Guayaquil, Ecuador, May 19, 2021 (venezuelanalysis.com) – A Venezuelan criminal court sentenced the president of state-run dairy company Lácteos Los Andes to jail on corruption charges Tuesday.
Colonel Luis Augusto Piligra Jiménez, appointed to the post in August 2019, was arrested on Friday after Venezuela's Attorney General, Tarek William Saab, revealed a corruption plot in the dairy company.
Piligra was charged with embezzlement, illegal agreements with contractors, money laundering, economic boycott, smuggling, unlawful possession of a firearm and criminal association. His partner, Amelys Aracelys Cabrera Gómez, was arrested on similar charges.
During a press conference on May 14, the attorney general explained that Piligra used a network of private companies, owned by family members and friends, to purchase overpriced supplies for Lácteos Los Andes, from raw materials to machinery spare parts and vehicles. Saab stated this caused "serious damage to the company and the Venezuelan state."
Piligra’s illicit enrichment enabled him to acquire a number of highly valued properties and lead an ostentatious lifestyle. “Yachts, planes, high-end vehicles, luxury apartments, farms, all in different parts of the country, are being seized as determined by the Anti-Corruption Law,” Saab told the press.
The prosecutor added that Piligra owned Villa La Estancia, which produces powdered milk allegedly using Lácteos Los Andes' raw materials and facilities. Investigation blog La Tabla revealed the jailed official had a 1,250 hectare farm with livestock in Apure state. The army colonel had previously served in a number of high profile posts at state-owned companies, including aluminum producer Venalum (2015-2017) and port authority Bolipuertos (2017-2018).
“It’s abhorrent that officials appointed to hold strategic positions, in order to benefit the people and minimize the consequences of [US-led economic] sanctions, are engaged in crime," Saab condemned.
The attorney general said the investigations on the dairy producer’s corruption scheme were ongoing and more arrests could follow.
Following the revelations on Friday, local media outlets reported the suicide of Lácteos Los Andes marketing manager Reinaldo González in Lara state, who wasn’t facing charges at the time. Authorities are investigating the circumstances of his death.
The probe into Lácteos Los Andes was spurred into action after one of the company’s workers complained about management irregularities.
On May 7, during a video conference with President Nicolás Maduro on national television, Nerenny Rodríguez denounced irregular practices and the company’s refusal to hear the workers’ concerns and proposals. "We have many plans to increase production, but the managers do not listen to us," she stated.
Rodríguez, the spokesperson for Lácteos Los Andes' Barquisimeto Plant Workers Productive Council, emphasized that the workers have established means of cooperation with communes to boost production, not only in the dairy company but also in several enterprises in Lara state.
In response, President Maduro ordered an investigation into the irregularities. "Why is the working class not being listened to? The working class has to be on the [company's] directors board."
Lácteos Los Andes is of strategic importance for Venezuela, providing dairy products and derivatives to the population. It was nationalized in 2008 by former President Hugo Chávez as part of efforts to reduce the economic hegemony of the private sector.
Lácteos Los Andes is one of the country's most important food processing companies. (Twitter/@EslandesOficial)
The dairy company had different managing entities before being handed to the Food Ministry in 2011. It saw several battles for increased workers’ control and had a steady production during the first few years after nationalization before beginning a downturn around 2015. Corruption, mismanagement and top-down practices have been pointed as the root cause.
The decline also coincided with the 2014 oil price drop which triggered an economic crisis. The economic turmoil was later worsened by US coercive measures, including financial sanctions and an oil embargo in 2017 and 2019, respectively.
Under the weight of harsh Washington sanctions, the Maduro government has looked to open up the country to private investment. In October 2020, the former National Constituent Assembly approved the Anti-Blockade Law, which allows the state to strike undisclosed agreements with local and foreign investors.
Recently, Venezuelan workers from all sectors have denounced a growing number of privatizations in state-owned companies.
At the end of 2020, Lácteos Los Andes was allegedly partly handed to private company Venilac under the “strategic alliance" figure, with Piligra remaining at the helm. The intention was to increase milk production for the country's food subsided program CLAP [Local Food Supply and Production Committees]. However, workers criticized the company’s policies and wages, as well as layoff threats.
Edited by Ricardo Vaz from Mérida.