U.S. slaps sanctions on Mexican firms, individuals linked to Venezuelan oil trade

By Daphne Psaledakis and Marianna Parraga

WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday blacklisted Mexico’s Libre Abordo and a related company, accusing them of helping Caracas evade U.S. sanctions in the first formal action by the U.S. Treasury Department against Mexican firms involved in trading Venezuelan oil.

The Treasury said in a statement it imposed sanctions on three individuals, eight entities and two vessels for activities related to a network attempting to skirt U.S. sanctions on Venezuela aimed at ousting President Nicolas Maduro.

Mexico’s peso slumped 2% after the U.S. action.

Among those blacklisted were Mexico-based Libre Abordo and related Schlager Business Group, as well as their co-owners, Olga Maria Zepeda and Veronica Esparza.

The Treasury also targeted Mexican Joaquin Leal Jimenez, accusing him of having worked with Alex Saab, recently arrested in Cape Verde, Libre Abordo and Schlager for brokering the resale of millions of barrels of Venezuelan crude.

“Leal is the critical conduit between Libre Abordo, Schlager Business Group, and their owners, and PDVSA and Saab. Leal has been coordinating the purchase and sale of Venezuelan-origin crude oil from PDVSA,” Treasury said.

Leal did not reply to a request for comment.

A Maduro ally who has previously helped the government buy food, Saab was sanctioned in 2019 and charged with money laundering and conspiracy in a U.S. court in relation to a food program managed by Maduro’s administration. The government has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the program.

Libre Abordo said its lawyers will evaluate the Treasury’s decision, which it said wrongly linked the firm to unrelated entities.

“Our exchange of humanitarian aid with Venezuela should not be subject of sanctions,” Libre Abordo told Reuters in a statement.

The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of the individuals and entities and generally prohibit Americans from dealing with them.

Libre Abordo and Schlager began receiving Venezuelan oil for resale in Asian markets late last year after signing two contracts with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in mid-2019.

The agreement was framed as an oil-for-food pact exempted from U.S. sanctions as the Mexican firms intended to supply Venezuela with 210,000 tons of corn.

Through May, Libre Abordo and Schlager received some 30 million barrels of Venezuelan oil, according to PDVSA’s documents. Even though they supplied about 500 water trucks in exchange, food was never delivered, as very low oil prices affected a schedule originally planned, Libre Abordo said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the oil-for-food “enterprise skimmed millions from funds that were claimed to have been for humanitarian aid, yet failed to deliver the promised food to the Venezuelan people.”

Reuters reported last month that the FBI was probing several Mexican and European companies allegedly involved in trading Venezuelan oil, gathering information for a Treasury inquiry.

“They want us to be unable to export oil so the Venezuelan people are left without food, medicine or gasoline,” Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said on Thursday. “Your actions and sanctions are criminal,” he told Pompeo over Twitter.

Washington in January 2019 recognized Venezuelan politician Juan Guaido as the OPEC nation’s rightful leader and has ratcheted up sanctions and diplomatic pressure in the aftermath of Maduro’s 2018 re-election that was widely described as fraudulent.

Maduro remains in power, backed by Venezuela’s military as well as Russia, China and Cuba.

“The United States will continue to relentlessly pursue sanctions evaders,” Treasury Deputy Secretary Justin Muzinich said in the statement.

Washington also targeted on Thursday Marshall Islands-based Delos Voyager Shipping Ltd. and Greece-based Romina Maritime Co Inc. for operating in the Venezuelan oil sector, giving them until July 21 to wind down activities.

The other firms blacklisted are Alel Technologies LLC, Cosmo Resources Pte. Ltd, Luzy Technologies LLC; and Washington Trading Ltd.

The Treasury delisted Marshall Islands-based firm Afranav Maritime Ltd and Greece-based Seacomber Ltd, and two vessels they own, after the companies promised to stop trade with Venezuela while Maduro is in power.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washington and Marianna Parraga in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Ana Isabel Martinez in Mexico City and Eric Beech in Washington; Editing by Tim Ahmann, Jonathan Oatis and Daniel Wallis)

Special Report: U.S. takes aim at the power behind Venezuela’s Maduro – his first lady

By Angus Berwick and Matt Spetalnick

CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Four years ago, a bit player in the Venezuelan leadership was arrested in Colombia and extradited to the United States to face drug charges. He proved to be an important catch.

The man, Yazenky Lamas, worked as a bodyguard for the person widely considered the power behind President Nicolas Maduro’s throne: first lady Cilia Flores.

Now, with help from Lamas’ testimony, the United States is preparing to charge Flores in the coming months with crimes that could include drug trafficking and corruption, four people familiar with the investigation of the first lady told Reuters.

If Washington goes ahead with an indictment, these people said, the charges are likely to stem, at least in part, from a thwarted cocaine transaction that has already landed two of Flores’ nephews in a Florida penitentiary.

Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment on any possible charges against Flores. Flores and her office at the National Assembly didn’t respond to questions for this article.

Jorge Rodriguez, Venezuela’s information minister, told Reuters in a text message that its questions about the possible U.S. indictment of Flores were “nauseating, slanderous and offensive.” He didn’t elaborate.

In a series of interviews with Reuters, the first Lamas has given since his arrest, the former bodyguard said Flores was aware of the coke-trafficking racket for which her two nephews were convicted by a U.S. court. Flores also used her privileged position, he said, to reward family members with prominent and well-paid positions in government, a claim of nepotism backed by others interviewed for this article.

Speaking behind reinforced glass at the prison in Washington, D.C., where he is detained, Lamas told Reuters he is speaking out against Flores because he feels abandoned by the Maduro administration, still ensconced in power even though many of its central figures, including the president, have also been accused of crimes. “I feel betrayed by them,” he told Reuters.

In late March, U.S. prosecutors indicted Maduro and over a dozen current and former Venezuelan officials on charges of narco-terrorism and drug smuggling. Maduro, now in his eighth year as Venezuela’s president, for years sought to flood the U.S. with cocaine, prosecutors alleged, seeking to weaken American society and bolster his position and wealth.

Maduro’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. In a televised speech after the indictments, he dismissed the charges against him and his colleagues as a politically motivated fabrication by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. “You are a miserable person, Donald Trump,” he said.

The March indictments and the possible charges against Flores come amid a fresh campaign by Washington to increase pressure on Maduro. His enduring grip on power, some U.S. officials say, is a source of frustration for Trump.

Starting in 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the Socialist leader along with his wife and other members of the Maduro “inner circle.” The swipe at Flores enraged Maduro. “If you want to attack me, attack me,” he said in a televised speech at the time. “But don’t mess with Cilia, don’t mess with the family.”

Leveraging the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis in Venezuela, the White House now hopes it can topple a leader who has weathered years of tightening economic sanctions, civil unrest and international isolation.

Washington has accused Maduro and his circle of looting Venezuela of billions of dollars. But it’s unclear how much personal wealth he and Flores possess. Neither the president nor the first lady disclosed income statements, tax returns or other documents pertaining to their personal finances.

After U.S. prosecutors charged Maduro, the Justice Department said it had seized more than $1 billion in assets belonging to dozens of defendants connected to the case. The charges didn’t detail those assets or specify who holds them.

Flores is a longtime strategist and kingmaker in the ruling Socialist party. She first gained prominence as a lawmaker and confidante of the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor. She doesn’t hold an official role in Maduro’s cabinet.

Still, the probe against her underscores the vast influence she wields, particularly in helping Maduro outmaneuver rivals inside and outside Venezuela.

In addition to Lamas, Reuters interviewed more than 20 people close to and familiar with Flores. They portray her as a shrewd and stealthy politician who now brandishes much of the power of her husband’s office, demanding important briefings even before the president and personally negotiating with foreign emissaries, rival lawmakers and others.

When the opposition-led National Assembly tried to oust Maduro last year, Flores ordered security officials to deliver intelligence on the matter directly to her, according to Manuel Cristopher Figuera, the head of the country’s intelligence agency then.

