Peña Nieto, Do Not Back Out

The accomplished election of the National Constituent Assembly has flourishing businesses between Mexico and Venezuela in suspense. The country of North America has considered adhering to the trade sanctions announced by Washington, now that the chavista regime will cease the Parliament elected in 2015 and will initiate a raid against the political opposition. If the decision materializes, it will be a blow to the flourishing trade exchange between the two countries, which has allowed stocking the Local Supply and Production Committees, President Nicolás Maduro’s emergency plan to face shortages and the discontent of the population with Mexican supplies. It is a silent business, marked by opacity, from which entrepreneurs linked to the Venezuelan regime, as Samark López and Alex Saab, have benefited.

1 August 2017
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Paradoxes weave a shadow between Mexico and Venezuela. Both countries currently maintain what could be the worst diplomatic relationship in their common history, but at the same time they have reinforced their trade links as never before. The Ministry of Economy endorses that. Nicolás Maduro’s regime has become the main buyer in several food categories even amidst the tension caused by Enrique Peña Nieto's position on the Venezuelan crisis.

Importers Benefit

Chavismo has always known how to separate political affairs from business. This is evidenced by the shipment that arrived at the port of La Guaira from Veracruz, in the Mexican Atlantic, days before July 24, when Maduro accused his counterpart of creating an alliance with the United States of America and Colombia to intervene in the country. The CNP Paita ship berthed on the southern margin of the Caribbean with 511 food containers for the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAPs). It is a trip that that ship, along with the Viking Merlin, both of shipping company Hapag Lloyd, have repeated seven times since the beginning of the year with shipments of 500 to 600 containers shipped by a Mexican packing company for Venezuelan public companies.

Each container brought around 1,000 to 1,300 boxes for CLAPs, containing eleven products: powdered milk, lentils, corn flour, rice, beans, oil, sugar, pasta (short and long), mayonnaise, tomato sauce, and canned tuna. The phrase "Made in Mexico" is repeated in the package of these products. One of the powdered milk brands even specifies that it is exclusively packed for the "Local Supply and Production Committee," proof that Maduro’s plan is good business for Mexican companies.

With the exception of the sale of items like white corn, vegetable oil and lentils, Mexican exports to Venezuela were virtually zero. However, Maduro’s regime suddenly became one of the main buyers of essential goods and found in Mexico the lifeline to bring subsidized food to a population that is dissatisfied by the general shortage and suffocated by inflation on the way to four digits at 2017 close.

Confirmed Trend

The trend, which began in the second half of 2016 in products like mayonnaise, powdered milk and sugar, was completed in the first four months of this year, according to official data from Mexico. The regime has even come to dethrone the United States of America - the neighbor and traditional trade partner of Mexicans - in the purchase of food to become the number one in the world in seven of the eleven products that fill the CLAPs (rice, white corn, lentils, black beans, canned tuna, tomato sauce, and pasta) and second customer in three other items (vegetable oil, powdered milk, and sugar).

From January to April 2017 alone, Mexico exported to Venezuela 209,124 tons of food for the government of Maduro

From January to April 2017 alone, Mexico exported to Venezuela 209,124 tons of food for the government of Maduro - so hostile and apparently distanced from the government of Enrique Peña Nieto - to consolidate its subsidized food program. During this period, Venezuelan purchases of vegetable oil, rice, canned tuna, sugar, black beans, lentils, white corn, mayonnaise, pasta, and tomato sauce, all included in the CLAPs, totaled 127 million dollars. As if that were not enough, last May alone, 205 thousand tons were shipped, almost the total of the first four months, for a value close to 50 million dollars.

That exchange seems like a fraction of a larger business. Although the Venezuelan authorities do not disclose the investment in dollars for CLAPs, the documents obtained for this report allows us to establish that nearly 500 million dollars from Venezuela ended up in Mexico. It is not a minor figure, if considering that it could settle at least half of the debt that the companies clustered in the Venezuelan Chamber of Food Industry (Cavidea) have with their suppliers abroad due to imports that were completed, but that the Government never paid and that has caused a paralysis in the national production.

