Three Families in Mexico Fatten their Fortunes with Venezuela’s Claps

While the key role of Colombian entrepreneurs Alex Saab Morán and Álvaro Pulido Vargas in the import scheme of Nicolás Maduro’s Government program has come to light, almost nothing has been said about the participation of the traders who act as suppliers from Mexico. These are economic groups that, even before doing business with Venezuela, were not alien to public controversy.

4 November 2018

On October 18, the Attorney General of Mexico revealed the findings of an investigation into the financial operations behind the purchases of food in that country by intermediaries of the Government of Nicolás Maduro for the state program of the Local Committee for Supply and Production (Clap). The assistant attorney general specialized in organized crime investigation, Israel Lira, defined it as a "fraudulent scheme" of "unusual operations" by companies and people who sold "low-quality" products with "overpricing" to Venezuela.

At that time, the official statement of the Mexican agency only referred to the cast of characters that move around the scheme of import intermediation of Colombian entrepreneurs Alex Nain Saab Morán and Álvaro Pulido Vargas. But did not made an allusion to the suppliers, a trio of business groups in Mexico that hold in their few hands a billion-dollar business.

Jorge and Elías Landsmanas Dymensztejn, owners of Corporativo Kosmos and its subsidiaries Productos Serel and La Cosmopolitana; Jorge Carlos Fernández Francés of El Sardinero; and Aristóteles Vaca Pérez, owner of Almacenes Vaca and Rice & Beans, are the names of those who supply a fundamental portion of the supplies that arrive in Venezuela packed as Clap boxes or bags. They are joined by Grupo Brandon, a dummy company that in 2018 has monopolized the offer of powdered milk for the Venezuelan social program.

Some of these companies have already appeared on the Mexican press as protagonists of public incidents. For instance, La Cosmopolitana was responsible for distributing Salmonella-contaminated food in a jail called Puente Grande in 2014, which intoxicated 450 inmates. El Sardinero was fined for falsifying the address in a public tender, while Almacenes Vaca holds around 600 contracts by direct award with the Government of Enrique Peña Nieto, outgoing president of Mexico.

In the statement of October 18, the authorities preferred to omit the participation of these companies for which the government plan formalized by Nicolás Maduro on March 12, 2016 became a millionaire opportunity. Figures from the Ministry of Economy of Mexico indicate that from January 2017 to August 2018 alone, exports of the 11 products containing Clap boxes totaled 850 million dollars. A significant increase if taking into account that months before the creation of the state plan, the trade between both countries was minimum and there were just sporadic exports of vegetable oil, corn flour and lentils.

Deep-Sea Fishing

As to El Sardinero, self-defined as a "leading company in food services", business started soon. In early 2017, it dispatched thousands of Clap combos for Cobiserta, a company attached to the Táchira State Government, with which Group Grand Limited signed in late 2016 a contract to supply the program of the Venezuelan Government. At the time of the agreement between Group Grand Limited - the holding registered in Hong Kong by Saab and Pulido - and the State Government of Táchira, in western Venezuela, the governor of the State was José Gregorio Vielma Mora, a captain of the army of Hugo Chavez's batch, former director of the national tax agency and then Minister of Foreign Trade of Nicolás Maduro for a few months.

On October 18, the assistant attorney general of Mexico pointed at the network created around Group Grand Limited, with which the duo of Colombian entrepreneurs organized all their import business. "The presence of several operators was detected, like Alex X, apparently related to Government authorities of that country, as well as Álvaro X, Emmanuel X, Santiago X and Andrés X, who, with the purpose of obtaining the food products to be supplied to the Venezuelan Government, resort to other companies in different countries, including Mexico." He was referring to Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido, but also to representatives of Group Grand Limited in Mexico, Santiago Uzcátegui Pinto, Andrés Eduardo León Rodríguez and Emmanuel Enrique Rubio González, son of Álvaro Pulido, who changed his name shortly after 2000, originally Germán Rubio. The General Prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Díaz, dismissed by Nicolás Maduro, denounced in last year’s August that the Venezuelan president was behind Group Grand Limited.

A recent bill, dated July 7, 2018, reveals that El Sardinero maintains food supplies for the Claps in partnership with Colombian entrepreneurs, although no longer through Group Grand Limited. The company now invoices the goods to Asasi Food FZC, a company registered in the United Arab Emirates, which has replaced Group Grand Limited in the Saab-Pulido network. The customs figures also confirm that the business of El Sardinero is running. In the first half of this year, it sent almost 100,000 tons of food to Venezuela, which makes it the Mexican company the largest exporter of products to the South American country.

In 2015, the name of Jorge Carlos Fernández Francés, owner of El Sardinero, was news when it was discovered that, in order to evade taxes, he put Mexico City license plates on to a Ferrari 458 that he used to drive around Paris, Barcelona and Rome at least four years before. The registration number 415-SYL used by his sports car actually belonged to a 2003 Golf, according to car records of the government of Mexico City, and it was in the name of El Sardinero. The company has also had its clashes with the law. On December 22, 2014, the Public Service sanctioned it with a ban of just under two and a half years to enter into contracts with federal agencies and entities, and a fine of 672,000 pesos (around $ 34,000), for falsifying the address in a public tender.

