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US found «vast corruption network» in Venezuela’s food programme

The US Treasury Department announced sanctions against three of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s stepsons, a Colombian businessman and six others for running a “corruption network” that profited from emergency food imports, BBC said.

The US has in recent months escalated sanctions against Venezuela, which is struggling with a political and economic crisis that the United Nations says has left a quarter of its 30 million people in need of humanitarian aid.

The new restrictions, announced on July 27, target Mr Maduro’s stepsons Walter Jacob Gavidia Flores, Yosser Daniel Gavidia and Yoswal Alexander Gavidia Flores, whom the US says collaborated with Colombian businessman Alex Nain Saab Moran and his business partner Alvaro Pulido to profit off importing emergency food into the country as it struggled with rising malnutrition.

Alex Nain Saab Moran paid bribes and kickbacks to government officials to win no-bid, overpriced contracts to import food ration boxes for poor Venezuelans, the U.S. Treasury Department said on Thursday. Rather than distribute the food to the needy, the Maduro regime often used it to reward supporters and punish political critics, the U.S. said. At the same time, Saab laundered hundreds of millions of dollars out of Venezuela, the Treasury said.

“Alex Saab engaged with Maduro insiders to run a wide scale corruption network they callously used to exploit Venezuela’s starving population,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “They use food as a form of social control, to reward political supporters and punish opponents, all while pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The food-aid program, known as CLAP, has become a key source of official embezzlement through overcharging for low-cost products, including Mexican and Turkish food staples, marked up more than 100% before being sold to near-starving Venezuelans. The deliveries have become so crucial that when they fail to arrive, violent protests erupt.

Saab and a business partner ran a network of shell companies that bought, assembled and shipped food to Venezuela for CLAP deals at highly profitable rates, bribing government officials to maintain access to the contracts, the U.S. said.

The Treasury Department also sanctioned Maduro’s three stepsons, Walter, Yosser, and Yoswal, saying the trio received kickbacks from Saab. Maduro’s son, Nicolas Maduro Guerra, was also sanctioned last month.

The sanctions also hit 13 companies that were said to be involved in the scheme.

Mr Maduro, who is already under US sanctions, said on state television: “Imperialists, prepare for more defeats, because the Clap in Venezuela will continue… No-one takes the Clap away from the people.”

The US is one of the about 50 nations which does not recognise President Maduro and his government, arguing that his re-election last year was illegitimate.