MEXICO CITY, Oct 18 (Reuters) - A group of companies and individuals have agreed to pay $3 million in reparations to the United Nations Refugee Agency to settle allegations by Mexico of overcharging for basic food-aid packages distributed by the Venezuelan government, the Mexican attorney general's office said on Thursday.
Since 2016, the Venezuelan government has distributed subsidized food, mostly imported from nearby countries, to help address Venezuela's severe shortages of basic goods.
Army officials and government-supported groups in Venezuela tasked with distributing food amid widespread shortages in the crisis-hit OPEC member have long been suspected of fraud with food distribution, often with the help of businesses and individuals based outside of the country.
In April, the United States and Colombia showed new evidence of fraud in the program, saying part of the funds ended up in the hands of corrupt government officials. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has defended the program, saying it has allowed his administration to fight capitalism and an international boycott against him.
The companies and people involved in the sales from Mexico, whose full names were not revealed, have also agreed to stop shipping food or medicines to the Venezuelan government under the program, known as CLAP, the Mexican attorney general's office said.
"This group of Mexican and foreign companies and people have obtained funds by diverting them from their humanitarian purposes, buying food and speculating with them instead," Israel Lira, head of the Mexican office specialized in organized crime investigations, told reporters.
Lira said prosecutors found about 1.8 million food boxes in 1,300 shipping containers in Mexico sold by these companies, but allowed them to continue on to Venezuela as part of the agreement.
"We would run the risk of aggravating the food crisis in that country, products would be getting out-of-date or could be delivered that are not fit for human consumption," Lira said.
Many of the products shipped from Mexico under the program were considered low-quality by authorities, according to Luis Alfonso de Alba, a Mexican deputy foreign minister.
Information about the case will be shared by Mexican officials with other countries, including Colombia, to avoid fraud or money laundering, de Alba told reporters on Thursday.
(Reporting by Marianna Parraga and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City Editing by Matthew Lewis)
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