US targets graft in Venezuela's flagship food box program

MIAMI (AP) — Federal prosecutors have unveiled criminal charges against an alleged corruption ring accused of paying millions of dollars in bribes to a top ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to profit from lucrative contracts to import food and medicine at a time of widespread hardship in the South American country.

The five individuals charged in an indictment unsealed Thursday include former Gov. Jose Gregorio Vielma Mora and associates of Alex Saab, a businessman extradited this month to face criminal charges in Miami in a separate corruption scheme.

Saab is not named in the latest indictment although his longtime business partner and fugitive co-defendant in the earlier case, fellow Colombian Alvaro Pulido, is among those charged.

Also indicted was Pulido’s son and two individuals — Carlos Lizcano and Ana Guillermo — who allegedly helped establish a network of shell companies and bank accounts spanning offshore financial havens like Hong Kong, Antigua, Panama and the United Arab Emirates that between 2016 and 2018 received more than $1 billion from Venezuelan state coffers for the purchase of food and medicine.

The Oct. 7 indictment centers around the so-called CLAP program set up by Maduro to provide basic food staples — rice, corn flour, cooking oil — to poor Venezuelans struggling to feed themselves amid hyperinflation and a crumbling currency.

In 2016, Gov. Vielma Mora allegedly hired a company controlled by Pulido to import to the western state of Tachira from Mexico 10 million food boxes at $34 per box. He allegedly did so knowing that the real cost of purchasing and sending the boxes to Venezuela was far less and demanded kickbacks from two unnamed co-conspirators to sign off on the deal.

One of the unnamed co-conspirators was Saab, according to a person familiar with the investigation on the condition of anonymity to discuss the probe.

From there, Vielma Mora allegedly received $17.2 million in bribes in exchange for the food contracts, prosecutors said.

There was no immediate response from Vielma-Mora, who was previously sanctioned by the Trump administration for his involvement in the same alleged corruption scheme.