Figuera was one of a handful of senior Venezuelan officials who at the time considered trying to negotiate an exit from power by Maduro with the United States. Figuera fled Venezuela when the effort failed.

“Flores has always been behind the curtain, pulling the strings,” Figuera told Reuters.

Flores has sought personal concessions in recent years in negotiations with the United States.

According to five people familiar with the discussions, Flores instructed intermediaries to ask U.S. envoys for liberty for her jailed nephews. In exchange, these intermediaries said Venezuela would release six imprisoned executives of Citgo Petroleum Corp [PDVSAC.UL], the U.S. refining unit of Venezuela’s state-run oil company.

The executives, arrested by Venezuela in 2017 and charged with embezzlement, are widely considered by human rights activists and many in the business community to be political prisoners.

That overture, reported here for the first time, failed.

But Washington knows Flores’ clout. “She is probably the most influential figure other than Maduro,” Fernando Cutz, a senior White House adviser on Latin America during Trump’s first year in office, told Reuters.

Earlier this year, according to people with knowledge of her efforts, Flores personally pressed crucial opposition lawmakers to support a Maduro ally to head the National Assembly, until then considered the last independent government institution in the country.

As Reuters reported in March, people familiar with lobbying of the lawmakers say ruling party operatives paid bribes to rivals who switched sides. Reuters couldn’t determine whether Flores played any role in such payments.

Little is known about the first lady outside Venezuela, particularly the extent of her role in Maduro’s government and her dealings that help it survive.

In their first interrogation of Lamas after his arrest in Colombia, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents had one request, he recalled: “Tell us about Cilia Flores,” they said.

Michael D. Miller, a DEA spokesman, referred questions regarding the case to the Justice Department.

Lamas, now 40, spent over a decade guarding Flores – first when she was a lawmaker and headed the National Assembly, later when she became first lady. After his extradition in 2017, Lamas agreed to a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors, according to a confidential Justice Department document reviewed by Reuters.

The agreement hasn’t been previously reported.

In the plea deal, Lamas admitted to charges of drug trafficking and agreed to cooperate as a witness in investigations related to his case. The Colombian court order that approved his extradition, also reviewed by Reuters, said Lamas conspired to ship cocaine from Venezuela on U.S.-registered aircraft.

Neither the Colombian court order nor the Justice Department document mention Flores, Maduro or others in the family.

Because of the terms of the plea agreement – he said he is still awaiting sentencing and continues to testify in related investigations – Lamas declined to discuss specifics about the case against him. His lawyer in Washington, Carmen Hernandez, also declined to comment.

The information he is providing investigators, including details on Flores’ alleged role in the drug-trafficking plan by her nephews, is deemed credible by U.S. authorities, according to people familiar with the probes. Mike Vigil, a former DEA chief of international operations, told Reuters the DEA gives “high significance” to Lamas’ testimony.

“REVOLUTIONARY CALLING”

Flores was born October 15, 1956, in Tinaquillo, a small city in northwestern Venezuela. The youngest of six siblings, she lived in a mud-brick shack with a dirt floor, locals recall. Her father was a salesman, traveling to nearby towns to hawk sundry goods. While still a child, she and her family moved to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital.

A good pupil, Flores enrolled in a private university and studied criminal law. There, she met Maikel Moreno, a lifelong friend and a lawyer she would eventually help become Venezuela’s chief justice. Moreno, a Maduro ally and a controversial figure in his own right, was one of those indicted by Washington last March.

Moreno didn’t respond to requests for comment; in a tweet, he denounced Washington for trying to “hijack Venezuelan justice.”

As a student, Flores showed little interest in politics, according to people who knew her. She worked part-time at a police station, transcribing statements from witnesses, and married a longtime boyfriend, a police detective, with whom she had three boys. Upon earning her law degree, she worked for most of the next decade as a defense attorney for a private firm.

In 1989, a fuel hike sparked riots that shook Caracas and awakened in Flores what she later described to state television as a “revolutionary calling.” Hundreds of protesters, angry with corruption and widening inequality in the oil-producing country, died in clashes with security forces.

The event, known as the Caracazo – roughly, the big Caracas awakening – also inspired Chavez. As inflation, food shortages and other hardships worsened, Chavez, an Army lieutenant colonel, in 1992 staged a failed coup. He was arrested and jailed at a military barracks.

Flores discovered a hero. She took to spraypainting Chavez’s name around Caracas. “I saw him in that moment as I would in the 20 years I spent near him,” she later told state television. “Authentic.”

She sent Chavez a letter offering to aid his defense. He accepted. Soon she was counseling Chavez and helping him answer letters from thousands of supporters.

On one early visit, she met a Caracas union leader who was also advising Chavez: Maduro. In a televised speech years later, Maduro said he was drawn to her “fiery character.” He began to wink at her, he said.

As it happened, both were divorcing their spouses. They began dating and eventually became a couple. “We shared the same dreams,” Flores later told state television.

In 1994, Chavez received a presidential pardon. Flores and other advisors suggested he reinvent himself as a civilian and rally support with promises to empower the poor. By 1997, Flores was part of the campaign committee that would secure Chavez’s election the next year as president. Maduro was elected as a legislator.

Not much of a gladhander herself, Flores nonetheless won a seat in the National Assembly in 2000. “She’s not a leader to hold a political rally,” said Juan Barreto, a former Caracas mayor and media director for Chavez. “But don’t think she doesn’t have a voice behind closed doors.”

In the legislature, Flores earned a combative reputation.

When fellow Chavistas elected her leader of the National Assembly in 2007, she publicly referred to opposition lawmakers as “sinners,” suggesting the government had the moral high ground over its rivals. She switched off their microphones when she felt they grew longwinded.

She also began using her position to help family members.

Flores replaced about 50 support staff employed by the National Assembly with relatives and associates, the legislature’s union said. Four siblings, two cousins and her ex-husband were among the hires, according to a list created by the union at the time of the shakeup and recently reviewed by Reuters.

She named her brother, a policeman, head of assembly security. A nephew – a cousin of her two nephews now jailed in the United States – was appointed as the legislature’s administrative director.

Reuters was unable to reach Flores’ siblings, her ex-husband, or other relatives mentioned in this story, including her children and her nephews.

It’s unclear whether Flores was responsible for all the job changes the union complained about. But she has defiantly defended the appointments. “I feel proud that they are my family,” she told reporters at the time. “I will defend them as workers in the assembly.”

When union leaders complained about nepotism, Flores summoned them to her office, recalls Jose Rivero, who attended some of those meetings and is now the union boss. “Leave this issue alone,” he says she told them. The union complied.

In 2012, Chavez named Flores attorney general. She held the post until March 2013, when Chavez died. Voters elected Maduro, by then vice president, to succeed him. Maduro and Flores, not officially married, tied the knot that July.

As first lady, Flores initially made her presence known in small ways. She ordered new furniture, curtains and a repainting of the Miraflores Palace, former aides said. Soon, she began playing a far more substantial role.

In 2014, oil prices plunged, pulling Venezuela into depression. As discontent grew, Flores began to see threats within the government. In October, Maduro fired Miguel Rodriguez, his interior minister, and replaced him with a Flores ally.

Three people familiar with the decision said that Flores believed Rodriguez, a charismatic general popular with troops, was eclipsing Maduro. People close to Rodriguez said he had indeed aspired to higher office.

After his ouster, Rodriguez formed a rival political party and publicly denounced Maduro. Intelligence agents later arrested Rodriguez on conspiracy charges, which he denied. He remains imprisoned. Juan Luis Sosa, an attorney for Rodriguez, declined to comment.

“Cilia likes or hates you,” one former Maduro aide says. “She’s not a dealmaker, she’s a hardliner.”

“CILIA KNEW EVERYTHING”

Lamas, the bodyguard, began working for Flores in her days as a legislator. From a post in the National Guard, he had been assigned to Chavez’s security detail and later transferred to guard Flores, he said. A photo on Lamas’ Twitter feed shows him, in a revolutionary red baseball cap, with Flores at a Socialist party event in 2010.

