The story of Panamanian firm Nunvav Inc provides a stark example of how PMSCs may become entangled in corruption. Nunvav, which has marketed surveillance equipment throughout the region, has been linked by journalists and government investigators to major corruption scandals involving two top former public officials in Panama and Mexico: Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico’s Minister of Public Security from 2006 to 2012, and Ricardo Martinelli, Panama’s president from 2009 to 2014. This post explores Nunvav’s relationship with Genaro Garcia Luna, its trade history in Mexico, and its business activities across Panama, Colombia, Mexico, and Florida. In doing so, it explores the links between corruption, narcotrafficking, and private surveillance – and some of the risks this may pose for open, pluralistic societies.
An estimated 16,000 Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) employ 2.4 million people across Latin America. While many of these companies provide services to clients in the private sector, others contract with governments to provide equipment or services. PMSCs in Latin America are not only growing in number, but also gaining access to increasingly powerful surveillance tools—and helping clients put them to use. PMSCs often act as intermediaries between foreign companies and governments, helping market surveillance products, secure public contracts, and implement surveillance programs. In some cases, however, the boundary between legitimate public use and illicit private abuse of surveillance tools grows blurry. The rapid growth of the private security sector has left governments in the region ill-equipped to monitor these firms and hold them accountable in cases of legal and regulatory violations, crime, and corruption.
The story of Panamanian firm Nunvav Inc provides a stark example of how PMSCs may become entangled in corruption. Nunvav, which has marketed surveillance equipment throughout the region, has been linked by journalists and government investigators to major corruption scandals involving two top former public officials in Panama and Mexico: Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico’s Minister of Public Security from 2006 to 2012, and Ricardo Martinelli, Panama’s President from 2009 to 2014.
This post examines Nunvav’s relationship with Genaro Garcia Luna, its trade history in Mexico, and its business activities across Panama, Colombia, Mexico, and Florida. In doing so, it explores the links between corruption, narcotrafficking, and private surveillance – and some of the risks this may pose for open, pluralistic societies.
On December 9, 2019, Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico’s Minister of Public Security from 2006 to 2012, was arrested by US federal authorities on charges of cocaine trafficking. An indictment filed on July 30, 2020 accused Genaro Garcia Luna, along with two other high-level officials in the Mexican government, of protecting the Sinaloa cartel in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes. The officials, all members of the Mexican Federal Police, “abused their public offices” by sharing sensitive information about law enforcement operations and rival cartel members, according to the indictment.
A day after his arrest in the United States, Mexican authorities reportedly froze 11 bank accounts tied to Garcia Luna, his family members, business partners, and their associated companies. According to media reports, Nunvav Inc was among the entities whose accounts were frozen. Mexican authorities also froze bank accounts held in the name of a father and son closely linked to the company: Mauricio Samuel Weinberg Lopez and Jonathan Alexis Weinberg Pinto. A criminal complaint produced by Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF) later that month, which was reported by Univision and later shared with C4ADS, appeared to allege that Nunvav Inc was beneficially owned by Natan Wancier, a close associate of the Weinberg family (see PRESIDENTIAL SURVEILLANCE IN PANAMA, below).
The UIF’s complaint accused Garcia Luna, the Weinbergs, and their associates of creating a web of shell companies which they used to deposit $50 million in bank accounts across the United States, Barbados, Hong Kong, Israel, Latvia, Panama, the UK, Cyprus, and Curaçao. The UIF’s complaint and media reports indicate that Nunvav formed a part of this alleged money laundering scheme. While neither the Weinbergs nor Wancier have been publicly accused or convicted of a crime, their alleged involvement in the money laundering scheme raises red flags – and questions about their wider economic activity.
Around the world, there are 83* active or inactive commercial organizations that appear to have been directed, owned, or controlled by Natan Wancier, the Weinberg family, or their associates across Mexico, Panama, Colombia, and the United States (data held by C4ADS). The majority of these organizations are registered in Florida (50), followed by Panama (14) and Delaware (12). This count likely understates the true number of organizations tied to the network because of limited access to company information in jurisdictions such as Delaware. Of the 83 total commercial organizations in the network, 21 appeared to be active as of September 2020. At the core of this network’s activities in Mexico are two private security companies—Nunvav and ICIT—both of which appear to be controlled by the Weinbergs.
Between 2012 and 2018, Nunvav reportedly deposited roughly $215 million in its bank accounts. Although much of the money appears to have originated from government ministries—including $104 million from the Ministry of Interior between 2013 and 2017—the UIF claimed that some of the deposits may have originated from bribes paid to Garcia Luna for acts of corruption. Nunvav transferred some of these funds to two additional Weinberg-owned businesses, ICIT Private Security México SA de CV and Icit Holding S.A. de C.V., as well as to GLAC Security Consulting Technology Risk Management SC, a company owned by Garcia Luna and his wife, according to the UIF’s complaint.
