The resignation of Venezuela's Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami, just days after the arrest of one of his most important allies, may be a sign of a major political rift between some of Venezuela's most powerful state-embedded criminal networks.
On March 20, El Aissami announced his resignation on Twitter, saying he was leaving his post in order to aid investigations into corruption in the state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA).
El Aissami's resignation came just days after the arrest of the head of the Superintendency of Cryptocurrencies (Superintendencia Nacional de Criptoactivos - Sunacrip), Joselit de la Trinidad Ramírez Camacho. Ramírez has been described in the Venezuelan press as El Aissami's right-hand man. Two judges and a municipal mayor were also arrested on separate corruption charges over the same period.
SEE ALSO: Tareck El Aissami Profile
Shortly after El Aissami's announcement, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro stated that the arrests were part of an anti-corruption campaign to "dismember the corruption mafias that have disturbed important economic, judicial, and political apparatus of Venezuela," which had "embedded themselves in the body of PDVSA and the body of Sunacrip."
Maduro added that he had accepted El Aissami's resignation in order to facilitate the investigations.
InSight Crime Analysis
Top-level corruption and ties to organized crime are not only commonplace in Venezuela, they are a core characteristic of the state led by Nicolás Maduro. As such, the move against El Aissami's network is far more likely to be a political power play than a genuine attempt to uproot corruption.
Over the last 15 years, El Aissami, who also served as vice president, has positioned himself as one of the most powerful figures in Venezuela despite the constant accusations levied against him and his network, which include numerous US sanctions and indictments.
Politicians and political analysts consulted by InSight Crime prior to recent events, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, said that although El Aissami was considered loyal to Maduro, he had successfully constructed his own power base and headed his own political faction within Chavismo.
Ramírez was a central player in this faction, alongside other prominent Chavistas and politically connected businessmen, such as Samark López.
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"It is inconceivable that a top official is implicated in corruption without Maduro knowing about it," said an opposition representative in the National Assembly, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of political persecution. "I believe this is an issue of loyalties and of discussions about power. That is why they are putting on this whole show, which will defenestrate Tareck El Aissami's bloc and whatever pretensions it may have."
El Aissami's criminal bloc is formidable and active.
In 2017, the US Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated El Aissami as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker, accusing him of working with Venezuelan drug traffickers Walid Makled and Hermágoras González Polanco, as well as Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations.
In 2019, the Southern District of New York indicted El Aissami on charges of violating and evading OFAC sanctions through the use of private aircraft. In March 2020, the same court issued another indictment, accusing El Aissami of further sanctions violations and money laundering through bulk-cash smuggling.
The second indictment also named Ramírez as a defendant. According to accusations made by the US State Department, Ramírez maintained "deep political, social, and economic ties" to El Aissami and was involved in using digital currencies to evade sanctions.
The US has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to El Aissami's arrest or conviction and $5 million for Ramírez.