With the job came proximity to the Flores family.

The first lady entrusted him with driving her aging mother for medical checkups, Lamas said. He became close to Flores’ sons – Walter, Yoswal and Yosser. “I considered them my brothers,” he said, recalling trips to shoot rifles and to opulent family properties on the Caribbean coast.

The brothers – known as “Los Chamos,” or “the boys” – have attracted media attention in Venezuela for their flashy lifestyles.

Lamas said he saw them use government jets to travel abroad for fun. He also said he saw them several times late at night load military jeeps with boxes of U.S. dollars and transport the cash from their homes in Caracas to other locations for storage.

Reuters couldn’t independently verify that claim.

Flores’ sons haven’t been indicted on any charges in the United States. They are on the U.S. Treasury’s list of Venezuelans sanctioned for alleged corruption. The sanctions are meant to punish central figures in Maduro’s government and block any assets they may have in the United States or within its jurisdiction.

The family’s reach by this point was manifest at Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA [PDVSA.UL], the national oil company and the government’s cash cow. In 2014, PDVSA appointed a new finance director: Carlos Malpica, the third nephew of Flores, who previously managed the support staff at the National Assembly.

Malpica couldn’t be reached for comment.

People close to Flores said Malpica had become the first lady’s most trusted relative, especially when it came to financial matters. Documents compiled by U.S. investigators for their case against the other two Flores nephews provide insight into Malpica’s influence.

In August 2015, according to text messages gathered by the investigators and transcribed in documents used at the trial, Efrain Campo, one of the two nephews, received a text from an acquaintance. The message asked for Campo’s help in recouping money allegedly owed by PDVSA to the acquaintance. The origins of the debt are unclear.

Campo told the acquaintance to call Malpica. At PDVSA, Campo wrote, Malpica was the “maximum authority there, since he’s a Flores.” “He will not do it for free,” Campo added.

PDVSA officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Malpica left his PDVSA post in 2016, giving no explanation for his departure, and has since kept a low profile. The U.S. Treasury Department would later include him on its list of Venezuelans sanctioned for alleged corruption.

The jailed nephews, Campo and Franqui Flores, were close to the first lady. She helped raise both of them, two people who know the family told Reuters, and both men sometimes referred to her as “mom.”

Their November 2015 arrest, in a DEA sting in Haiti, made international headlines. In Venezuela, it earned the pair the nickname of the “narcosobrinos,” or “narconephews.”

The bust stemmed from a plan to sell $20 million worth of cocaine in the United States. The men, who pleaded not guilty, were convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison. At the time, Flores told reporters that her nephews had been victims of a DEA “kidnapping.” She has since said little publicly about the case.

Among evidence investigators obtained, according to two people familiar with the case, are text messages between the nephews and Flores in which the trio allegedly discuss the cocaine shipment.

The messages, which haven’t been seen by Reuters, are among documentation compiled by prosecutors from the U.S. investigation of the nephews. The people familiar with the messages said they make clear that Flores helped coordinate logistics of the cocaine shipment with them.

The proceeds from the coke deal were meant to finance a Flores campaign for the National Assembly in 2015, according to the U.S. indictment against Maduro. The people familiar with the text messages said the nephews told Flores in the texts that the cocaine money would be for her campaign.

Flores had briefly left the assembly when she became attorney general, and in 2015 she was reelected.

A recording made by a DEA informant captured the two nephews discussing the planned deal, according to a transcript submitted as evidence in their trial.

In the recording, Campo says his “mom” is planning to run again for the assembly. People familiar with the probe believe “mom,” given the context of the discussion, meant Flores.

Because of the burgeoning economic crisis and growing discontent at the time, Campo told the informant, “there is a risk we could lose, so she’s getting in there again.”

“We need the money,” Campo added, in a remark investigators interpreted as an allusion to the impact of economic sanctions on Socialist coffers. “The Americans are hitting us hard, and the opposition is getting a lot of help.”

Before the two nephews were arrested, Lamas said he saw the two men on several occasions send cocaine shipments on planes from the presidential hangar outside Caracas. Reuters couldn’t verify whether Flores knew of the alleged shipments.

At times, Lamas said, Flores would hear relatives discuss illicit activities, including her nephews talking about the drug transaction for which they were convicted. She would shake her head, he added, but not voice disapproval.

“Cilia knew everything,” Lamas says.

A GRAND BARGAIN

In Caracas, where political intrigue abounds, Flores has covered Maduro’s flanks. Early last year, Juan Guaidó, head of the National Assembly, declared Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud and said he was the rightful president of Venezuela. He urged the military to oust Maduro.

Flores quickly sought out signs of disloyalty within government ranks. Figuera, the former intelligence chief, told Reuters she ordered all documentation his agents collected about any additional dissent, including transcripts of phone taps of opposition politicians, sent directly to her. He complied.

In March 2019, a nationwide electricity blackout darkened Venezuela. As senior officials convened to discuss the problem, one minister showed Twitter posts by Luis Carlos Diaz, a prominent journalist, blaming the government.

Flores said Diaz “should be jailed,” Figuera told Reuters. Maduro afterwards ordered him to arrest the journalist, Figuera added.

As Diaz bicycled home on March 11, Figuera’s agents arrested him, raided his home and seized computers and phones. After an uproar, Figuera said, Maduro called him the following day to order Diaz’s release. Diaz, who was let out, remains free and is working as a journalist. He declined to comment.

By April of last year, as most Western democracies backed Guaidó, Figuera and a handful of other senior officials began considering a negotiated exit for Maduro. They weighed the possibility of arranging safe passage for Maduro to Cuba or another allied country, Figuera said, in exchange for the easing of U.S. sanctions or other compromises by Washington.

Among the officials who discussed the idea was Moreno, the chief justice and longtime Flores friend, according to Figuera and two other people familiar with the talks. As the group prepared to discuss the possibility with U.S. envoys, Moreno told Figuera they should press for further concessions, including the release of Flores’ two nephews.

The suggestion of seeking the nephews’ freedom as part of a grand bargain with Washington followed attempts months earlier by Flores intermediaries to secure their release.

According to the people familiar with those earlier discussions, Flores had intermediaries tell Washington early last year that Caracas, in exchange for the nephews, would free the six Citgo executives. Venezuela had charged the executives, who remain in prison awaiting trial, with embezzlement related to renegotiation of Citgo’s debt with various lenders.

Attorneys for the executives told Reuters the charges are baseless and that they were unaware of any effort to include their clients in any prisoner swap. Jesus Loreto, a Caracas lawyer representing Tomeu Vadell, one of the six, said such an offer “would be yet more evidence of the arbitrary nature” of the arrests.

A senior Trump administration official told Reuters the swap offer was a “non-starter.”

“This isn’t like a spy exchange with Russia,” said another American familiar with the discussions. “The nephews are convicted criminals.”

Reuters couldn’t determine whether Flores was aware of Moreno’s attempts to broker a departure for Maduro. Moreno ultimately backed out of the talks, according to Figuera and the two other people. The effort fizzled and Figuera defected. He now lives in Miami. Moreno remains chief justice of Venezuela.

Late last year, Flores spearheaded the effort to swing opposition legislators toward a Maduro ally as assembly head. On December 7, Flores and several Maduro aides met with a group of opposition lawmakers at the Fuerte Tiuna military base in Caracas, people with knowledge of the meeting said. There, Flores urged the lawmakers to back the Maduro candidate.

Several lawmakers, including at least one who attended that meeting, later accepted payments of up to $150,000 to vote for Maduro’s candidate, these people said. Reuters couldn’t determine if Flores or Maduro were aware of the payments or whether they were discussed at the military base.

In January, Luis Parra, the government candidate, won the election for assembly chief. Now, Guaidó and Parra both claim to be running the assembly. Parra’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

From his cell in Washington, Lamas reads about politics back home. He is studying English and working as a prison cook. He showed Reuters a certificate from the prison commending his “outstanding contribution to the culinary department.”

