An open letter from US senators to President Donald Trump implies that alleged criminal activities by the vice president of Venezuela could facilitate terrorist activities on US soil, a so far unsubstantiated claim that may nonetheless impact the future of Venezuela's criminal landscape.
President Trump was asked by 34 US senators to "take immediate action to sanction regime officials responsible for profiting off of the dire humanitarian situation and stealing from other state resources and violating human rights in Venezuela," in an open letter signed on February 8 (pdf) that raises broad concerns about criminality within the Venezuelan government.
The letter appears to come in response to an Associated Press investigation published late December 2016, which revealed the deepening involvement of Venezuela's military in food trafficking following President Nicolás Maduro's decision to put the institution in charge of food distribution in the shortage-ravaged country.
The 34 senators also call for US agencies to further investigate Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela's new vice president. Their letter argues that El Aissami faces accusations of ties with the drug trafficker Walid Makled, a Syrian-born Venezuelan citizen who is currently incarcerated in Venezuela.
The document also raises allegations of the vice president's involvement in the illicit sale of Venezuelan passports to individuals from the Middle East, including elements of the Lebanese Hezbollah organization and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Suspicions of Venezuelan passport trafficking are not new. But the issue resurfaced with a recently published investigation by CNN and CNN en Español. According to the media outlets, a "confidential intelligence document obtained by CNN links Venezuela's new Vice President Tareck El Aissami to 173 Venezuelan passports and ID's that were issued to individuals from the Middle East, including people connected to the terrorist group Hezbollah."
InSight Crime Analysis
The administration of previous US President Barack Obama levied sanctions against top officials in the Venezuelan government in 2015 for their repression of political opponents. But the recent letter from the US senators may be an attempt to push the newly inaugurated Trump administration towards a tougher stance with regard to the alleged criminal activities of high-ranking members of the Venezuelan government.
In addition to food trafficking, elements of Venezuela's military have been accused of involvement in the country's drug trade for a number of years of now. Yet criminal charges brought in US courts against these officials have not brought down any high ranking officers. Rather, the Maduro administration appears to be offering protection to some of these figures. The most illustrative example of this was the appointment to the post of interior minister of Nestor Reverol, a general of the Venezuelan National Guard, the day following the announcement by the United States of an indictment against him for drug trafficking.
Moreover, the new vice president, El Aissami, has been dubbed by the Venezuelan opposition the "narco of Aragua," the state where he previously served as governor. El Aissami has been the subject of accusations about his alleged links with drug traffickers and is the subject of a US investigation, according to reports from the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg.
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The Obama-era sanctions against Venezuelan officials described the South American nation as a "national security threat," but his administration later walked back that description. This new call for sanctions, however, is likely to garner attention from the Trump White House due to its implication that the criminal activities of members of the Venezuelan government may have links to international terrorism.
To be clear, this implication is so far largely unsubstantiated. And as InSight Crime has previously written, the nexus between Islamic terrorist organizations and Latin American organized crime has historically been exaggerated for various reasons. This does not mean that the trafficking of Venezuelan passports raised by the senators' letter and the CNN investigation is not a real scheme. But the available evidence suggests that the passports were being sold by corrupt officials for their personal economic gain, rather than as a coordinated policy to aid international terrorist organizations.
The future of US-Venezuela relations under Trump's administration is uncertain. However, it is possible that the letter from the senators could spur the White House to direct more resources toward investigating and attempting to punish top Venezuelan officials suspected of involvement in organized crime.
On the one hand, this could reinforce Maduro's apparent strategy of protecting individuals targeted by the United States, who have as much -- if not more -- to lose than himself should the regime collapse under the pressure of ongoing political and economic turmoil. But on the other hand, increased US pressure on criminal actors within Venezuela's government could encourage a greater mobilization by the political opposition in Venezuela as well as the international community to take a more aggressive stance toward attempting to root out the criminality that has infected Venezuela's government.