AMLO government knew about the money laundering and secret deals with Venezuela

Handout photo released by Lopez Obrador's press office of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) (2-R) and his wife Beatriz Gutierrez Muller (R) posing with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (2-L) and his wife Cilia Flores at the Mexican National Palace on December 1, 2018, during AMLO's inauguration. - Lopez Obrador was sworn in as Mexicoís next president, after the anti-establishment leftist won a landslide election victory promising to "transform" a country fed up with crime, poverty and corruption. (Photo by daniel aguilar / Lopez Obrador's Press office
The opaque network that exchanged oil from Venezuela operated with the help of the Mexican government

An investigation by EL PAÍS and confirms the relationship between the undersecretary of Foreign Affairs and the businessman Joaquín Leal · The Libre Abordo company, sanctioned by the United States, assures that the Mexican authorities were key in the negotiations and instructed a state company to facilitate businesses that were disguised as humanitarian aid

A group of Mexican businessmen began two years ago to develop an opaque network with the Government of Venezuela that exchanged oil from the Caribbean country for food. Later, it would trade in coal and aluminum and would seek to expand its portfolio to other businesses. He created a network that moved millions of euros around the world without leaving a trace, always evading the sanctions imposed by the United States on the Chavista leadership. What is the degree of knowledge that the Government of Mexico has had of the operations of these entrepreneurs all this time has been a mystery? The Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF) began an investigation a year ago on some of those involved, without having made major progress in the Mexican justice system. An investigation by EL PAÍS and testifies that Libre Abordo, one of the companies involved, presented itself as a company appointed by the Government of Mexico to carry out this type of operation. The marketer also claims to have done business with Seguridad Alimentaria Mexicana (Segalmex), the government agency for the production and distribution of food. Documents held by both media and interviews with various sources confirm a relationship between the young businessman Joaquín Leal, at the apex of the plot, and the Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs for Latin America and the Caribbean, Maximiliano Reyes. The number two of the Foreign Ministry defends that in its responsibility it is essential to support “every Mexican company, whatever its name is called, without consulting its political or partisan position.” “We start from the fact that the businessmen who approach us do so in good faith and want to have better economic ties in the region,” adds Reyes.

“Libre Abordo was appointed by the Mexican Government to enter the humanitarian program of oil-for-food exchanges with Venezuela with the purpose of executing the sale of a variety of food products to be marketed between both countries,” says the company in a presentation. prepared in January 2020, which is part of the documents accessed by this investigation. In the document, the company explains that the agreement was forged in a series of bilateral talks between the two governments.

The same presentation indicates that Libre Abordo reached an agreement with Segalmex, a body that emerges from the Ministry of Agriculture. “Segalmex receives instructions from the federal government of Mexico to continue with humanitarian aid, with the intention of benefiting the peoples of Mexico and Venezuela,” the document reads. According to the Libre Abordo version, the Andrés Manuel López Obrador Administration instructed Segalmex to sell 210,000 tons of corn to Venezuela. The amount coincides with the operation that, in June 2019, Libre Abordo carried out with the state Corporación Venezolana de Comercio Exterior (Corpovex): two contracts were signed to supply those tons of corn and 1,000 tanker trucks of drinking water in exchange for oil, an operation valued at 200 million euros.

On the left, the contract that Libre Abordo signed to export Mexican corn to Venezuela.  On the right, the agreement for the purchase of the Chinese trucks that were sent to the South American country.
On the left, the contract that Libre Abordo signed to export Mexican corn to Venezuela. On the right, the agreement for the purchase of the Chinese trucks that were sent to the South American country.

The government of Nicolás Maduro needed to exchange oil for food in the face of pressure from the sanctions imposed by the United States since 2014, which prevent it from easily trading its huge oil reserves. Thus, the payment of both contracts was agreed with two million barrels of the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). Those two million barrels ended up becoming at least 30 million in shipments that sailed between November 2019 and May 2020. According to emails held by EL PAÍS and, Libre Abordo justified the jump from two million to 30 million barrels due to the international drop in the price of crude oil. The Mexican company was advised with dispatches to complete the operations through bartering that was justified as “humanitarian aid”, in order to try to evade possible sanctions. In the eyes of the United States, the so-called humanitarian aid transactions were not only collected but also involved a business of hundreds of millions of dollars for a group of businessmen at the expense of the Venezuelan people, “wasting” their natural resources.