Lamas now seethes against the family he once worked to protect. He is particularly aggrieved by a raid on his house in the days after his arrest, and a long interrogation of his wife, with whom he has two small children. A neighbor confirmed seeing the raid take place.

“I was loyal to them,” Lamas says. “But they weren’t loyal to me.”

(Editing by Paulo Prada)

U.S. imposes new rules on exports to China to keep them from its military

By Karen Freifeld

(Reuters) – The United States said on Monday it will impose new restrictions on exports to China to keep semiconductor production equipment and other technology away from Beijing’s military.

The new rules will require licenses for U.S. companies to sell certain items to companies in China that support the military, even if the products are for civilian use. They also do away with a civilian exception that allows certain U.S. technology to be exported without a license, if the use is not connected to the military.

The rules, which were posted for public inspection and will be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, could hurt the semiconductor industry and sales of civil aviation equipment to China, if the U.S. presumes they are for military applications.

The changes, which include requiring licenses for more items, also expand the rules for Russia and Venezuela, but the biggest impact will be on trade with China.

“It is important to consider the ramifications of doing business with countries that have histories of diverting goods purchased from U.S. companies for military applications,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.

Washington trade lawyer Kevin Wolf said the rule changes for China are in response to its policy of military-civil fusion: finding military applications for civilian items.

He said the regulatory definitions of military use and user are broad and go beyond purchases by entities such as the People’s Liberation Army.

For example, Wolf said, if a car company in China repairs a military vehicle, that car company may now be a military end user, even if the item being exported is for another part of the business.

“A military end user is not limited to military organizations,” Wolf said. “A military end user is also a civilian company whose actions are intended to support the operation of a military item.”

Another rule change involves eliminating civilian license exceptions for Chinese importers and Chinese nationals for certain integrated circuits. Other telecommunications equipment, radar and high-end computers will be caught as well.

The administration also posted a third proposed rule change that would force foreign companies shipping certain American goods to China to seek approval not only from their own governments but from the United States as well.

The actions come as relations between the United States and China have deteriorated amid the new coronavirus outbreak.

(Reporting by Karen Freifeld; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)

Venezuela opposition marches to Congress in showdown with Maduro

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition on Tuesday will march to downtown Caracas with the aim of regaining control of the national legislature, which was snatched by pro-government lawmakers in January, setting up a showdown with President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

National Assembly President Juan Guaido for weeks has urged Venezuelans to join the rally as a way of reviving street protests against Maduro that surged in 2019, but have waned as the ruling Socialist Party has clung to power.

The rally will be another test of Guaido’s capacity to mobilize supporters, who have become increasingly weary with the country’s economic crisis and the opposition’s inability to oust Maduro despite a broad U.S. sanctions program.

“On March 10, Venezuelans will exercise our rights in the streets,” Guaido told reporters at a Monday news conference about the march. “The only option available for Venezuelans is to escape this disaster.”

The protest is likely to meet stiff resistance from security forces, which were deployed around the country on Monday as part of military exercises ordered by Maduro.

Troops may not allow the marchers, who will include members of Parliament, to reach the legislative palace. Lawmakers will seek a different venue to hold session if they are not allowed to reach congress, according to one opposition source.

The government has called its own separate rallies in downtown Caracas for Tuesday. Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello said the opposition’s march was an attempt to rally its flagging energy.

“Every time the right-wing is cornered, they look for events that can raise the excitement of people who stopped being excited a long time ago. They try to create leadership where there is none,” Cabello said during Monday a news conference.

In January, a group of legislators backed by the Socialist Party installed themselves as the leaders of congress after troops blocked Guaido from entering the legislature.

Opposition lawmakers later re-elected Guaido for a second term in an extra-mural session, but they have been largely unable to meet at the legislative palace since then.

More than 50 countries last year recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president following Maduro’s disputed 2018 re-election, which was widely dismissed as fraudulent.

Venezuela this year is slated to hold parliamentary elections, but the opposition has not yet determined if it will participate due to concerns that the government will not provide adequate conditions.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)

Venezuela’s Guaido pushes past troops to enter congress after socialist takeover

By Mayela Armas and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan security forces let U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido enter the legislative palace on Tuesday amid a showdown for control of parliament after the ruling socialist party installed its own rival congressional chief.

Guaido, who was re-elected on Sunday to a second one-year term as head of the opposition-held congress, had pledged to preside over Tuesday’s opening session after security forces blocked him from the building over the weekend to allow socialist legislators to swear in their own speaker.

Local television images early Tuesday showed Guaido arguing for half an hour with troops wielding riot shields who again blocked the entrance to the legislative building, but eventually allowed him to push past them.

“This is not a barracks. This is the house of laws,” Guaido told the soldiers blocking his entrance. “The military does not get to decide who can enter the house of laws.”

But inside, a brief session led by Luis Parra – who was sworn in by allies of President Nicolas Maduro as parliament chief Sunday – had already ended, according to Reuters witnesses.

Parra’s swearing in on Sunday gave Maduro sway over the last major state institution that had remained outside his control and appeared to mark a setback to Washington’s efforts to unseat him.

The gambit marked an escalation in Maduro’s crackdown on the opposition, whose key international ally – the Trump administration – has so far been unsuccessful in its year-long attempt to oust Maduro through economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

U.S. special envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams on Monday said Washington was preparing new sanctions to step up pressure on Caracas. But Maduro’s move suggests he does not expect major consequences from the United States, though the government has steered clear of actions – like arresting Guaido – that could provoke a harsher response.

“We once again handed imperialism a defeat,” socialist party Vice President Diosdado Cabello said on his talk show Monday night.

Parra, who was elected to congress in 2015, had been expelled from the First Justice opposition party in late 2019 due to corruption allegations, which he has denied.

Dozens of countries, including the United States, denounced Parra’s appointment as illegitimate, and said they continued to recognize Guaido as the parliament’s head and as Venezuela’s rightful president.

On Sunday, after soldiers prevented Guaido from entering parliament, he held a separate session elsewhere in which 100 lawmakers backed his bid despite the earlier swearing-in of Parra. The legislature has 167 seats.

‘THE PEOPLE ARE IN CHARGE’

Guaido had vowed to preside over Tuesday’s legislative session despite what he called Parra’s “parliamentary coup.” Parra has rejected that description, while saying he wants to end confrontations with Maduro’s government. “We came to save parliament from destruction,” he said on Twitter.

After security forces opened the gates to allow him to pass, Guaido stood in the leadership post and sang the Venezuelan national anthem with allies. Electricity swiftly went out in the chamber, and state television – which had broadcast footage of Parra’s session – cut away from the congress.

“In here, the people are in charge,” lawmakers chanted as Guaido entered.

Guaido was elected head of the congress in January 2019 and invoked Venezuela’s constitution to assume an interim presidency, denouncing Maduro as a usurper who had secured re-election in a 2018 vote widely considered fraudulent.

So far, Maduro has fended off Guaido’s challenge, retaining control of the armed forces and tightening the noose around opposition lawmakers. More than 30 of Guaido’s congressional allies are in hiding, in prison, or in exile.

Guaido has also been losing support as Venezuelans tired with Maduro lose patience with his floundering movement. It remains to be seen whether his defiant response to Maduro’s move could galvanize his supporters, who turned out by the hundreds of thousands to protest Maduro early last year.

Parra’s new policy agenda focuses on reducing conflict with the government. Maduro was quick to celebrate his swearing-in, highlighting a “rebellion” among opposition lawmakers.

Parra said Monday his priority was to set up a new electoral council to preside over free and fair elections.

His brief session included a debate over proposals to tackle widespread shortages of gasoline. The session began around 10 a.m. and ended in under an hour.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Mayela Armas, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons and Brian Ellsworth; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)

Costco in Caracas: how Florida goods flood Venezuelan stores

By Shaylim Valderrama and Sarah Kinosian

CARACAS/MIAMI (Reuters) – While U.S. President Donald Trump wants to drive Venezuela’s socialist ruler out of power with economic sanctions, there has in fact been a burgeoning influx of American-bought goods from Nutella spread to Oreo cookies.

