By Rodrigo Campos
WASHINGTON, April 19 (Reuters) - The United States and Colombia on Thursday cited new evidence of fraud in Venezuela's food import program for the needy, saying part of the funds often ended up in the hands of corrupt government officials after being funneled through businesses in nearby countries.
Army officials and others in Venezuela tasked with distributing food amid widespread shortages in the crisis-hit OPEC member have long been suspected of stealing or misappropriating government-related funds, often with the help of businesses and individuals based outside of the country.
"This money leaves Venezuela to buy food but is retained by a large number of companies and people with ties to the Venezuelan regime," Colombian Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas said in an interview.
Financial intelligence units from the United States and Colombia presented fresh evidence of such activity during a meeting in Washington on Thursday on the sidelines of the spring meetings of the World Bank, Cardenas said, adding the presentation included maps showing the cross-border operation.
Venezuelan authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
Cardenas said a component of the food distribution network that operates in Colombia was "well-identified" but "it involves businesses in other jurisdictions, so we need to widen our radar."
He said financial intelligence units from Panama and Mexico would join the U.S. and Colombian teams.
"We are going to have an initial meeting of this financial intelligence group in Panama in May to see in more detail and drill down into some businesses that have been identified as potential vehicles to divert the money," Cardenas said.
Cardenas did not say how much money was involved but suggested it could be in the millions of U.S. dollars.
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.
Maduro is running for re-election on May 20 in a vote the main opposition coalition is boycotting because it says the conditions are stacked in favor of the sitting president.
(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Additional reporting by Girish Gupta in Caracas; Editing by Christian Plumb and Peter Cooney)
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