This operation caused the US Treasury Department to sanction Libre Abordo and Joaquín Leal on June 18, 2020, for doing business with Venezuela. Then, the Mexican Financial Intelligence Unit began an investigation to follow the trail of the 200 million euros. The investigation made little progress until on May 18, the FIU sent a complaint to the Prosecutor’s Office in which it requested the assurance (blocking) of a hundred accounts of Leal and Libre Abordo, as this newspaper was able to verify. Of the alleged agreements with Segalmex, however, there is not a single mention.

The Executive of Andrés Manuel López Obrador has maintained an ambiguous position regarding the crisis in Venezuela since he came to power. He avoided recognizing Juan Guaidó as interim president, although he has contributed to sheltering opponents and removing them from the country. Relations between the Venezuelan opposition and government with Mexican diplomacy are close and frequent, to the point that Mexico is emerging as the possible venue for a negotiation between both parties to seek a way out of the crisis. In the case of the president, who covers all the affairs of Mexico in his morning conference, he has referred to Venezuela on very few occasions. One of them was three days before the Treasury sanction Mexican businessmen to say that it would be willing to collaborate with humanitarian aid with Venezuela if necessary: “He has not made any requests to us. In the event that the request was made to us and it was a humanitarian need, we would do so ”. The Mexican Presidency has not responded to requests for comment for this report.

The "oil for food" scheme, according to the US Treasury Department.
The “oil for food” scheme, according to the US Treasury Department.TREASURY DEPARTMENT

The link between Libre Abordo and the Government of Mexico, according to the documents obtained, is in the relationship of Joaquín Leal – a 29-year-old businessman who presented himself as the company’s legal representative and who plays a decisive role in the opaque network negotiating with Venezuela – with Maximiliano Reyes, number two of the Chancellery. Leal and Reyes met at least twice before the agreement between Libre Abordo and Corpovex was closed in two restaurants in Mexico City, as EL PAÍS has been able to confirm from various sources. Asked about these meetings and the relationship with Leal, Reyes assures that he places him “with a group of Mexican and foreign investors in the energy sector” with whom he has not had “contact for several months before the sanctions were made public.” And he continues: “My talks with them consisted of the same as with many others: economic and commercial environments, risks, threats and opportunities in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

As part of this investigation, a detailed questionnaire was sent to the Undersecretary asking if he had knowledge of the oil-for-food exchange between Libre Abordo and Corpovex; on whether she was aware that Libre Abordo was presenting herself as a government envoy and whether she had played a role in it; also on whether he was aware that the Mexican company claimed to have done business with Segalmex. Reyes opted for a block answer, in which he avoided going into detail on some questions. “As undersecretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, my responsibility is to be in permanent contact with all the governments of the region, based on the criteria established by the Mexican Constitution, which have always been publicly stated. Our principle is the utmost respect for the sovereignty of each country, and as far as possible, we are always willing to cooperate and collaborate in the social, economic, cultural, humanitarian, and commercial aspects. And in this sense, we do not make exceptions with any government nor do we submit to the foreign policy of any country, ”Reyes said in his response. The undersecretary defends that he works “in favor of a solid and fluid dialogue with the private sector to improve the economic and commercial dynamics” of Mexico in the region.

In this sense, Reyes affirms that for his undersecretaries “it is essential to support any Mexican company, whatever it is called, without consulting its political or partisan position.” “We assume that the businessmen who approach us do so in good faith and wish to have better economic ties in the region based on a fundamental principle: win-win-win (Mexico wins, the country in question wins, the businessman wins. )”, Add. “And in that sense, we have productive relationships with many Mexican and foreign companies that fortunately see us as allies to facilitate their expansion, in the same way, that other governments do with their companies.” Regarding the sanctions that the United States imposed on Libre Abordo and Leal, Reyes responds: “Our line is public: We will never agree to resolve anything by force or coercion, or by sanctions. Our position is public and notorious. We have always voted in the same way in international organizations ”.

