Trump sanctions targeting Venezuela's Maduro lead to Mexico

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - The Trump administration increased pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Thursday, targeting a lifeline that he uses to sell crude oil operated by a close employee of the socialist leader, who was recently detained in Cape Verde.
US Treasury officers focused primarily on Mexico-based people and sanctioned three people and the companies they run. You are all now prevented from doing business with the United States or American citizens.
The tough financial move is said to keep Maduro's government from hard cash from oil sales in a United States-led campaign to end his rule and the country's historic political and economic crisis.
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"The illegitimate Maduro regime has created a secret network to avoid sanctions that the Treasury has now exposed," Deputy Treasury Secretary Justin G. Muzinich said in a statement. "The United States will continue tirelessly persecuting sanctions evaders who are plundering Venezuela's resources for personal gain at the expense of the Venezuelan people."
The financial measures do not directly affect Maduro allies and Colombian citizen Alex Saab, who has already been charged by US officials and arrested in recent days. But officials say they are networking Saab's employees, who are accused of helping Venezuela's state-owned oil company PDVSA to circumvent US sanctions.
The new sanctions target Saab employee Joaquin Leal, a Mexican citizen with knowledge of the global oil market. US officials accuse the two men of selling Venezuelan crude under the guise of an "oil-for-food" program that never resulted in food deliveries to Venezuela.
Leal worked with Mexico-based Libre Abordo and the newly approved Schlager Business Group to broker the resale of over 30 million barrels of crude oil on behalf of PDVSA. US officials accounted for approximately 40% of PDVSA's oil exports in April.
Olga Maria Zepeda and her mother Veronica Esparza were sanctioned as co-owners of the two companies, officials said.
The Schlager Business Group, an administrative and back office support company, had no previous knowledge of the oil sector, according to official sources. Officials have imposed sanctions for allegedly entering the global oil world on behalf of Venezuela by providing financial and technological support to PDVSA.
Libre Abordo is a Mexico City-based company that sells cleaning supplies, hospital equipment, and agricultural products. It claimed it went bankrupt in May, but finance officials said it actually resold over 30 million barrels of Venezuelan crude. The company had no experience in the oil sector before negotiating a deal in favor of PDVSA.
In July 2019, the company signed two contracts with Venezuelan-controlled companies for the delivery of corn and tank trucks to Venezuela. Libre Abordo accepted the payment of Venezuelan crude oil in a program orchestrated by Saab U.S. officials and Venezuelan senior official Tarek El Aissami.
These sanctions add to dozens of others against Venezuela, including Maduro and his wife.
The Trump administration launched its Maduro eviction campaign in early 2019 and supported opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate leader. The U.S. is among dozens of nations that Maduro claims power after fraudulent elections in 2018. He continues to support military and international allies, including Russia, China, Iran and Turkey.
The Venezuelan crisis has caused at least 5 million people to flee from rising inflation and the lack of medicines and gasoline.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Monday that he would sell gasoline to Venezuela for humanitarian reasons if the country requests it despite sanctions.
"Venezuela has not made a request to us, but if it were a humanitarian need, we would," said López Obrador during a visit to the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz. "We are free, Mexico is an independent country, sovereign, we make our own decisions and we are not involved in the politics of other countries."
Saab was charged by the Miami Attorney General with money laundering last year related to a suspected bribery program that raised more than $ 350 million from a low-income housing project for the Venezuelan government that was never built. US officials privately describe Saab as a front man for Maduro.
Saab was arrested on Friday en route to Iran when he struck a blow to Maduro's government. US officials believe he holds many secrets about how Venezuela's leaders, his family, and top helpers are said to have pulled millions of dollars in government contracts amid widespread hunger in the oil-rich nation.
It was unclear how the American authorities, which had been targeting the Colombian businessman for years, eventually caught up with him. Saab remains in custody on the West African island, and his lawyer has announced plans to combat extradition to the United States.
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Associate press writer Christopher Sherman from Mexico City, Mexico, contributed to this story.

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