She was known as the “Iron Lady” in professional circles of the troubled Venezuelan judicial system for the sternness she displayed in enforcing the will of the Caracas Socialist regime, often exhorting great pressure on defense attorneys and fellow judges to ensure that court decisions closely followed the government’s wishes, lawyers who dealt with her said.
And her loyalty to the Chavista regime’s socialist project paid off. Carmen Porras climbed quickly through the ranks and was appointed to the nation’s Supreme Court, where for years she played a role in turning the nation’s courts into an instrument of political persecution, a phenomenon decried by the U.S. State Department as well as several independent organizations.
But once she fell out of favor, Porras turned against the regime, meeting with opposition leaders and claiming she was being forced to resign. Soon afterwards, she put distance from the socialist government she defended for more than a decade, landing in South Florida, where she turned her attention to the accumulation of wealth, investing millions in the local real estate market.
Porras is among many Venezuelan government officials and members of the military who, after helping build Venezuela’s so-called Bolivarian Revolution, ended up moving, investing, or opening businesses in Florida, a stronghold of Venezuelan exiles forced to leave the South American country to escape persecution and dire economic conditions partly brought about by the regime apparatchiks now joining them.
Data obtained by the Venezuelan investigative site Armando.info and the Miami Herald show there are at least 232 members of the Venezuelan military or members of the country’s Defense Ministry who have opened companies in Florida. There are also more than 700 companies whose owners or directors are — or were at some point — mid-level or high-ranking officials in the Caracas socialist regime.
Armando.info and the Miami Herald went through more than 128,000 records of public office appointments and removals made in Venezuela dating back to 2007 and cross-checked them with the names appearing as officers or directors in companies registered with the Florida Division of Corporations.
According to the records examined, 11 of these belong to Porras and her family members and were used in acquiring at least 10 different real estate properties in the Sunshine State, valued at more than $3.2 million. The family also opened one company in Panama, where it purchased at least two more properties.
Porras did not answer several phone calls and WhatsApp messages sent by the Miami Herald seeking her comments. Her daughter, Mariela Salas, and other family members were also contacted via WhatsApp by Armando.info but those requests also went unanswered.
Porras’ life in Florida contrasts with her revolutionary past in Venezuela, where she often served as a devoted defender of a socialist regime that spends much of its political discourse portraying itself as a natural enemy of the United States.
Half a dozen of Porras’ former colleagues told Armando.info and the Miami Herald that she played a role in expanding the regime’s control over the courts to eliminate the judicial branch’s independence.
“She did not play a brilliant role, but she was faithful to the Chavismo movement from the beginning to the end. She had an important position because as a magistrate of the Supreme Court she was in charge of the creation of the labor courts, and that represented an important designation of judges,” said opposition Supreme Court Justice Miguel Angel Martin. “She always voted in favor of all orders issued from the Miraflores (Presidential Palace) and she never acted against those orders, never.”
After late president Hugo Chávez launched his Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela following his electoral victory in 1998, more than 90% of the country’s independent judges were forced to resign in a purge that subjected the nation’s court to the will of the new rulers. The regime soon suspended elections to choose new judges, which favored the competent and the highly educated and began appointing judges based on their loyalty to the revolutionary process, Martin said.
“And she was part of that, obviously,” Martin said.
A lawyer who claimed persecution by the former justice in Tachira state in the early years of the Chávez presidency, said that Porras would pressure other judges to ignore evidence and rule according to the regime’s wishes in cases where the government or high-ranking officials had an interest. “She would call the other judges and inform them: you have to rule this way,”
Sources also claimed that Porras moved to fire judges who resisted the regime’s will, oftentimes accusing them of corruption without providing any evidence. She began to be called the “Iron Lady” soon after, given the tight grip she held over the local courts and the harsh treatment of those that failed to fall in line.
A former judge, who also spoke under condition of anonymity, said: “Porras wanted to create a judicial system [in Tachira] with only her allies and threatened to fire those who did not follow her orders,” which she often claimed she received from party bosses in Caracas.
