Exclusive: Second little-known Mexican firm emerges as lifter of Venezuelan oil

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A second Mexican company with no experience in the oil industry is due to lift millions of barrels of Venezuelan crude this month despite U.S. sanctions, according to loading schedules.

Schlager Business Group appeared this week on the loading programs of Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA as one of the few companies scheduled to take Venezuelan crude cargoes in March from the nation’s main oil port of Jose.

Mexican corporate records show Schlager is run by one of the owners of Libre Abordo SA, another Mexican company, which has a deal with PDVSA to swap Venezuelan crude cargoes for desperately needed food imports.

Libre Abordo has received about 7.2 million barrels of Venezuelan crude since December in six large cargoes bound for Asia and it has one more cargo currently loading, according to the PDVSA documents.

At a time when tightening U.S. sanctions have deterred many firms from taking Venezuelan oil, the two little-known Mexican companies emerged in March as among PDVSA’s biggest clients. This has helped ease mounting stocks of crude that could otherwise force PDVSA to reduce output.

Schlager is scheduled to pick up 2.4 million barrels of Venezuelan heavy crude bound for Singapore this month on the tankers Euroforce, Afra Laurel and Icaria, according to the PDVSA documents.

It was not immediately possible to reach Schlager for comment. PDVSA did not reply to a request for comment.

In a statement to Reuters, Libre Abordo confirmed that one of its co-owners, Veronica Esparza Garcia, runs Schlager. Mexican corporate records show Schlager named Esparza as general manager in May last year, when it expanded its business from human resources and other activities to trade.

“Schlager Business... has been operating for about five years and it is currently specialized in trade,” Libre Abordo said in a statement to Reuters.

In response to questions about the cargoes assigned to Schlager in March, Libre Abordo said Schlager was in charge of the chartering contracts needed for lifting crude under its oil-for-food deal.

“These cargoes are part of the deal that Libre Abordo has and it is using Schlager Business to do the chartering.”

The PDVSA programs, reviewed by Reuters, identify Schlager as a customer for some cargoes and Libre Abordo for others.

Libre Abordo last week confirmed that it is exchanging Mexican corn and water trucks for Venezuelan crude following an oil-for-food contract signed by the firm last year with President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

The company said it was reselling the crude to final buyers but it declined to reveal their identity.

Libre Abordo said that neither itself nor Schlager participates in the arrangements for delivery of Venezuelan oil to final customers.

Libre Abordo said a U.S. law firm - which it declined to identify - had advised the company there was no violation of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela because no cash payments took place as the oil was received to offset food aid.

The U.S. Treasury, which handles sanctions policy, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The first tanker allocated to Libre Abordo discharged last week by transferring its cargo to another ship off the coast of Malaysia, according to Refinitiv Eikon vessel tracking data.

The remaining ones are underway, the data showed.

Reporting by Marianna Parraga, Ana Isabel Martinez and Adriana Barrera in Mexico City; additional reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Daniel Flynn and David Gregorio