Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Wednesday, 24 September 2008 12:02 UK

Smuggled case cash 'totalled $5m'

Guido Antonini Wilson leaves the Federal Court in Miami (23/09/2008)
Mr Antonini says he did not know he was carrying the money

An alleged plot to smuggle election funds from Venezuela to Argentina may have involved as much as $5m, a court in the US city of Miami has heard.

A Florida-based businessman was stopped at Buenos Aires airport last year with $800,000 (430,000) in a suitcase.

In court the man, now a prosecution witness, said another case with $4.2m may have breached Argentine customs.

The trial centres on a Venezuelan man accused of being an illegal agent of Venezuela's government in the US.

US prosecutors say the cash was sent by Venezuela to fund the presidential election campaign of Argentina's then First Lady, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who was elected last October.

Both President Fernandez and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have denied any involvement in the case.


The alleged plot first came to light when Guido Antonini Wilson, a Venezuelan-American businessman based in Florida, was stopped last August as he tried to enter Argentina carrying the $800,000 in a suitcase.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner speaks at the UN (23/09/2008)
Prosecutors allege the cash was to fund Ms Kirchner's campaign

Testifying in court on Tuesday Mr Antonini, who has made a deal with prosecutors and is now a key US government witness, insisted that he was not aware of the suitcase's contents.

"That money was not mine and did not belong to me," he said.

Mr Antonini said he unknowingly carried the money from Venezuela to Argentina on a private jet carrying officials from Venezuela's state oil company, PDVSA, to Buenos Aires.

But he told the court that after being stopped he met one of the alleged organisers of the trip, who wanted to know where a second suitcase - containing $4.2m - had ended up.

The man at the centre of the trial, Franklin Duran, has pleaded not guilty to acting illegally as an agent of the Venezuelan government to conceal the source of the $800,000.

Four other men have admitted involvement - they say that the Venezuelan intelligence agency played a central role in the cover-up.

Taped conversations have been played to the court in which Mr Antonini is heard being told not to reveal the source of the money.

Mr Duran is the owner of one of Venezuela's largest private companies and faces 10 years in jail if found guilty.

The case is likely to strain the already difficult relationship between the US and Venezuela, following the expulsion of the US ambassador in Caracas earlier this month, correspondents say.

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