Nunvav, which has marketed surveillance equipment throughout the region, has been linked by journalists and government investigators to major corruption scandals involving two top former public officials in Panama and Mexico: Exploring the Nunvav Network’s trade history and business activities across Panama, Colombia, Mexico, and Florida.
C4ADS found few public records that might indicate services rendered in exchange for these payments. According to Milenio, the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León awarded Nunvav several contracts between 2016 and 2018. A 2015 court document from California shows that Nunvav initiated a legal dispute in 2012 with a US company over financing for a “multi-million-dollar project involving a prison in Mexico.”
Despite the lack of publicly available government contracts, however, Mexican customs data obtained from Panjiva, a commercial trade data provider, listed Nunvav as the consignee for 127 imports between 2015 (the earliest year with data available) and 2018. These records indicate that Nunvav imported mostly telecommunications equipment and other electronics from defense manufacturers and companies that specialize in surveillance technology.
According to Panjiva trade records obtained by C4ADS, Nunvav’s biggest supplier by both number of shipments and total shipment weight is Elbit Systems, an Israeli defense manufacturer. Between 2015 and 2018, Elbit sent 82 shipments to Nunvav through three of its subsidiaries: Elbit Systems and Land C4I Ltd., Elbit Systems BMD and Land EW – Elisra Ltd, and Cyberbit Ltd. During this period, Nunvav received 45 shipments totaling 11,158 kg from Elbit Systems and Land C4I Ltd., 33 shipments totaling 3,520 kg from Elbit Systems BMD and Land EW – Elisra Ltd., and 4 shipments totaling 4,804 kg from Cyberbit Ltd. Based on the HS Codes and commodity descriptions listed in the shipments’ bills of lading, it appears likely that at least some of the goods were telecommunications apparatuses designed for signals monitoring or other forms of signals intelligence.
Aside from Elbit, trade data showed that Nunvav received ten shipments totaling 7,365 kg from Protection Technologies Inc, a US company that manufactures intrusion detection sensors designed for monitoring industrial, government, and military installations; three shipments totaling 2,213 kg from FLIR Security Inc, a US manufacturer of surveillance cameras, thermal sensors, and radars; three shipments totaling 661 kg from Department 13 Inc, which describes itself as “an innovative technology company focusing on wireless and mobile technologies to create solutions that transform networks and communications”; two shipments totaling 255 kg from Phantom Technologies Ltd, an Israeli company that sells surveillance devices designed to intercept mobile phone data; and one shipment from Viewz, a US company that sells surveillance cameras and monitors.
According to Panjiva trade data records obtained by C4ADS, Nunvav appears to have also received one 592-kg shipment in 2018 from Gencell Ltd, an Israeli clean energy company in which Mauricio and Jonathan Weinberg were investors, according to media reports. An archived version of the Gencell’s website from March 23, 2018 lists the Weinbergs as board members, although both were later removed from the page. In 2015, a Florida company called Gencell LLC was registered by an accountant who operated dozens of other Weinberg businesses. The company was dissolved in 2016.
Banking transactions reported by Panamanian newspaper La Prensa suggest that Nunvav Inc played a role in the acquisition of at least one multi-million-dollar surveillance system allegedly used by former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli in 2011. Between 2012 and 2014—according to a criminal complaint unsealed by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) in June 2017—Martinelli “misappropriated public resources” to “illegally intercept and record the private communications from the cell phones and computers of at least 150 individuals whom he identified as ‘targets,’ including his political allies and opponents and their family members, his business rivals, Panamanian judges, journalists, union activists, US diplomats, and others.”
In the complaint, the DOJ alleged that Martinelli created a “special, covert unit” within Panama’s National Security Council called the Special Services, which established a special office from which it conducted surveillance operations. The DOJ further alleged that the Special Services monitored targets assigned by Martinelli and provided the president with a daily report. According to the DOJ complaint, the unit used a system that was purchased using $13.5 million in public funds from Israeli company M.L.M. Protection Ltd to carry out these activities. Martinelli was extradited by the United States to Panama in 2018, where he was acquitted of corruption and wiretapping charges in 2019.
Details of the case remain unclear. However, the banking transactions reported by La Prensa indicate that Nunvav Inc may have played a role in the contract awarded by the Panamanian government to M.L.M. Protection. Receipts for three bank transfers made between 2010 and 2011 reportedly list Nunvav Inc as the beneficiary owner of a bank account to which the Panamanian government sent over $10.8 million as part of the purchase of surveillance systems.