Many toiletries, food items and other imports became impossible to find during Venezuela’s economic implosion under President Nicolas Maduro. Yet now they line the shelves in scores of new U.S. dollar-only shops known as “bodegones”, providing an unlikely safety valve for Maduro.

The reason?

Venezuelan businessmen have taken advantage of his government’s quiet abandonment of price, currency and import controls to buy direct from U.S. wholesalers including Costco and Walmart.

The goods are delivered to Florida-based door-to-door services run by Venezuelans, according to 11 interviews with customs agents, operators and businessmen. The products move in bulk via shipping companies with bases in south Florida who have this year enjoyed a 100% exemption of import duties and waiver of some paperwork at the Venezuelan end, the sources added.

“Everything our customers want from the United Sates, we’ve managed to offer here!” enthused Hector Mambel, who runs a “bodegon” in Puerto Cabello port with a “Mini Walmart” sign outside using the same design as the U.S. giant he buys from.

The shift shows how Venezuela’s economy is evolving to survive sanctions that have hit oil exports.

The trade from Florida does not violate Trump’s sanctions because they target business with Maduro’s government not with private entrepreneurs. It has, however, bemused some Venezuelans used to constant “anti-imperialist” rhetoric.

“I don’t understand this government that speaks ill of the ‘gringos’ and yet we now see U.S. products abound in stores and everything is in dollars,” said teacher Ligia Martinez, 38, holding a bag with purchases of cereal, tuna and cake mix.

She bought the goods at a “bodegon” in the city of Valencia with dollar remittances sent from family abroad.

It was only last year, as the local bolivar currency depreciated precipitously amid hyperinflation, that Maduro lifted a longstanding prohibition on dollar transactions.

Though the goods in the corner-shops are out of reach for most bolivar-earning Venezuelans, a well-heeled elite with dollars makes for a viable business in indulgence products.

“I SELL EVERYTHING”

The “bodegones” are reminiscent of the dollar-only stores communist Cuba ran for foreigners in the 1990s.

Reuters found 120 new such stores in Caracas alone, primarily in middle class areas, outnumbering the 27 bolivar supermarkets in those areas. Competition has brought down the price of niche-market items such as boutique hair products.

The abundance on shelves contrasts with years of scarcity of basics from shampoo to milk borne out of socialist regulations that often forced merchants to sell below cost.

“Bodegon” owners often buy online or partner with door-to-door services who scour chains for knock-down prices.

“Our customers ask us to buy at Costco or (Walmart affiliate) Sam’s Club in the United States and we import what they ask for them,” said an operator of a shipping company that brings supplies from Miami to Caracas.

At least half of the stores Reuters visited sold products from Members Mark, which is Sam’s Club’s private brand, and Costco’s Kirkland brand. Popular items include pancake mix, Pringles, ketchup and cereal, often selling for double or more their U.S. price.

Some of the “bodegones” buy from wholesale importers, meaning they have to hike prices further for margins, so pancake mix for $6.50 or thereabouts in Costco goes for $14 to $20 in Venezuela depending on how many hands it has been through.

Some Venezuelans offer imports direct via Instagram.

“Everything I bring from Miami, I sell,” said one small online merchant, noting his compatriots’ love of foreign goods. “There’s more competition these days, but it’s still good business because Venezuelans are snobbish.”

Costco declined to comment, while Walmart did not respond to a request. Venezuela’s Information Ministry, tax authority and state port agency also did not respond to requests for comment.

Asked for its view of the trade, given the underlying aim of sanctions, the U.S. Treasury Department did not respond.

This year’s waiver of import duties and some documentation has been a boon to businessmen, used to crippling bureaucracy and regulations for years. “These imports move with ease, everything is exempted,” said one trader, who brings in products at La Guaira port outside Caracas.

The exemptions expire this month but may be extended.

Felipe Capozzolo, head of Consecomercio chamber of commerce, said the “bodegones” had become an unofficial part of “state policy” to enable Venezuela to stay supplied under sanctions and thus ease pressure on the government.

Maduro himself acknowledged the help from dollar transactions, saying last month they were an “escape valve” for the suffering economy. “I don’t view it badly … this process they call ‘dollarization’,” he said.

Though data has for years been scarce in Venezuela, local think tank Econalitica estimated that in October a remarkable 54% of transactions in main cities was in foreign currency.

Deisy Ruiz, a 47-year-old secretary is among them, buying Nutella for her 20-year-old son’s birthday at a store in the upscale Los Palos Grandes district of east Caracas.

“Just a little one – as a treat!” she said.

(Reporting by Corina Pons, Shaylim Valderram, Mayela Armas in Caracas, Sarah Kinosian in Miami, Tibisay Romero in Puerto Cabello and Valencia; Editing by Corina Pons, Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne)

Special Report: Elite police force spreads terror in the barrios of Venezuela

Special Report: Elite police force spreads terror in the barrios of Venezuela
By Angus Berwick and Sarah Kinosian

CARACAS (Reuters) – Before daybreak on January 8, several dozen police officers swept through the streets of Barrio Kennedy, a hillside slum outside Venezuela’s capital.

Some of the officers came under fire from assailants, unprompted. They shot back, hitting five young men. The five were then taken to a hospital, where they died of their wounds.

That, at least, is the official account, detailed in a statement the next day by the elite unit that conducted the operation – the Special Action Force of the Venezuelan National Police.

The force’s version of events is contradicted by five eyewitness accounts gathered by Reuters. These people say the police killed one of the victims not in a street shootout, but in his home. The official story is also contradicted by video of that victim, reviewed by Reuters and reported here for the first time, that was obtained by investigators at Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly.

The 82-second clip shows the young man sitting shirtless and unarmed in a storage room inside his home, under police interrogation about a nearby car theft, begging officers to spare his life.

“Brother,” says Jose Arevalo, a 29-year-old shop worker who had been convicted of robbery earlier this decade but avoided legal trouble since. “Don’t kill me.”

“If you collaborate, you’ll go free,” responds an unidentified officer, wearing black fatigues and a balaclava. “Otherwise, you’re going to die.”

The footage was recorded in the final minutes of Arevalo’s life, his girlfriend told Reuters. The couple was at home with her two children, she said, when about 15 uniformed officers and an unidentified person in civilian clothes barged in. They ejected her and the kids from the house.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the girlfriend said she believes the video was shot by one of those people, all unknown to her, once she was outside.

From the street, she said, she heard the sound of Arevalo being beaten. A few minutes later, she heard gunshots. Next, she saw officers carry Arevalo out of the house, apparently dead and now fully dressed. The police then riddled the walls of the house with bullets, making it appear that a gunfight had taken place. Just before leaving, she said, they stole a carton of eggs and her kids’ bicycle.

“If my son had committed a crime, they should have charged him and taken him to court,” said Zuleica Perez, Arevalo’s mother, who later identified his body at the morgue. “Instead, they decided to execute him.”

The girlfriend’s account was corroborated by four other eyewitnesses who were near the scene. It is one of 20 cases Reuters has documented across Venezuela in which witnesses have described extrajudicial killings by the Special Action Force, or FAES, as the unit is known by its Spanish acronym.

Jose Dominguez, the chief commissioner of the FAES, declined to discuss Arevalo’s death or the other cases recounted in this story. Neither the Interior Ministry nor the Information Ministry responded to requests for comment on detailed descriptions of this article’s findings.

The FAES has been accused by the political opposition, the United Nations and many poor Venezuelans of conducting extralegal killings on behalf of the government of President Nicolas Maduro. In July, a U.N. report denounced FAES “executions” and called on Maduro to dissolve the force. The report didn’t detail specific cases of abuse or identify any of the individuals killed.

Maduro called the report “biased” and in a nationally televised speech shouted defiantly: “Long live the FAES!”

For months, Reuters, other media, international agencies and human rights groups have reported on allegations surrounding the FAES. Now, after a four-month investigation, Reuters contrasts the accounts of dozens of eyewitnesses, family members of the deceased, and official documents related to their deaths with FAES assertions that its officers killed only after being attacked.