An employee of Leal, very close to Reyes

Those meetings in Mexico City are not the only link between Reyes and the business consortium sanctioned by the United States. The journalist Carlos Loret de Mola brought to light a letter dated June 20, 2019, less than a week after the contracts between Libre Abordo and the Venezuelan Government were signed, in which the Venezuelan Haymel Brito appears as a member of the Mexican delegation at the 49th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Medellín. The Mexican delegation was headed by Reyes and Brito was the only participant who did not hold a high diplomatic post. In her column, Loret de Mola described Brito as “an influential woman in the Mexican Foreign Ministry.” Given the dissemination of the letter, the Ministry of Foreign Relations (SRE) decided to leave Brito out of the entourage. In at least two requests for information, the Foreign Ministry refused to allow the woman to work in the Undersecretariat of Latin America. Nor does she appear in the directory as a paid employee of that agency.

According to his résumé, Brito Martínez has been a representative of Fedecámaras – Venezuela’s business chamber -, an analyst for the International Organization of Employers, a fellow at the United Nations and has worked for the office of the United Arab Emirates ambassador in Mexico. It was during that stage, at the end of 2018 when at least two sources place the first meeting between Brito and Reyes. During the transition period of the Government of Enrique Peña Nieto to Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in September 2018, Marcelo Ebrard visited the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates as appointed foreign minister. He was accompanied by part of his team, including the current undersecretary for Latin America and the Caribbean. Shortly afterward they began to interact intensely through social networks and traveled together to various places such as Panama, Argentina, and Barcelona, ​​as this newspaper has been able to verify. Brito’s personal relationship with Joaquín Leal is also a fact, as evidenced by photos and messages on social networks of her together with the closest environment of the Mexican businessman. Neither Reyes nor Brito has wanted to answer specific questions about their relationship.

In July 2019, Brito began working as Director of Institutional Relations at Hábitos Luzy, the Mexican subsidiary of Luzy Technologies, one of Leal’s companies that were included on the blacklist of the Treasury Department along with Libre Abordo. The company specialized in health and food and its most visible product was a mobile application to give medical advice. From her position in Luzy, the woman managed the sale of medicines and medical equipment to the Government of Panama with direct support from the Mexican Embassy in the Central American country. Consulted for this investigation, Brito denies having been part of “any group of businessmen” and says that her work was limited to giving external advice that concluded in 2019. “My activities have never had anything to do with Venezuela, or with its affairs. , nor with their products ”, he assures.

Part of the presentation of Libre Abordo in which they explain that the agreement was forged in a series of bilateral talks between both governments.

Bank transfer made to Segalmex by Consorcio Panamericano, linked to Joaquín Leal, as an advance for the payment of corn.

Email with the procedures of the Mexican Embassy in Panama in favor of Luzy, one of Leal’s companies.

Letter sent by Libre Abordo to Rodrigo Benedith, an official of the Mexican Embassy in Caracas, dated March 20, three months before the sanctions.

On December 10, 2019, Reyes traveled to Buenos Aires to represent Mexico in the inauguration of Argentine President Alberto Fernández. According to the transparency records, on that trip, the undersecretary made a stop in Panama to “hold meetings at the Mexican Embassy.” That same day, Brito shared on his social networks that he was in Panama. According to the emails, during that trip, he visited the Mexican Embassy to discuss trade agreements between Luzy and the Panamanian Government. At the end of 2019, the Mexican ambassador to that country, Luis Manuel López Moreno, began to report to the Venezuelan woman – whom he called “teacher” – the progress he was making on behalf of the company. “We will meet before Friday to discuss the [Luzy] app. As soon as I have a result, I will inform you ”, The ambassador wrote to Brito in an email on December 16 about a meeting he had with a businessman, just a week after the visit. “Very good, ambassador,” she replied. On this matter, the Venezuelan assures: “I have never asked for, nor received any benefit from any Mexican institution. I do not have any type of relationship with any institution of the Government of Mexico ”. The woman also assures that she learned of Libre Abordo through journalistic notes published in 2020 when hundreds of documents held by EL PAÍS and not received any benefit from any Mexican institution. I do not have any type of relationship with any institution of the Government of Mexico ”. 

The man of Kings in Caracas

The shadow of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the Venezuelan oil plot also extends to the Mexican Embassy in Caracas, especially with Reyes’ henchman in that delegation: Rodrigo Benedith Reyes. Both officials have known each other for at least a decade, when the undersecretary was a legislator in the Mexico City Assembly in 2009 for the PRD and the other was an advisor to the legislative body. They also worked together as area directors in the Miguel Hidalgo delegation between 2012 and 2013. In September 2019, Benedith held the position of director of Urban Services of the Mayor’s Office of Azcapotzalco when he was appointed, without any experience in the diplomatic sector, in charge of economic cooperation and promotion of the Mexican delegation in Venezuela. His name appears in the mailings of Leal’s circle, who also boasted of having “contacts in embassies and consulates.” In an email sent by Leal himself to his team on September 12, 2019, when the official was just arriving in office, the businessman asked that Benedith be sent some cards and a contract.

