Colombia, U.S., Mexico, Panama seek to combat Venezuelan corruption

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas on Thursday hosted a meeting with officials from Mexico, Panama, and the United States to share information on Venezuelan government officials suspected of corruption and their support networks.

During a meeting in the coastal city of Cartagena, the four nations agreed to expand cooperation to fight illegal financial networks in crisis-wracked Venezuela, according to the countries’ joint statement released by UIAF, Colombia’s government body that looks into suspicious money movements and sends them for investigation.

The OPEC nation has already been hit with economic sanctions by Canada, the United States and a number of other countries over issues ranging from human rights violations to corruption and drug trafficking.

The rule of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who took office in 2013, has coincided with a deep recession caused in part by a plunge in global oil prices and failed state-led economic policies.

“Participants recognized the importance of international coordination to combat illicit finance networks that support President Maduro’s repressive regime,” the UIAF statement said.

Venezuela’s information ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Maduro, who won re-election on May 20 in a vote the main opposition coalition boycotted, says Venezuela is a victim of an “economic war” led by his adversaries with Washington’s help.

He says sanctions are part of efforts by foreign countries to undermine his government.

The UIAF statement also accused Venezuela of using food and humanitarian aid as a weapon for social control and said there was “large-scale theft” of funds from the Venezuelan food aid program (CLAP).

Venezuelan army officials and others tasked with distributing food amid widespread shortages have long been suspected of stealing or misappropriating government-related funds, often with the help of businesses and individuals based outside of the country.

Millions of people have left Venezuela to live in Colombia, Peru, Brazil and other Latin American nations over the years as the socialist neighbor sinks deeper into economic crisis.

The UIAF said the four nations would share financial intelligence on corruption networks.

“This engagement builds on the high-level commitment from partners in the region to support the Venezuelan people and hold those responsible for the political, social, and economic crises accountable for their actions,” the statement said.

Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Marguerita Choy