The new reporting provides the deepest insight yet into the methods used by the force to snuff out perceived threats to Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

This portrait of the FAES, a force of some 1,500 officers, complements earlier reports in which Reuters examined other blunt instruments used by the leftist leader to control his hungry and impoverished populace – from a multitudinous and loyal cadre of senior military officers to a special intelligence service created with the help of imported security advisors from Cuba.

The FAES is a tool of Maduro’s own devising. He established the force in July 2017 as he faced a surge in violent crime that followed the collapse of Venezuela’s oil-based economy. The force was touted as a means to stem the crime wave.

Instead, according to opposition politicians and former Maduro supporters, the FAES became a means of social control in the country’s poor neighborhoods, wracked by hunger and joblessness, where criminal networks might stir upheaval and threaten government hegemony.

The aim, says one senior former member of the Maduro government, was to spread fear and keep Venezuela’s mean streets from spawning a new political opposition. “Maduro uses the FAES whenever he needs a unit that is completely under his control, to carry out whatever attack, whatever atrocity,” said Zair Mundaray, a former deputy chief prosecutor, who left Venezuela after falling out with Maduro two years ago.

The death of Arevalo shares many characteristics with other FAES killings. In all of the cases reviewed, the FAES followed a pattern, issuing a statement saying that an armed assailant resisted authority and was killed in a shootout. In each case, the official narrative was undermined by witness testimony, crime-scene photographs or official death certificates.

Reuters investigated six killings in Caracas, two in neighboring Miranda state, eight in the north-central state of Lara, and four in the central state of Guarico. This article chronicles five deaths, and an accompanying visual story details an additional six. In those 11 cases, and the other nine reviewed by Reuters, evidence suggests that FAES officers:

• beat or tortured the targets before their deaths.

• staged or altered the scene of the incident, often to create the illusion of aggression by those killed.

• looted the houses they raided or the personal belongings of those who died.

In every case, death certificates show that the deceased received similar, lethal gunshots to the torso – injuries that physicians, morgue workers, and current and former police officers told Reuters are more consistent with executions than with the chaotic ballistics of gunfights.

The wounds are “precise and in the same place,” said the director of a trauma unit where many victims of FAES shootings have been taken. The doctor, like many other local specialists consulted for this story, spoke on condition he not be identified.

International forensic doctors consulted by Reuters were also troubled by details and documentation surrounding the killings, including photographs of the bullet wounds in 10 of the victims’ bodies.

Derrick Pounder, a forensic pathologist in Cardiff, Wales, who has investigated torture and extrajudicial killings for groups including the United Nations and Amnesty International, said: “The number of gunshot wounds in the midline at the lower chest, upper abdomen is worrisome given that the deaths are said to have occurred in the dynamic context of shootouts.”

“THEY ARE NEUTRALIZED”

People familiar with the FAES’ methods say the force relies on a national network of neighborhood informants, often ruling party loyalists, to select targets and plan operations. It often goes after poor, young men with minor rap sheets – marijuana possession and theft are two of the priors among those mentioned in this story – or petty troublemakers who bother local leaders.

Afterwards, the FAES issues statements claiming to have eliminated “antisocial” or “highly dangerous individuals.”

“The community knows who robs, who sells drugs, who extorts,” said Maria Silva, state leader in Lara of the Revolutionary Tupamaro Movement, a militant organization that backs Maduro and provides local intelligence to authorities. “Once they are identified, they are neutralized.”

Venezuela’s government doesn’t publish official figures for FAES killings. Internal government data reviewed by Reuters show 5,280 people died at the hands of all the country’s police after “resisting authority” last year. That marks a 160% increase from 2016, the year before the FAES was created.

Some tallies are higher. The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a Caracas-based research organization affiliated with universities across the country, counted 7,523 police killings under those circumstances last year.

The FAES faces little outside scrutiny. Dozens of witnesses, as well as current and former police officers, told Reuters forensic investigators allied with the FAES often rubber-stamp the force’s fatality reports, without full analyses, and support its assertions that officers acted in self-defense.

In every case reviewed by Reuters, family members said the only documentation provided by authorities was a death certificate and a brief report, with little medical explanation, claiming their relative died “resisting authority.”

“You cannot take the documents at face value,” said Nizam Peerwani, chief medical examiner for Tarrant County, Texas, and a forensic advisor with Physicians for Human Rights who has worked in conflict zones including Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. “Without autopsy reports, medical reports, x-rays, internal injury pictures, any other documentation, there is no way to corroborate what they are saying.”

Human rights groups and families of the dead have called for investigations of the force, but so far only a handful of court cases, all inconclusive, have delved into the accusations against FAES officers.

One homicide detective, who isn’t part of the FAES but is involved with their work, told Reuters the force is largely untouchable. Case files involving FAES violence, like the people who run afoul of the force, “are in eternal sleep,” the detective said.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

Crime has increasingly plagued Venezuela since Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, became president in 1999. High oil prices stoked economic growth for much of the following decade. But changes imposed by Chavez enabled a dramatic increase in violent offenses, critics say.

Pursuing his socialist “revolution,” Chavez stacked courts and police posts with allies who politicized law enforcement and the judiciary. The result, former police leaders say, was a collapse of professionalism. Many crimes went uninvestigated. Lawbreakers grew bold.

By the time Chavez died in 2013, the murder rate had quadrupled to one of the highest on the planet – nearly 80 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to the Observatory of Violence, or nearly 20 times that of the United States at the time.

Oil prices plummeted the following year. Venezuela’s economy withered. Crime spiked even further.

Maduro, a fiery former bus driver and union leader, took over in April 2013 and declared crime a priority. “Stop the violence!” he yelled during rallies.

He ordered security forces into poor barrios to root out criminals. Among those sent in was the Corps for Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation, or CICPC. The CICPC, once the country’s top crime-fighting unit, soon drew criticism.

Foreshadowing the violence that would accompany FAES raids, the CICPC was accused by human rights activists and the United Nations of excessive force. But it was never as active as the FAES would become. The CICPC, moreover, wasn’t entirely loyal because it included some veteran officers who opposed Maduro’s government.

In June 2017, amid violent protests against Maduro’s rule, a CICPC officer named Oscar Perez commandeered a police helicopter and fired grenades at government buildings. Perez survived the episode and went into hiding.

The next month, the government unveiled the FAES at a ceremony in Caracas. The force, hand-picked by police officials who support the administration, would combat “terrorist groups encouraged by the criminal right wing,” Maduro said on state television. Opponents, he added, had turned Venezuela into a “war zone.”

The FAES soon pursued the CICPC. In January 2018, FAES officers found Perez and killed him.

After that, current and former officers from the CICPC and the National Police told Reuters, the CICPC became little more than a forensics team, mostly at the service of the FAES. Officials from the CICPC didn’t return calls seeking comment.

From an initial corps of about 640 officers, the FAES soon more than doubled in size. Some officers are selected from existing precincts, others directly from police academies. Recruits have also come from “colectivos,” pro-government paramilitary groups known for harassing political opponents.

The rapid expansion, aggressive mandate and spotty training are a dangerous mix, critics say. “They throw them straight onto the street to work, without basic policing skills, and innocent people end up dead,” said William Tovar, head of the main retirees’ association of the National Police.

Members of the force have also earned a reputation for pillaging. Like all civil servants in Venezuela, FAES officers earn miniscule wages that are continuously eroded by hyperinflation – now equal to about $12 a month, including food supplements.

One family in the state of Lara showed Reuters a list of 20 objects they said officers stole after killing their son, including a modem, an air-conditioner and six rolls of toilet paper. In its statement about the death last April, the FAES made no mention of entering the victim’s house, saying it shot the man in a garden after he opened fire on officers.

One senior FAES commander said the force seeks to work responsibly. But individual officers, he said, sometimes go too far. “There are no saints,” the commander said.