The name of the Mexican official is also present in other communications. As in one of April 1, 2020, in which the director of Libre Abordo, Olga María Zepeda Esparza, writes an email to the Mexican Embassy in Caracas informing of her agreements with PDVSA. “We want to share with you some context related to our work as a Mexican company that provides humanitarian aid in Venezuela in exchange for oil,” says the message, addressed to Benedith Reyes.

During the preparation of this report, while requests were made to those indicated about their role in the plot, it was announced that Benedith was leaving the Mexican Embassy in Caracas. “It is my conviction to return to my country to take on tasks that contribute to the consolidation of the Fourth Transformation of public life in Mexico,” he wrote last Wednesday on Twitter. Hours after announcing his departure, the official did not want to answer a questionnaire sent to him by EL PAÍS and by email to clarify his participation and cited an article of the Mexican Foreign Service Law that, according to his interpretation, obliges him to maintain “absolute discretion” regarding his work in the diplomatic mission. Asked if he was aware of Benedith’s contacts, the undersecretary, Maximiliano Reyes, assures: “My relationship with the Mexican embassies in all the countries of the region is very close and positive. I try to be in permanent contact with each one of them, with their staff in each work area. In fact, I think this is the job that my counterpart would do in any country in the world ”.

Links with Segalmex

The relationship between Libre Abordo and Segalmex is not present only in a corporate presentation of the company. In search of clients willing to refine PDVSA’s oil that had been exchanged for food, Libre Abordo contacted the Indian refinery Reliance in early 2020. In the due diligence process with the Asian company, Libre Abordo attached a letter dated December 16, 2019, with the letterhead of Segalmex, the body that was supposed to sell the corn bound for Venezuela. “We can confirm that we have received instructions from the Mexican government to continue with this deal,” reads the letter that supposedly bears the signature of the then head of Administration and Finance, René Gavira. “The corn will be divided into three deliveries scheduled for the third week of January 2020, the third week of February, and the third of March ”. Sources close to the former official, who left office in June last year involved in accusations of corruption, assure that the signature of the letter is not that of Gavira and affirm that it is a simulation of Leal and his collaborators.

The letter attributed to Segalmex, describing the deals with Venezuela, from December 2019.
The letter attributed to Segalmex, describing the deals with Venezuela, from December 2019.

Libre Abordo also presented proof of a bank transfer from December 11, 2019, to Segalmex for 330.6 million pesos (15 million dollars) as an advance for the delivery of the 210,000 tons of corn. The company that made the payment was Consorcio Panamericano SA de CV, a Mexican company in which Leal’s grandmother is a partner along with alleged front men who participated in other entities of the businessman. Libre Abordo assured in the emails sent to Reliance that Consorcio Panamericano made him a “loan” to complete the transaction. Before the consultation of this newspaper, Segalmex has responded that “it is not going to comment” on the supposed operation.

A source close to the case details that since Segalmex could not sell directly to the Venezuelan government, companies that triangulated operations were used to bring the products to the South American country. The modus operandi, according to this version, consisted of Segalmex buying from national producers and later selling again to companies that were in charge of the international customs and logistics process to export them to Venezuela.

At least two official sources confirm that the relationship between Segalmex and Leal and their collaborators dates back to 2019 and was again facilitated by Maximiliano Reyes. The first contacts are at a meeting in Monterrey, with senior officials of the Government of Venezuela who visited Mexico and who proposed to open a channel of institutional communication between both Administrations. That meeting took place shortly after the visit of a group of Mexican businessmen, including José Adolfo Murat, Leal’s former partner, to Caracas. Then, according to the documentation obtained, there was a meeting with Omar Nassif, a businessman close to Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, who raised the possibility of using Industrias Lácteas Asturianas as a supplier in Mexico, something that sources close to Segalmex corroborate.

Roberto Deniz and Ewald Scharfenberg are reporters for the Venezuelan investigative outlet


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