The cargo was received in Venezuela by public companies like the Trader of Goods and Services of the State of Táchira (Cobiserta), attached to the Government of that state, in western Venezuela. With the financial support of the central government with 340 million dollars, the governor of the Táchira state, José Gregorio Vielma Mora, imported 10 million CLAP boxes. Corporación Única de Servicios Productivos y Alimentarios (Cuspal), which reports to the Ministry of Food, and the state-owned Corporación Venezolana de Comercio Exterior (Corpovex) – a sort of a large public importer - are other consignees of the Mexican cargo.

The purchases have been mediated by at least two entrepreneurs questioned in several jurisdictions, but close to Maduro’s government, Venezuelan Samark López and Colombian Alex Saab, the latter linked to the former Colombian senator Piedad Córdoba and investigated in Ecuador for irregularities in other of his businesses with Venezuela.

Saab, for example, used a registered company in Hong Kong called Group Grand Limited to buy the products in Mexico and then resell them to the Government of Táchira. The data from the Ministry of Economy of Mexico are once again revealing. If you cross the price reflected in the invoices issued by Group Grand Limited with the values ??of Mexican exports to Venezuela reported by the agency, it is evident that filling the CLAP box costs in Mexico about 16 dollars, while the Saab company resold it for almost 34 dollars.

Corn was resold to more than six times its value

The only products that Venezuelans paid at a price similar to that reported by Mexico for its exports to Venezuela, according to the invoices of Group Grand Limited, were powdered milk, sugar and vegetable oil. In contrast, corn was resold to more than six times its value. In other words, two 1-kilo bags of corn flour, which, according to the Ministry of Economy were exported at $ 0.54, were placed at $ 3.40 in the CLAP boxes sold by Group Grand Limited. Rice, mayonnaise and tomato sauce triples the cost.

Group Grand Limited completed the majority of the business with the Government of Táchira on January 9-31, 2017, based on the dates of the invoices. It is almost the same period in which Samark López also started massive purchases of food in Mexico through Postar Intertrade Limited, a company registered in the island of Barbados.

In just seven days in January, Lopez's company bought food from Mexican companies for almost 12 million dollars

In just seven days in January (9-16) Lopez's company bought food from at least nine Mexican companies for 11,992 billion dollars, Grupo Soriana; Value Oriented Services (VOS), created five years ago by Kenneth Moskal, former director of the Soriana Supply Chain; The modern; Golden Foods, Cereales y Pastas SA de CV; COPROP, SA de CV; Aktion Trade Services; Comercializadora DTLP and Grupo Pando, according to different invoices.

At that time, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Department of the Treasury had not publicly identified Samark López as "front man" of Vice President of the Republic Tareck El Aissami, accused by Americans for participating in drug trafficking. That sanction from Washington occurred in early February, just when the port of Puerto Cabello - the main one in the country, some 300 kilometers from Caracas - arrived from shipping company Hamburg Sud with the first shipment that Postar Intertrade Limited sent from the port of Veracruz for the Venezuelan government.

Samark López Figures

Carlos Paparoni, deputy of Primero Justicia (political party), part of the opposition alliance Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD) does not hesitate to state that Samark López created a scheme in which the only beneficiary is the Venezuelan businessman by overcharging the merchandise or charging for insurance and freight through PYP, another company that he owns. “Optimization is not the business priority. It sets the price and brings what it pleases (...) They have used food to make big money," sums up the member of the parliament.

The calculations of the also vice president of the  Commission of the Comptroller’s Office of the National Assembly indicate that the value of the box in Mexico for Postar Intertrade Limited would not exceed $ 11 and the price in Venezuela would be $ 12.44, but Samark Lopez’s company billed them at $ 22.22.

Contacted for this report, he insists that Paparoni "distorts reality" and that "we have nothing to hide"

"That sir (Carlos Paparoni) having the nerve to affirm that we consciously planned a scheme to play with the hunger of our people, is something that cannot be allowed not only to him but to anybody," defended the businessman in an interview granted to the Miami Herald newspaper and published on July 6. Contacted for this report, he insists that Paparoni "forges reality" and that "we have nothing to hide", in reference to the operation of Postar Intertrade Limited.

Samark López says that the contract signed with state-owned company Corpovex after "winning" a tender "does not reach 120 million dollars" to trade 3 million CLAP boxes. A simple division between the amount of the agreement and the merchandise to be sold shows that each box was sold at almost 40 dollars, a figure that would almost triple the value of what the Mexican Ministry of Economy reports for each kilogram of products exported to Venezuela and included in the CLAP pantry. According to the businessman, this differential may be associated with the "difficulty of consolidating this type of export of food combos".