“YOU’RE CRIMINALS”

Jose Arevalo grew up in Barrio Kennedy, the slum where FAES agents shot him. Earlier this decade, he served three years in prison for robbery, according to a court document. His family doesn’t dispute that conviction. “When he made that mistake, he took responsibility, and paid for it,” said Perez, his mother.

Upon release in 2017, he worked briefly in Colombia. He returned to Venezuela last year and started working at an uncle’s gold exchange. Locals say he was popular and kind-hearted, helping older residents lug gas canisters through the neighborhood. But some of his friends still had criminal ties, his family said.

Last December, Arevalo posed for a photo with two of them on a rooftop. A pistol was on Arevalo’s lap. He told his family the gun wasn’t his. Several days later, his mother told Reuters, the family received a warning from an anonymous caller: Arevalo should be careful whom he associated with.

The morning of his death, FAES officers smashed open the door and dragged Arevalo naked from the bedroom, his girlfriend said. They ordered her to give them his clothes, then forced everyone but Arevalo out of the house.

In the video, an officer tells Arevalo, who is wearing only shorts, that the police were looking for a car thief. The officer said the thief’s description didn’t match Arevalo, but he wanted information nonetheless. “Stay calm and we won’t do anything to you,” the officer told him.

The cop orders Arevalo to put on his shirt. The young man again says he knows nothing about the theft. The video ends abruptly.

Peerwani, the forensic advisor in Texas, told Reuters clothes can be used to obscure smoke, gunpowder and other ballistic evidence indicating gunfire at close range. “There is no proof, but there is a deductive conclusion,” he said. “Why would a security officer make them put on a shirt and then shoot them?”

The girlfriend said she had been outside about five minutes when the gunshots rang out. The next day, the FAES published its statement, saying it had killed Arevalo and four others who had been “terrorizing” Kennedy. Reuters couldn’t determine in what circumstances the others died.

With its statement, the FAES published the photo of Arevalo with the pistol. It said officers had shot Arevalo in a part of the barrio that is half a kilometer away from the home. “Neutralized,” it wrote in red letters above Arevalo’s face.

Two weeks after the Kennedy raid, Juan Guaido, an opposition leader and head of the National Assembly, declared himself Venezuela’s rightful president. His bid to unseat Maduro, which so far has failed, convulsed the country. In the state of Lara, a hotbed of opposition, protests flared.

On January 25, a dozen FAES vehicles left Barquisimeto, the state capital, where the government last year had deployed hundreds of the force’s officers. The convoy drove to El Tocuyo, a town where demonstrators had burned tires by the residence of the mayor, a Maduro supporter. Local authorities said opponents tried to burn her house down.

In midafternoon, nine witnesses said some 30 FAES officers raided the house of Judith Cortez. Unemployed and with a disabled husband, Cortez lived with her sons, Anderson Torres, 18, and Jose Alfredo Torres, 27.

The elder brother had been arrested for marijuana possession several years earlier, she said, and the younger had spent a night in jail in 2017 after joining a crowd that looted food from a warehouse.

As Anderson sat outside on a beer crate drawing sketches, Cortez told Reuters, FAES officers broke down their gate. They pulled her from the house, drove her two kilometers away, and left her by a bridge.

The officers grabbed Anderson, Jose Alfredo and Cristian Ramos, an 18-year-old friend and neighbor, according to an eyewitness who remained near the house. They forced the men to kneel behind a shed out back and pull their shirts over their heads, the witness said.

One officer, the witness added, beat them for over an hour with a metal tube. “You’re criminals,” the witness said the officer yelled. Then another officer pulled his pistol and shot all three in the chest. Death certificates and photos of their bodies reviewed by Reuters confirm bullet wounds to the torso as the cause of death for each.

After the shootings, according to the family and neighbors, the officers stayed at the house until evening. They fired dozens of additional shots with various weapons, scarring a tree and an exterior wall of the house. They laughed and ate food from Cortez’s refrigerator, these people said.

One officer walked to the home of Ramos around 7 p.m. He asked Ramos’ mother, Lucia Escalona, for a glass of water. “This water isn’t poisoned, is it?” the officer asked, Escalona told Reuters.

“I don’t understand why they killed my son,” she said.

In a statement, the CICPC said police killed the three because the men had fired upon the officers. Kleyder Ferreiro, Lara state security secretary, told reporters the deceased were part of an “organized criminal group” and had taken part in the tire burning.

Family members of all three men denied the accusations.

Ferreiro is no longer with the state government and declined by text message to discuss the episode with Reuters. Gisela Rodriguez, the mayor whose house had been targeted by the protests, didn’t respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment.

After the killings, protests in El Tocuyo waned. “It’s as if the whole town died,” said Omar Escalona, Ramos’ uncle.

In late July, a video https://twitter.com/NTN24ve/status/1156953427441795073 circulated online showing a dozen unidentified young men firing guns into the air in Altagracia de Orituco, a town of 50,000 in the state of Guarico. The video, allegedly of members of a drug-trafficking gang known as the “Tren del Llano,” was widely considered a challenge by the gang to authorities.

Reuters couldn’t determine who authored the video.

On August 2, the FAES posted an Instagram video https://www.instagram.com/p/B0qdHkejMFU of heavily-armed officers patrolling the town. It said the FAES had launched a mission to “bring peace, tranquility and security” to the area. Over the next eight days, the FAES in statements said it killed 18 alleged criminals there who had resisted arrest.

One CICPC officer, who saw the scenes of the FAES shootings and is familiar with the Tren del Llano gang, said he didn’t believe those killed had anything to do with the group. FAES officers, he added, removed bodies from the scenes before he and other CICPC colleagues arrived.

The operation, which surprised even local police, was a FAES “media show,” the officer told Reuters.

Families of three of those killed, along with other witnesses, told Reuters that FAES officers grabbed their targets off the street without provocation and then killed them several kilometers away. The relatives denied that any of the three men were members of the gang. Reuters couldn’t independently confirm whether they in fact had any connections to the group or why the FAES may have targeted them.

One of the three men was 25-year-old Jor-Rafer Nares, a mechanic who repaired trucks used by nearby farms to haul crops. Nares was walking in the small town of San Rafael, just south of Altagracia, on August 5 at about 6 p.m. According to his mother, who was nearby, and another eyewitness, a black FAES pickup truck pulled alongside and ordered him to get in. The mother and the witness asked to remain anonymous.

Several hours later, Nares’ mother said, she went to a local police station to determine her son’s whereabouts. An officer told her, “FAES headquarters here is the morgue.” He suggested she go there to look.

There, the mother said, she found the body.

She saw two bullet wounds in her son’s chest, another in his head, and deep bruising along his ribs and arms. His house keys, a debit card and a few dollars he carried were missing, she said. The head wound is visible in a photo – reviewed by Reuters, the CICPC officer, and a physician – taken of Nares at the morgue.

A FAES statement the next day said officers shot Nares after he fired upon them in a rural area 6 kilometers north of where the police allegedly approached him. The site described in the statement is the area where the Tren del Llano video had been filmed.

The FAES, along with its statement, included a photo of a bloodstain and a shotgun on the ground at the scene. The weapon, however, was missing a trigger. The CICPC officer and another policeman told Reuters the gun wouldn’t have fired.

A death certificate reviewed by Reuters said Nares died at 9 p.m., three hours after the witnesses said he entered the FAES truck. The certificate lists the gunshots to his thorax, but not the bullet wound in his head.

Israel Nares, his father, didn’t see his son the day of his death. Like many other relatives of those killed, he sees a willful lack of accountability around the FAES and its operations. “There is an institutional and complicit silence here,” he told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Keren Torres in Barquisimeto and Shaylim Valderrama in Caracas. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

U.S. issues travel ban for Cuba’s Castro over human rights accusations, support for Venezuela’s Maduro

Cuban Communist Party chief Raul Castro

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Thursday imposed U.S. travel sanctions on Cuban Communist Party chief Raul Castro over his support for Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, and involvement in what it called “gross violations of human rights.”