Affiliated Panamanian Companies
Directorship information from Panama’s corporate registry shows ties between Nunvav Inc and two other Panamanian companies with “Nunvav” in their names: Nunvav Technologies, Inc and Nunvav Group, S de RL. All three companies share the same president, Natan Wancier, a Colombian citizen who is also the sole shareholder of UK-registered Nunvav Holdings Limited, according to UK corporate filings. At Nunvav Group S de RL, Wancier appears to serve alongside the Weinbergs: a fil
ing for the company list Mauricio Weinberg as Vice-President and Jonathan Weinberg as Treasurer.
Nunvav appears to have formed commercial partnerships with two Colombian PMSCs: Eagle Commercial S.A. and STAR Colombia.
Nunvav Inc formed a commercial partnership with Colombian private security firm Eagle Commercial S.A. in 2013, according to June and August 2013 entries in the Commercial Registry Bulletin of the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce. The same year, Eagle Commercial and Israeli private security firm NICE Systems won a $26 million contract to expand a police surveillance system called the Single Monitoring and Analysis Platform (Plataforma Única de Monitoreo y Análisis, PUMA), according to Privacy International.
Nunvav Inc’s President, Natan Wancier, also served as a sales director for NICE Systems, according to media reports and a LinkedIn profile for “Natan Wancier.” Wancier’s link to NICE is further corroborated by a leaked thread of 2011 emails between Hacking Team, an Italian surveillance firm, and NICE employees in which “[email protected]” is included as a recipient. In the thread, participants discuss the “test device,” a Blackberry Curve with a Mexican phone number, that they plan to “infect” for demonstration during an upcoming teleconference.
Nunvav Inc also may have formed a temporary partnership** with Colombian private security firm STAR Colombia. In December 2007, the Colombian National Police awarded a contract for the “acquisition and expansion of the technological platform of the directorate of intelligence of the national police – updating of hardware and software for analysis of radioelectric signals” to a “temporary union” formed by Colombian company Soluciones Tecnologicas Y De Arquitectura Ltda “STAR Colombia” and Star Nunvav Inc, which the contract describes as legally constituted in Panama but registered in the Colombia Chamber of Commerce.
The vast majority of the corporate vehicles associated with Nunvav are located in the United States. While there is no evidence tying all 83 of these companies to illicit activity, real estate acquisitions and business ventures by some of the network’s Florida-registered companies—which also appear to have invested in restaurants, entertainment, private aviation, and art—raise questions about the ultimate source of the network’s revenue.
Real Estate Acquisitions
In October 2012, a Florida company called 274 SIGB LLC acquired a $3.3 million-dollar mansion in Golden Beach Florida. According to a 2016 deed of sale for the property, the Florida company was owned by NOA SA, a Panamanian company directed by Natan Wancier. The Gold Beach mansion appears to have emerged as a central feature of the DOJ investigation into Garcia Luna.
Shortly after leaving public office in December 2012, Garcia Luna and his wife moved into the Golden Beach mansion, which was first reported by journalists Peniley Ramírez and Julio Roa in March 2019. A February 2020 DOJ filing provides more details on the arrangement: “In October 2012, while [he] remained a Mexican official, [Garcia Luna] used a Florida-based company (“Company 1” [274 SIGB]) to purchase a 5,099 square-foot residence in Golden Beach, Florida for more than three million dollars, paid in cash. The defendant was not listed anywhere on the public filings for [274 SIBG], but nonetheless moved into the Golden Beach residence upon its purchase.”
The Golden Beach mansion was one of many Miami properties reportedly acquired by the Nunvav Network. In 2014, Ramírez reported that the Weinberg family had acquired 19 apartments in Miami through various LLCs registered in Florida between 2009 and 2014. In the years that followed, the Nunvav Network continued buying up real estate. In May 2020, Roa counted 34 properties acquired by Garcia Luna and his associates in Miami.
Previously unreported court documents show that the network’s acquisitions went beyond real estate: according to a 2016 lawsuit filed in Miami, the Nunvav Network’s interests extended to aviation. In 2012, Mauricio Weinberg incorporated a private aviation company in Delaware, Sylsa Aircorp Inc., which obtained a $3.5 million-dollar loan in 2015 to finance the purchase of a 1996 Bombardier Challenger 604 jet.
