and said come back to us when you have A, B, C and D and they never came back with A, B, C and D and that's where it languished."
Jules Vasquez, 7News "But at the same time they continue to use the Blue Hole, the enlisted ministers in your cabinet, the cabinet where you sit. They enlisted the Prime Minister's wife to bolster this fraudulent caused."
Hon. Godwin Hulse, Minister of Agriculture "Well hindsight is 20/20 vision and you can look back and say they enlisted. They never enlisted me. But the fact of the matter is those were in the so called areas of the project. This Puerto Azul started off looking big. They flaunted people. They actually showcased people like John Travolta and other people which would give you the essence that this also is credible."
Jules Vasquez, 7News "Is it something that you all have spoken about at the highest levels in government that, it's lamentable that our ministers of economic development and tourism were at the 2014 Cannes event to launch this fraudulent project, thus giving it a legitimacy it never should have had?"
Hon. Godwin Hulse, Minister of Agriculture "Not subsequently. At the time when they had gone I recall sitting in cabinet and the matter was discussed and the minister for tourism has said exactly what he said in an interview with you. But since this has happened now, it has not been discussed."
Jules Vasquez, 7News "Is it a lesson for all parties going forward?"
Hon. Godwin Hulse, Minister of Agriculture "Obviously. I mean as I said again, because I had been involved in securitization investigations back in 2004 to 2006, when this came and they talked about raising commercial paper and kind of showing us all sorts of ways that they could raise the money, I was so firm in saying "show me," because I know that banks don't let go money that easily. But yes, for the nation it is going forward."
"To me this just to me, has turned out to be a major Ponzi scheme. There are a lot of little ones floating around. This is a just a major one."
Jules Vasquez, 7News "Should you all have minimum criteria to say that 'you cannot be considered as a legitimate investor, if you don't meet X minimum criteria?'"
Hon. Godwin Hulse, Minister of Agriculture "But that is in place. That's what I was telling you. There is a 5-point criteria that was approved by cabinet, supported by the Opposition, which lays it out."
Reporter "People high up in our government went all the way to Cannes basically to promote a deal for these people to actually raised funds. Is that something that our ministers should be doing as well as the wife of the Prime Minister?"
Hon. Godwin Hulse, Minister of Agriculture "That's an interpretation that you and some people may have Marisol. I don't have that interpretation at all. As I said I am not one of those ministers that you can have going on any kind of junket to do anything. I am very careful. But Minister of Tourism and the Minister of Investment may have thought otherwise and perhaps at the time did not see it as though they were promoting in such a way."
Jules Vasquez, 7News "When the people they say 8-star, shouldn't all of us have said "really.""
Hon. Godwin Hulse, Minister of Agriculture "They never said 8-star to us. Never yet. Anybody, I would say the last I know was 5, so you missed 6 and 7. And I can recall and I don't want to misquote him, but I can recall the Prime Minister making the comment "man, $80,000 a night, who would have paid that?" So those things, but then they to sell it that 'oh there is these huge things like Cannes of course that only the very rich and very famous go.' But it was a non-starter with the government. That I can say."
Puerto Azul “fantasy island” was a $40 mil Ponzi scheme, Italian authorities allege
A duo of Italian foreign investors who got the Government of Belize’s support years ago to explore the development of what had been billed as an ultra-luxury, 8-star resort dubbed Puerto Azul, near the Great Blue Hole, have been arrested on allegations that they were using the project as a part of a “Ponzi scheme” which duped over 200 investors, including famous Hollywood actors John Travolta and Andrea Bocelli, out of over 20 million euros, or nearly 40 million Belize dollars.
Travolta and Bocelli, two Hollywood actors, were famously photographed back in 2014 at the launch of the Puerto Azul project in Cannes, France. Other notable figures at the event were three Belizean officials: Tourism Minister Manuel Heredia, Investment and Trade Minister Erwin Contreras and Special Envoy for Women and Children – Kim Simplis Barrow, wife of Prime Minister Dean Barrow.
