The latest round of sanctions by the United States against high-ranking Venezuelan officials claim to punish human rights abuses, but several of these powerful figures have also contributed to the growth of organized crime in the crisis-stricken Latin American country.
The US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has sanctioned 13 current and former Venezuelan officials for "undermining democracy" in their country, including several top-level politicians like Néstor Reverol, Venezuela's Minister of Interior, Justice, and Peace as well as former drug czar and former Commander General of the Bolivarian National Guard; and Iris Varela, a member of Venezuela's Presidential Commission for the National Constituent Assembly and former Minister of the Penitentiary Service.
The move comes only days before elections are to be held for seats in Venezuela's new National Constituent Assembly, which will have the power to rewrite the constitution and "may choose to dissolve Venezuelan state institutions," the Treasury explained in a press release.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles
President Nicolás Maduro controversially ordered the creation of the constituent assembly in a May 2017 presidential decree, even while local elections are months overdue. The country has since witnessed a wave of violent protests, while its deep political and economic turmoil continues.
InSight Crime Analysis
While the US sanctions are aimed at punishing human rights abuses by Venezuela's increasingly repressive government, they have also shone the international spotlight on some of the shadiest figures of the socialist regime.
These include members of the so-called Cartel of the Suns, the name given to the loose networks of transnational drug traffickers operating from the highest echelons of the Venezuelan government and military. (See InSight Crime's diagram of corrupt government officials below). Among them is Interior Minister Reverol, who was appointed to his current position by Maduro the day after being indicted by the United States for allegedly participating in a transnational cocaine trafficking network.
SEE ALSO: Cartel de los Soles News and Profile
Iris Varela, on the other hand, helped foster an organized criminal system much closer to home. As prisons chief under former President Hugo Chávez and later Maduro, Varela oversaw control of the country's jails largely pass into the hands of the inmates themselves. This strengthened the power of the "pranes," or the prison gang bosses, whose system of criminal governance eventually influenced the creation of the "mega-gangs" ("megabandas") in Venezuela's increasingly dangerous streets.
(Varela sparked controversy when she was photographed with a "pran" inside prison walls)
As InSight Crime has noted in the past, renewed US sanctions could energize domestic opposition and international pressure on the regime. But they could also place the Venezuelan government even further on the defensive as it takes extraordinary steps to maintain its delicate grip on power.
(InSight Crime graphic taken from a February 2017 article)