Captive Markets

It is not the only Mexican company linked to the Clap business, engaged in irregularities. The Landsmanas Dymensztejn family, owner of La Cosmopolitana and Productos Serel, was penalized in July 2014 by health authorities of the Government of Jalisco, province of western Mexico, after verifying that they sold food with Salmonella in the Puente Grande prison. It is the same conglomerate that sells Kosland milk powder, manufactured by Serel Products, which arrives in Venezuela in the Clap combos. The brand was one of the worst in nutritional terms after the physical-chemical analysis conducted by the Institute of Food Science and Technology of Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) practiced on several Mexican milks at the request of Armando.info. The product showed excess carbohydrates and sodium, but low calcium levels, to the point that children had to consume 24.8 glasses to cover their daily calcium supply instead of the 1.8 glasses that are normally required. Clap combos have also contained lentils, beans and sugar from the same Kosland brand of Serel Products.

The company was sanctioned because of what happened in the Puente Grande prison. Although the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) continues receiving complaints from inmates' families about "poor-quality and unhygienic food" from La Cosmopolitana, the millionaire contracts to provide food to several Mexican prisons have not ceased and it has just obtained a new one for 143 million Mexican pesos (just over 7.1 million dollars) to offer food services to the inmates of the Centers for Social Reintegration and Adolescents of the State of Baja California, northwest from Mexico. According to Contrabook, La Cosmopolitana accrues 4,623 million pesos (around 230 million dollars) for public contracts in Mexico.

Customs reports, however, seem to indicate that this year the participation of La Cosmopolitana and Productos Serel in food shipments to Venezuela has dropped. In the first half of year, shipments total around 150 tons, well below El Sardinero or Grupo Brandon, a dummy company that in 2018 has monopolized the sale of milk powder for Claps, one of the products from which Government intermediaries get more financial gain.

The food combos distributed by Maduro’s Government have included several powdered milk brands of Grupo Brandon, which are unknown in the Mexican market and of dubious quality. Incorporated in 2004, Brandon changed ownership in April 2017, shortly before starting its exports to Venezuela. Since then, the company address on the packaging of the product has changed.

An invoice of July 18, 2018 allows establishing the connection with the network of Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido. Like El Sardinero, Grupo Brandon billed Asasi Food FZC, the company registered in the United Arab Emirates, the goods that would eventually be received in Venezuela by Corporación Única de Servicios Productivos y Alimentarios (Sole Corporation of Productive and Food Services -Cuspal), attached to the Ministry of Food.

The document shows that Grupo Brandon sold the kilo of milk from brands like Vilec, Santa Paula and Suprema to Asasi Food FZC, at $ 2.20.

Although the product price billed by the intermediaries to the Government of Maduro was not verified for this report, in 2017,  Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido, through Group Grand Limited, first charged the kilo of Mexican milk powder at 4.75 dollars to the Government of the State of Táchira, and months later, charged it at almost 7 dollars to Cuspal, as part of the two contracts reached with the Venezuelan authorities. Both prices double and more than triplicate, respectively, the price set by Brandon for the product put in this year’s July.

Customs information reveals that in the first half of year, Grupo Brandon exported almost 30,000 tons to Venezuela, barely behind El Sardinero and Rice & Beans, the other company that is winning big time in Mexico with the Venezuelan government program.

Entrepreneur Aristóteles Vaca Pérez, originally from the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico, is the man behind Rice & Beans and Almacenes Vaca. This last one allowed him to stood out as one of the entrepreneurs preferred by Enrique Peña Nieto. Not in vain, in this six-year period to be closed, he obtained about 600 contracts by direct award and through Diconsa, the largest social network of grocery stores in Mexico, responsible for ensuring the distribution of food to the most financially vulnerable population.

Rice & Beans was the vehicle through which the tycoon reached the Clap business. From this year’s January and June alone, the company placed almost 75,000 tons of food in Venezuelan ports. As with El Sardinero and Grupo Brandon, exports are made through the network of Alex Saab and Álvaro Pulido. For example, on July 17, 2018, Rice & Beans sold $ 220,104 in food to Mulberry Proje Yatirim, a Turkish company that rounds off the intermediation scheme designed by the Colombian business duo.

Mulberry Proje Yatirim, together with Asasi Food FZC, replaced Group Grand Limited. On April 6, 2018, Group Grand Limited requested by letter to the Venezuelan Foreign Trade Corporation (Corpovex) - a body that centralizes Venezuelan public imports - the "assignment of financial rights corresponding to contract CPVX-CJ-CONT-0086- 2017" in favor of Mulberry Proje Yatirim. That agreement alone required the supply of 11.5 million Clap combos to the Venezuelan Government.

Even if the authorities did not refer to the Mexican companies in the announcements made on October 18, it is clear that the Clap boxes has also been a millionaire business for entrepreneurs in that country, and though it may be about to die out, the other announcement made by the Mexican assistant attorney general deserves acknowledgement, "The accused undertake not to carry out, by themselves or through an intermediary, any business transaction with the Government of Venezuela or third parties that operate or are related to the shipping of Clap to Venezuela."

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