By Johanna Osorio and Nadeska Noriega/ Team from El Pitazo, in alliance with CONNECTAS and the International Center for Journalists.

Two companies, one from Colombia and others from Panamá, both been investigated for corruption and money-laundering in its country, received in 2013 a contract of $420 million from the recently installed government of Nicolás Maduro, to build a network of 50 sports gyms in the poor barrios in Venezuela.

Among the shareholders of the companies involved in the project was Álex Saab, a businessman sanctioned by the United States for selling surcharge food to Venezuela, also pointed out as the money-laundering of Nicolás Maduro.

You must read The mark of Alex Saab is all over the Vargas state

The original name of the project was Sports and Peace Centers, and its goal was to boost and stimulate the massive practice of sports in children and teenagers in communities flogged by crime, in one of the most dangerous countries in the world. But the reality is the project has benefited more the business network than the barrios.

El Pitazo’s team in alliance with the Latin American journalism platform Connectas and the international support from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) followed the track of the project in 15 states in Venezuela that would benefit from these work. The team checked that, after six years from the beginning of the work, the Venezuelan State held by Nicolás Maduro not only failed with the social goal, which meant the disbursement of millionaires resources but also failed, to build the facilities.

In the national research, the team got that 13 sports centers don’t work. Twelve of them got built but are closed, and one is just a wasteland with weeds. Experts consulted by El Pitazo agree that the lands of the 13 gyms were not fit for its construction. The 37 already finished have construction defects despite its short life. Two of them got damaged after a tremor in 2018 but were re-opened without having being restored.

In 36 of those buildings, people practice sports but poor conditions, too different from what was offered in the plan, considering the millionaire resources invested in the project. Only in nine gyms, it’s practicing five sports and not the 15 promised for each facility. In 14 of them, there is not qualified personnel to assist the users; during the visits, almost not activities of community club were found. The proselytizing use exceeds the sport use.

The fraud

The Vertical Gyms barely receives young athletes. Its original function got altered by presidential decree, and the buildings became in Grande Bases de Misiones (Missions Bases), headquarters of the discouraged programs managed by chavismo supporters.
Recently, Nicolás Maduro announced that the buildings become in hospitals to attend COVID-19 patients.

The research also allowed to check that the budget of the project tripled the reference prices used to the construction. The amount was $420 million. In 2019, only 37 buildings were built, when the government promised 50.

The selected construction companies, the big beneficiaries of the millionaire project, are part of a list of companies that enjoy the trust from the Miraflores Palace (the government house in Venezuela).

The journalistic research also confirmed that the Vertical Gyms have, as few projects, the print of Nicolás Maduro. The functionaries that chosen the providers, supervised the job, and took responsibility for its conservation are part of public institutions that directly dependent on the presidential office or exclusively designated by Maduro; the list including Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, as well as her son.

So while companies and businessmen still get profits with this project, hundreds of athletes as Timothy in Bolivar state and Mariana in Vargas state, waited, hopefully, with the construction of a sports center that never opened. Likewise, coaches as Nelson Hernández in Falcon or Eduard Bermúdez in Zulia, try to work in conditions that are far from favoring the practices of sports.

You can read the full research in Spanish clicking this image.