It is not clear whether Weinberg ultimately acquired the jet: in an email exchange included as an exhibit in an affidavit, his business associate explains to the loan agent that a third party had offered Weinberg a better deal. Even if Weinberg did not complete the purchase, however, a court document from the case reveals that Sylsa owned at least one aircraft. In a 2017 deposition, a former Sylsa manager offered sworn testimony about the company’s business practices. His descriptions make clear not only that Sylsa maintained an aircraft, but also that the company’s cash flow depended entirely on Weinberg:
Q: How does Sylsa make money to pay $43,000 a month for a plane?
A: Mr. Weinberg puts that up as the owner of the company. He is the one that does the generating of the funds.
Q: Has Sylsa ever generated any revenue or profits?
The deposition, of which only excerpts are publicly available, also reveals that Sylsa’s corporate records were stored at a restaurant owned by Weinberg. Although the restaurant’s name is not provided, it may be connected to another of Weinberg’s Florida companies, W Gourmet Group LLC. In one excerpt, the lawyer conducting the deposition asks for the following clarification regarding Sylsa’s financial activities:
Q: Does Sylsa have a corporate bank account?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And that’s separate from the W. Gourmet bank account?
A 2015 asset disclosure included as an exhibit in the complaint shows that Weinberg declared a net worth of $12 million in 2015, of which over $9 million was held in real estate. His declared holdings were divided across 11 LLCs managed by Weinberg, his family members, and associates. These companies included 274 SIGB LLC, which owned the Golden Beach mansion where Garcia Luna resided from 2012 to 2016. Weinberg also owned three luxury automobiles worth $460,000.
Sylsa Aircorp is not the only aviation company linked to Mauricio Weinberg. In 1998, Mexican newspaper La Jornada reported that another company linked to Weinberg, GULL Aviation Consulting and Engineering, arranged a trip to Israel for Mexican security officials to shop for surveillance equipment, according to a travel itinerary obtained by the newspaper. Weinberg served and may continue to serve as the manager of Gull de México SA de CV, according to media reports. The officials reportedly purchased equipment from a company called Teletron Ltd, with Weinberg reportedly serving as a sales representative in the transaction. The equipment was reportedly used by the governor of Mexico’s Campeche state to monitor political opponents, journalists, and private citizens.
As of September 2020, 11 Florida-registered companies that appear to be part of the Nunvav Network remained active. Six of these companies shared the same registered address: 2851 NE 183 Street, Apartment 1408E.*** Property records show that this apartment was owned by Jade Ocean 3203 II LLC, a Delaware company that absorbed several of the Weinberg’s property holdings in 2016.
The case of Garcia Luna and the alleged involvement of Nunvav point to the lack of regulatory oversight under which PMSCs often operate – and to the dangers that can come when corruption and private surveillance meet. To address this problem, the UN has issued several recommendations for purchasing states, exporting states, and private companies involved in the sale of surveillance tech. Purchasing countries should establish legal mechanisms for the oversight and control of surveillance technology, and for redress of victims of surveillance-related abuses. Exporting companies should impose strict licensing provisions based conditional companies’ compliance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Surveillance technology companies should institute rigorous human rights due diligence processes, contractual safeguards, reporting procedures, and grievance mechanisms.
In addition, both exporting and purchasing states should open information on the export, licensing, and use of surveillance technology to greater public oversight. Such information may include export licensing records, corporate registry data, customs records, and public contracts. More transparent supply chains will enable due diligence analysts, civil society researchers, and journalists to monitor and report on the growing threat of unlawful surveillance by PMSCs and other private actors.
*There is no evidence that all 83 Nunvav Network companies engaged in illicit activity.
**According to Privacy International, this business arrangement is common in Colombia: “Typically, the Colombian government purchases the network probes and monitoring centres necessary for a network interception programme from large international vendors via Colombian companies who have exclusivity agreements to distribute specific international vendors’ products, or who legally represent them in direct contracts with government clients…. Another common way of responding to bids is for two or more Colombian companies representing international firms to form a ‘temporary union’ (unión temporal) to best respond to bids’ technical requirements. These unions are often dissolved at the end of the contract.”
***The 11 Florida-registered companies that appear to be part of the Nunvav Network and that remained active were listed as: AVO Investments, LLC; VFST, LLC; Jagra LLC; 2903 PEN II LLC; From Miami TV, LLC; Icon Brickell 3802, LLC; Delta Integrator, LLC; GL & Associates Consulting LLC; Brill 5002 II LLC; Peninsula SNDS, LLC; Peninsula SSW II LLC.
Of these companies, the six that shared the same registered address were 2903 PEN II LLC; From Miami TV, LLC; Icon Brickell 3802, LLC; Brill 5002 II LLC; Peninsula SNDS, LLC; Peninsula SSW II LLC .