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Justice Dept. charges five in Venezuelan bribery and money laundering scheme

Justice Dept. charges five in Venezuelan bribery and money laundering scheme
The Justice Department said Thursday the five men charged each face up to 100 years in prison if convicted. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

Oct. 22 (UPI) -- The Justice Department announced charges Thursday against five people, including a Colombian linked to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, for laundering money as part of a bribery scheme involving a government food and medicine program.

The federal grand jury's five-count indictment was unsealed Thursday, charging three Columbians and two Venezuelans for laundering money they received through gaining inflated government contracts by bribing officials.

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The contracts were granted through the Comite Local de Abastecimiento y Produccion, also known as CLAP, for the importation and distribution of food and medicine to the country's poor.

Prosecutors said the scheme ran from July 2015 to at least last year during which the men conspired to launder their ill-gotten gains through bank accounts in Antigua and the United Arab Emirates.

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According to the court document, the men received $1.6 billion from Venezuela of which $180 million was laundered through the United States.

The Justice Department identified the Colombians as Alvaro Pulido Vargas, 57; Emmanuel Enrique Rubio Gonzalez, 32; and Carlos Rolando Lizcano Manrique, 50. The Venezuelans were identified as the 55-year-old former governor of the Venezuelan state of Tachira, Jose Gregorio Vielma-Mora; and Ana Guillermo Luis 49.

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They have been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and four counts of money laundering, and if convicted they each face a maximum penalty of 100 years in prison, the Justice Department said in a statement.

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The announcement of the charges comes days after Colombian Alex Nain Saab Moran, who is an ally to Maduro and an associate of Pulido Vargas, was extradited to the United States to face money laundering charges.

The United States imposed sanctions against Saab, 49, as well as three of Maduro's stepsons in July of 2019 from profiting from CLAP food imports. Saab was also sanctioned by the United States last year for brokering the sale of tens of millions of barrels of crude oil on behalf of Venezuela's sanctioned state-owned oil company.

In July, Britain sanctioned both Saab and Pulido Vargas for exploiting two of Venezuela's public programs to provide food and housing the the nation's poor.

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The Biden administration has ramped up efforts to combat corruption, particularly in the Central America, viewing it as a root cause for migration.

In June, President Joe Biden issued a memorandum to fight corruption, a move that was followed in July by the imposition of sanctions against 55 Central American officials.

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Later that same month, the Treasury blacklisted a former Honduran president and his wife for their involvement in "significant corruption" while in office.

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