Porras’ actions, as reported by half a dozen sources interviewed for this investigation, fall in line with the extensive transformation of the country’s judicial system into a tool of political persecution at the service of the regime. The phenomenon, which has been reported in the past by several independent non-governmental organizations, was highlighted in 2021 by a United Nations report that said the independence of Venezuela’s justice system has been “deeply eroded,” to such an extent that it plays a significant role in the government’s repression of opponents.
“Based on the investigations and the analysis conducted, the Mission has reasonable grounds to believe that instead of providing protection to victims of human rights violations and crimes, the Venezuelan justice system has played a significant role in the State’s repression of Governmental crimes,” said Marta Valiñas, chairperson of the U.N.’s fact-finding mission, at a press conference held in September 2021.
Porras’ loyalty did not go unnoticed by high-ranking regime officials who in 2004 appointed her to the nation’s Supreme Court, where she enjoyed growing power and influence for more than a decade.
But her fortunes suddenly changed in 2015, when the regime decided it had to appoint new justices before the newly elected and opposition-controlled National Assembly was sworn in, which would otherwise get to replace many chavista justices, including Porras, whose terms were to expire the following year.
Porras then turned against the regime and, in a meeting with opposition leaders, claimed that she was being pressured to retire early. Despite her efforts, she was in fact forced to step down and left Venezuela soon afterwards, arriving in Miami.
Porras, however, had ties to the South Florida real estate long before she arrived. Her husband, retired Venezuelan Army Col. Luis Roa Vivas, had purchased a Tamiami three-bedroom/two-bathroom condominium for 2008 for $151,000 and the following year the couple opened a Florida company, Inversiones Sofia LLC, which they used to purchase other properties, records show.
In 2009, they used the company to buy a residence in Doral, a Miami-Dade County city heavily populated with Venezuelan exiles. The four-bedroom property, which has a jacuzzi and a swimming pool, currently is valued at more than $560,000.
The expansion of the family’s thumbprint in the real state market reached into Panama in August 2009, when her daughter Onelymar Salas purchased two apartments, valued at $118,000 each.
In October of 2011, Salas purchased a spacious four-bedroom residence in Doral for $420,000, according to Miami Dade property records. Friends of the family told Armando.info reporters that she was the first member of the family to emigrate to the United States while her mother sat on Venezuela’s Supreme Court.
Two weeks after Porras was forced to step down from Venezuela’s highest court, Porras began using Inversiones Sofia LLC to buy South Florida properties.
In 2016 she acquired two new properties in Doral through Inversiones Sofia. The first one, a three-bedroom house, was purchased on Sept. 7, 2016, for $180,000, while the second one, a two-bedroom house, was bought for $258,000.
The next family move appears to have been made in 2019, when daughter Mariela Salas bought a $180,000 property, which she sold a couple of years later for $225,000. Her mother and stepfather purchased two different properties, houses for which they paid $294,000, and $412,000.
In January 2020, Inversiones Sofia continued amassing local properties in South Florida, acquiring a $225,000 apartment, which was followed by the most expensive purchase they had made to that point, a newly built 3,690-square-foot house in Doral, valued at $800,000 at the time.
That house was registered under the name of the daughter, Onelymar Salas, and her husband, Wilson Lastra, a former Venezuelan judiciary official who identifies himself as a Florida Realtor in social media.
Although there may be legitimate answers to the question of where the money used to acquire the family’s large real-estate portfolio came from, those who knew her in Venezuela were surprised when learning that the former Iron Lady had turned into a successful investor in Miami, and said she could hardly have managed to do so under a government salary, which by the time she was forced to step down totaled only about $585 per month.
But they claimed she proved to be ambitious and restless on her way to the top, something that caused a great deal of pain among independent judges who were forced out.
“She left a long trail of tears, desperation and frustration in Tachira,” one of the lawyers who spoke under condition of anonymity said. “Especially among the officials who were decent.”