Taking a direct but largely symbolic swipe at Cuba’s leadership as part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s continuing pressure campaign against Havana, the State Department banned travel to the United States by Castro, Cuba’s former president and younger brother of the late Fidel Castro, as well as family members.

“Castro is responsible for Cuba’s actions to prop up the former Maduro regime in Venezuela through violence, intimidation, and repression,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

In addition to Castro, the State Department also sanctioned his children, Alejandro Castro Espin, Deborah Castro Espin, Mariela Castro Espin, and Nilsa Castro Espin.

The measures that Pompeo said would block their entry to the United States are likely to have limited impact. Castro last visited in 2015 to address the United Nations General Assembly. His children are also believed to have rarely traveled to the United States. Mariela Castro Espin, a gay rights activist, made stops in New York and San Francisco in 2012.

Pompeo also accused Castro, Cuba’s most powerful figure, of overseeing “a system that arbitrarily detains thousands of Cubans and currently holds more than 100 political prisoners.”

The Cuban government, which strongly rejects such accusations, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It was the latest in a series of punitive measures that Trump has taken against Washington’s old Cold War foe since taking office in 2017, steadily rolling back the historic opening to Havana under his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump has focused especially on Cuba’s support for Maduro, a longtime ally of Havana. Earlier this year, the United States and dozens of other countries recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful president, though Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China as well as the OPEC nation’s military.

“In concert with Maduro’s military and intelligence officers, members of the Cuban security forces have been involved in gross human rights violations and abuses in Venezuela, including torture,” Pompeo said. Cuba has strongly denied the U.S. accusations.

Speaking in New York while attending the U.N. General Assembly, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza scoffed at the U.S. measure against Castro, saying it was an attempt to humiliate him.

“And neither Raul Castro nor his family even want to come to this country! We are forced to come here because the U.N. headquarters is in New York, for now,” said Arreaza, referring to a similar U.S. travel bar on Venezuelan officials and citing a Russian offer to host the United Nations in Sochi.

Last week, the Trump administration ordered the expulsion of two members of Cuba’s delegation to the United Nations.

Washington has made clear that a key objective of its tough approach to Cuba is to force it to abandon Maduro, something Havana has said it will never do. However, Trump has stopped short of breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba restored by Obama in 2015 after more than five decades of hostility.

Maduro has accused Guaido – who earlier this year assumed an interim presidency after alleging that Maduro had rigged the last election – of trying to mount a U.S.-directed coup.

“Castro is complicit in undermining Venezuela’s democracy and triggering the hemisphere’s largest humanitarian crisis,” Pompeo said.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert in Washington, Sarah Marsh and Marc Frank in Havana; and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Lisa Shumaker)

In Venezuela talks, Maduro allies said they would consider fresh elections: sources

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, attends a session of Venezuela's National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela August 13, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero/File Photo

By Mayela Armas and Corina Pons

CARACAS (Reuters) – Allies of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro had discussed holding a presidential election in the coming months during talks to find a breakthrough in the country’s political crisis, four sources told Reuters on Monday.

Opposition politicians will travel to Washington to speak to U.S. officials this week, the sources said.

Maduro and a delegation representing opposition leader Juan Guaido have been meeting in Barbados as part of talks to resolve a political stalemate in the struggling OPEC nation that is suffering from a hyperinflationary economic collapse.

Guaido’s delegation had proposed a presidential vote in six to nine months on a number of conditions including changes to the elections council and supreme court, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because the talks are confidential.

The government had, in theory, agreed to a presidential vote on the condition that the United States lift economic sanctions, Maduro be allowed to run as the Socialist Party candidate, and that the vote be held in a year, one of the sources said.

However, the government has since pulled out of the talks to protest a new round of sanctions by Washington, and no new date has been set to resume the discussions, despite a visit by Norway foreign ministry officials – acting as mediators – seeking to revive them.

U.S. officials have expressed support for an election but without Maduro as a candidate, which may be a point of discussion, two of the sources said.

Venezuela’s information ministry, Norway’s foreign ministry and the U.S. State Department did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Preparing the groundwork for an election requires a raft of changes to state institutions, including both the elections council and the supreme court – both of which have aggressively intervened in election processes to favor Maduro.

Another possible roadblock would be the existence of the Constituent Assembly, an all-powerful legislative body controlled by Socialist Party supporters that opposition leaders say could also intervene in any potential vote.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas and Corina Pons in Caracas; additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Trump freezes all Venezuelan government assets in bid to pressure Maduro

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a ceremony to commemorate the Bicentennial of the Battle in the Vargas Swamp at the National Pantheon in Caracas, Venezuela July 25, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

By Matt Spetalnick and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump imposed a freeze on all Venezuelan government assets in the United States on Monday, sharply escalating an economic and diplomatic pressure campaign aimed at removing socialist President Nicolas Maduro from power.

The executive order signed by Trump goes well beyond the sanctions imposed in recent months against Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA and the country’s financial sector, as well as measures against dozens of Venezuelan officials and entities.

Trump’s action, the toughest yet against Maduro, not only bans U.S. companies from dealings with the Venezuela government but also appears to open the door to possible sanctions against foreign firms or individuals that assist it.

Russian and Chinese companies are among those still doing significant business in the South American OPEC nation.

“All property and interests in property of the Government of Venezuela that are in the United States … are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in,” according to the executive order released by the White House.

The scope of the announcement came as a surprise even to some Trump administration allies. “This is big,” said Ana Quintana, senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

Quintana said it appeared the order would be a sweeping embargo on doing business with Venezuela, although she was awaiting further details.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond immediately to a request to comment.

The United States and most Western nations have called for Maduro to step down and have recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate president.

Guaido, accused by Maduro of mounting a U.S.-directed coup attempt, appointed a board for Citgo Petroleum, Venezuela’s most important foreign asset, earlier this year.

DRAMATIC ACTION

Trump said on Thursday he was considering a quarantine or blockade of Venezuela, although he did not elaborate at the time on when or how such a blockade would be imposed.

He is taking more dramatic action after numerous rounds of sanctions failed to turn Venezuela’s military against Maduro or make significant progress in dislodging him.

U.S. officials have long said they had other weapons in their economic arsenal, even as they privately expressed frustration that European partners and others had not taken stronger steps and that the months-long pressure campaign had not made more headway.

Trump said in a letter to Congress the freezing of assets was necessary “in light of the continued usurpation of power by the illegitimate Nicolas Maduro regime, as well as the regime’s human rights abuses, arbitrary arrest and detention of Venezuelan citizens, curtailment of free press, and ongoing attempts to undermine Interim President Juan Guaido.”

His executive order also threatened sanctions against anyone assisting Maduro or his loyalists, suggesting that Washington could resort to so-called secondary sanctions against third-country companies and individuals.

Fernando Cutz, a former top Trump adviser on Latin America, said the executive order could be applied to non-U.S. firms and entities, limiting their ability to do business with Venezuela if they wanted to continue to deal with U.S. companies or banks.

China and Russia continue to trade oil with Venezuela. The move could escalate tensions with China, already inflamed by a tit-for-tat trade war, said Cutz, now a senior associate with the Cohen Group, a consulting firm.

China and Russia – together with Cuba – have continued to back Maduro, prompting U.S. national security adviser John Bolton to warn Beijing and Moscow on Monday against doubling down in their support for him.

Bolton is slated to give a speech on Tuesday morning at a gathering of more than 50 countries in Lima, Peru, that would outline a planned U.S. initiative to lead to a peaceful transfer of power in Venezuela.

Moscow and Beijing turned down invitations to attend.

A White House official declined to comment on the implications of the order for foreign companies doing business in Venezuela, where an economic crisis has driven more than 3 million people to emigrate, fleeing hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.

Trump’s order allows exceptions for the delivery of food, medicine and clothing “intended to be used to relieve human suffering.”

(Reporting by Makini Brice, Eric Beech, Matt Spetalnick, Roberta Rampton and Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Angus Berwick in CARACAS; Editing by Sandra Maler and Paul Tait)