Sun | Oct 21, 2018

As Venezuelans go hungry, Trump targets food corruption

Published:Monday | September 24, 2018 | 10:08 AM
In this July 6, 2018 photo, employees of a government-supported cultural center collect their boxes with subsided food distributed under government program named “CLAP” in downtown Caracas, Venezuela. Everyone from museum curators to janitors waited in line to sign a clipboard before government loyalists hand over the box of food. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

PANAMA CITY (AP) — The June meeting was conducted behind closed doors far from the klieg-light attention normally focused on Venezuela.

Around a U-shaped table in a hotel towering above the Panama Canal, U.S. Treasury Department officials distributed a list of suspected shell companies that they believe senior Venezuelan officials have used across the globe to siphon off millions of dollars from food import contracts amid widespread starvation in the oil-rich nation.

The two-day meeting and several others that have taken place since April are part of a sustained campaign by the Trump administration to pressure President Nicolas Maduro by striking at the wallets of the top officials in his socialist administration.

“They know we’re after them, and they know we’re after them on a multinational basis because we’re beginning to see the networks morph and new shell companies stand up and existing ones wound down,” Marshall Billingslea, the assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing, said in an interview on the sidelines of the meeting.

At that gathering, financial forensic investigators from the U.S. and three conservative Latin American allies — Mexico, Panama, and Colombia — traced transactions by companies believed to be controlled by a government-connected businessman, according to several participants who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations were private.

Since Donald Trump became president, dozens of senior Venezuelan officials, including Maduro himself, have been sanctioned by the Treasury Department over allegations of corruption, human rights abuses, and drug trafficking.

Last year, Trump even threatened a “military option” to remove Maduro and, with senior aides and Latin American leaders, raised the possibility of invading the South American country.

As the country’s economic troubles mount, he has sought to rally regional pressure as well.

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