"I first tried to do it from the USA, but we needed corn flour and powdered milk"

Sources familiar with the operation of Postar Intertrade Limited, and confirmed by Samark López, indicate that the slightly more than 1 million CLAP boxes shipped in two shipments, were at a cost of about $ 31 each and sold to the Venezuelan government at $ 39 per unit. That would mean that for each CLAP box sold, the entrepreneur obtained 8 to 9 dollars, multiplied by 3 million combos, as he said, they would report a total profit of about 25 million dollars in a matter of months. " I first tried to do it from the USA, but we needed corn flour and powdered milk," he says about the purchases in Mexico. He said that he worked with a profit margin of 22% "before taxes".

For the first and only two shipments due to the sanctions of OFAC, Samark Lopez invested nearly 40 million dollars. This total includes "logistics" expenses, the payment to the shipping company, the "personnel" of the company and the cardboard boxes, costs that almost represent a quarter of the 40 million dollars.

"As far as I know, it was 3 million. It is a 3-million contract to be delivered in 180 days"

However, the sources consulted assure that the contract that Postar Intertrade Limited signed in January of this year with the state-owned Corporación Venezolana de Comercio Exterior (Corpovex) was for 2 million CLAP boxes that had to be dispatched 90 days from the signing of the agreement. If so, the price at which Postar Intertrade Limited would have sold each box to the Venezuelan government would be even more expensive, as would the final profit margin for Samark López." As far as I know, it was 3 million. It is a 3-million contract to be delivered in 180 days," he insisted.

In any case, Postar Intertrade Limited has only been able to send two shipments to Venezuela, totaling just over 1,100 containers and almost one million one hundred thousand CLAP boxes.

That total of containers is equivalent to more than half of those sent to Venezuela for other business with the government, according to a presentation on the activities of the company provided by the team of Samark López. "In five years, over 2,094 containers with different supplies were shipped from the United States of America and Mexico to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," says the presentation in an attempt to highlight the "trajectory" of Postar Intertrade Limited.

The effect of sanctions

The sanctions of OFAC, issued last February, affected Samark López’s food import business. That month, the first shipment arrived and the second just berthed in Venezuela last April, two months later than expected, because Corpovex covered the name of Postar Intertrade Limited of that operation. "The boxes were already manufactured and Corpovex paid the freight and shipping insurance," explains the businessman.

"From April 10, 2017 to date, Postar has not made any shipment of food combos for CLAPs”

Shipping documents confirm that on April 4 of this year, the Easter Island ship of Hamburg Sud sailed from Veracruz towards the port of Puerto Cabello, on the central coast of the country, with about 500 containers with “food combos." After downloading that ship, the company has not made new shipments. " From April 10, 2017 to date, Postar has not made any shipment of food combos for CLAPs," says the company presentation. Samark López even adds that Corpovex owes both shipments, as well as some related to the sale of bulk food in 2016. "Our contract is in dollars. We are a company that financed the entire operation," he says.

He added that the non-payment is due to the effect of OFAC sanctions against him, which he has "taken seriously from the first moment," as well as the government's financial difficulties in honoring its commitments. "They owe us a significant amount of money."

"Our contract is in dollars. We are a company that financed the entire operation," he says.

If the sanctions by the US Department of the Treasury seem to have disrupted Samark Lopez's businesses, the same could happen with the operations of Alex Saab, as well as the state companies that buy food in Mexico for the CLAPs. Last week, the government of Peña Nieto announced a tightening of the relationship towards the Venezuelan authorities from the broad sanctions announced by the United States of America due to the celebration of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC).

One of these measures involves the collaboration of Mexico with the US government to also track the assets of "many officials and former officials of the Venezuelan government for undermining democracy and human rights in that country, as well as for participating in acts of violence, repression and corruption," regarding another 13 Venezuelans listed by OFAC last week.

In addition, Peña Nieto has joined the chorus of governments and countries that will not recognize the results of the ANC, with which the Venezuelan president will finally annul the parliament, dominated by the opposition since January 2016. Only then, the relationship between Peña Nieto and Maduro, two presidents separated by ideology, but united by business in recent months, would end.

Note: This work was a joint investigation with the Mexican journalist Claudia Solera, from the newspaper Excélsior.

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