U.S. blacklists Mexican shipping network working with Venezuela to evade sanctions

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June 18 (UPI) -- The Trump administration has imposed sanctions against a shipping network of Mexican companies and nationals it accuses of working with the embattled government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to evade U.S. sanctions.

Three Mexicans, eight companies and two oil tankers have been blacklisted for their efforts to evade U.S. sanctions imposed on the Venezuelan oil sector through a so-called oil-for-food program that never resulted in food deliveries to Venezuela, the U.S. Treasury Department said Thursday in a statement.

"The illegitimate Maduro regime created a secret network to evade sanctions, which Treasury has now exposed," Deputy Secretary Justin G. Muzinich said in a statement. "The United States will continue to relentlessly pursue sanctions evaders, who plunder Venezuela's resources for personal gain at the expense of the Venezuelan people."

Among those targeted Thursday include Mexican-based companies Libre Abordo and the Schlager Business Group, as well as the entities they own or control.

Olga Maria Zepeda Esparza and her mother, Veronica Esparza Garcia, who co-own Libre Abordo and control the Schlager Business Group, were also sanctioned as was Joaquin Leal Jimenez, who the United States accused as being the "critical conduit" between the two companies and the Venezuela oil sector.

The Treasury said Leal and U.S.-designated Colombian businessman Alex Nain Saab worked with the companies to broker the sale of more than 30 million barrels of crude oil in April on behalf of the state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela, known as PDVSA, which was previously sanctioned in early 2019.

Though both Libre Abordo and the Schlager Business Group said they have contracts with Venezuela to deliver corn and water in exchange for oil, the United States said they failed to deliver any of the grain and only half of the water it was contracted for at "grossly inflated prices."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this scheme "skimmed" millions of dollars from humanitarian aid funds.

"The illegitimate Maduro regime continues to steal Venezuelan resources to tighten its authoritarian grip over the Venezuelan people," Pompeo said in a statement. "Today's action is another warning that any individual or company that facilitates this theft will no longer enjoy access to the U.S. financial system."

The sanctions came nearly a week after Saab was arrested in Cabo Verde, Africa.

Saab was sanctioned in July and charged by the U.S. Justice Department with conspiracy and money laundering, accusing him of bribing Venezuelan officials and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in a scheme to profit from a government-subsidy food program intended for Venezuela's poor.

Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela's foreign minister, decried the sanctions as "criminal" in a tweet addressed to Pompeo on Thursday.

"Whatever you do, you won't bend the will of the Venezuelan people," Arreaza said. "None of your plans with Venezuela have worked, nor will they."

The Trump administration has repeatedly sanctioned Maduro and those who have propped him up since his re-election was deemed illegitimate in late 2018.

Maduro has been able to cling to power despite the mounting pressure due to support from Russia, Cuba and China, U.S. officials have said.

A coalition of some 60 mostly Western countries, led by the United States, has backed Juan Guaido, leader of the opposition National Assembly, as interim president.

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