Belizean authorities had suggested that Puerto Azul, which had been publicly supported by Travolta, would be hosting Emmy-style events—a pitch which seems now to be just an elusive dream given the latest developments. The resort was to have been built between 2013 and 2017, but an environmental impact assessment—required for the large-scale project—was never submitted.
Domenico Giannini, holding president for Puerto Azul, and Fabio La Rosa, holding vice-president have been named among 7 persons for whom arrest warrants were recently issued. International media reports published on Tuesday, January 17, have shown images of Giannini, wearing a hooded sweater and shielding his face from view, being hauled off by finance police.
Apart from the arrests, authorities in Varese, Italy, reportedly seized assets worth 18 million euros, including buildings, lands, company shares, cars and bank accounts. The Provincial Command of the Guardia di Finanza of Varese has alleged international conspiracy to fraud, money laundering, fraud/forgery and violations of banking and finance laws.
According to finance authorities in Varese, the purported share capital in the project had been put as high as US$904,045,550 – nearly 2 billion Belize dollars, in a February 2016 document prepared by a Belizean attorney out of Belmopan.
The men are alleged to have led an international criminal organization with bases in Italy, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Caribbean and London. Funds acquired under what has been dubbed a “Ponzi scheme” were allegedly channeled into accounts in Luxembourg and Belize and eventually to Switzerland, where Giannini had been residing. In some cases, fraud was allegedly used to acquire funds from third-party accounts.
In 2013 and 2014, there was fierce opposition to Puerto Azul from leading Belizean and international environmental NGOs, including Oceana and Healthy Reef Initiative in Belize, which also flagged the project as detrimental to the reef’s World Heritage Site status.
We first reported on the project back in June 2013, when it was revealed that the development proposal for Puerto Azul – which called for an exclusive resort, hotel, golf, villas and spa, on Northern Two Caye (960 acres) and Sandbore Caye (10 acres) in the Lighthouse Reef area — called for accommodations for 1,000 guests and 2,000 employees. Proposed amenities included hotels, shopping centers, restaurants and bars, a golf club house, spa, airstrip, marina, as well as an underwater lab, according to a proposal dated April 23, 2013.
The international reports published by various sources, including Il Giornale, Varese News and Corriere del Ticino, said that unsuspecting persons were sold a dream that the team would build an ultra-luxury resort in Belize.
The case is detailed online in a slide presentation that can be accessed at http://www.slideshare.net/mariomoscadelli/operazione-puerto-azul. The document shows an organogram which demonstrates how a string of foreign companies set up in the Bahamas, with Travolta as shareholder, and also in the Dominican Republic, were used to set up Puerto Azul in Belize.
Should Ministers Have Gone on Cannes Junket for Puerto Azul?
Senator Hulse also admits that eyebrows were certainly raised when the developers mentioned the unbelievably high wages that housekeepers and landscapers would be receiving. He says that the big money talk even caught the ears of the prime minister who reportedly commented on the exorbitant cost of an overnight stay at the resort.
Godwin Hulse, Member, Cabinet Subcommittee on Investment
“As I said, I am not one of those ministers that you can have going on any kind of junket to do anything, I am very careful. But the Minister of Tourism and the Minister of Investment may have thought otherwise and perhaps at the time did not see it as though they were promoting in such a way. I understood from them, especially from the Minister of Tourism, that it was to display to them what this kind of investment would be and the kind of people that would be attracted to it, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. There were lots of things about it that was suspect to me, for example, wages that they would have paid to workers; in fact, I can recall making the joke that I will resign as a minister of government and encourage my wife at the time, just before she retired to resign because I was hearing figures like four or five thousand U.S. dollars for maids and gardeners and I remember saying that if they will pay me nine thousand dollars to go and chop the grass I’ll go and chop it. But those are the kinds of things that seem so good to be true. And who’s gonna come and who’s gonna stay overnight, and who’s gonna pay so much money and I can recall, I don’t want to misquote him but I can recall the Prime Minister making the comment “that man, eighty thousand dollars a night?” Who woulda pay that? So those things, but then they try to sell it as, you know, there are these huge, huge things like Cannes, that only the very, very rich and very, very famous go. But it was a nonstarter with the government, that I can say.”