When hunger drew tens of thousands of Venezuelans to the streets in protest last summer, President Nicolas Maduro turned to the military to manage the country’s diminished food supply, putting generals in charge of everything from butter to rice. But instead of fighting hunger, the military is making money from it, an Associated Press investigation shows.
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That’s what grocer Jose Campos found when he ran out of pantry staples this year. In the middle of the night, he would travel to an illegal market run by the military to buy pallets of corn flour at 100 times the government-set price. “The military would be watching over whole bags of money,” Campos said. “They always had what I needed.”
With much of the country on the verge of starvation and billions of dollars at stake, food trafficking has become one of the biggest businesses in Venezuela, the AP found. And from generals to foot soldiers, the military is at the heart of the graft, according to documents and interviews with more than 60 officials, business owners and workers, including five former generals.
As a result, food is not reaching those who most need it. The US government has taken notice. Prosecutors have opened investigations against senior Venezuelan officials, including members of the military, for laundering riches from food contracts through the US financial system, according to four people with direct knowledge of the probes. No charges have been brought.
“Lately, food is a better business than drugs,” said retired Gen. Cliver Alcala, who helped oversee Venezuela’s border security. “The military is in charge of food management now, and they’re not going to just take that on without getting their cut.” After opposition attempts to overthrow him, the late President Hugo Chavez began handing the military control over the food industry, creating a Food Ministry in 2004.
His socialist-run government nationalised farms and food processing plants, then neglected them, and domestic production dried up. Oil-exporting Venezuela became dependent on food imports, but when the price of oil collapsed in 2014, the government no longer could afford all the country needed.