Tareck El Aissami was the Minister of Industries and National Production of Venezuela until his unexpected resignation in March 2023.
He had held this position since June 2018, the latest in a series of high-ranking positions in the cabinets of the late former President Hugo Chávez and his successor, President Nicolás Maduro. He was previously executive vice president, a position where he was proven to have links with organized crime.
In February 2017, the US Treasury Department charged El Aissami with drug trafficking. This saw his visa revoked, his assets in the United States confiscated and a ban placed on all US institutions from having financial or commercial dealings with him. It has announced a $10 million reward for information leading to El Aissami’s arrest.
This accusation was first made by drug trafficker Walid Makled, and was confirmed in February 2019 by Major General Hugo Carvajal Barrios, Venezuela’s former intelligence chief, who accused El Aissami of having established links with the Lebanese Shiite militant organization since 2009.
None of these charges had limited his time in government but the arrest of his alleged right-hand man, Joselit Ramírez, followed by El Aissami’s resignation may mean the end of his time as a trusted Maduro ally.
Tareck El Aissami studied law and criminology at the University of Los Andes (ULA), where he founded the Utopía 78 Student Movement. While being a student leader within ULA, he met Adán Chávez, the brother of former President Chávez. He joined the Fifth Republic Movement and became the national youth director of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela in 1997.
After obtaining his law degree, El Aissami entered public service and in 2003, he became the first head of Mission Identidad, a program to oversee national identity cards in the country.
In 2005, he participated in parliamentary elections and won a seat in the state of Mérida, with 97 percent of the vote. Two years later, in January 2007, he was named deputy minister of prevention and citizen security.
El Aissami’s rise continued when he was named interior and justice minister in September 2008 after the resignation of Ramón Rodríguez Chacín. He remained in this position until December 2012, when he won the governorship of the state of Aragua. During his time there, he made modifications to the prison system, which led to the emergence of new powerful figure inside Venezuela prisons: gang leaders known as “pranes.”
El Aissami’s ties to organized crime began to be evident in 2010, when Venezuelan drug trafficker Walid Makled claimed that a brother of El Aissami had helped him carry out illegal activities and that the minister had been aware of the situation. Makled also said that the government had facilitated the entry of Hezbollah into Venezuela, with El Aissami being in charge of this relationship.
These accusations have done nothing to slow El Aissami’s ascendancy. He was named executive vice president by Nicolás Maduro in January 2017.
On February 13, 2017, the US Treasury Department accused El Aissami of drug trafficking, revoked his visa, confiscated his assets in the United States and banned US companies or individuals from having any financial or business dealings with him. However, Maduro defended him and kept him in office until June 2018, when he was appointed minister of industries and national production.
On March 8, 2019, the US government again charged El Aissami, and an associate, Samark López Bello, with violating the sanctions imposed by Washington two years previously. The US Justice Department said the two men had evaded the sanctions, traveling between Venezuela and Russia to carry out illicit business dealings on private planes provided by companies based in the United States.
He resigned from his position as Oil Minister in March 2023 amid a sprawling corruption investigation which targeted some of his close allies.
Tareck El Aissami’s links to organized crime stretch back years, and clear increases in violence can be traced to decisions he has taken while holding high political office.
After the United States imposed sanctions on him in 2017, a US government official linked him to drug trafficking, terrorism, money laundering and gold smuggling, among other criminal economies.
As minister of interior and justice, a position he held between 2008 and 2012, the government softened control over prisons, giving more freedom to gangs and essentially handing over control of prisons to a new form of gang boss: the pranes.
According to information documented by the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, Tareck El Aissami relaxed rules for visiting prisons, leading to an increase in contraband and smuggling.
This fostered the spread of illegal economies within prisons. The pranes began charging taxes (of up to 10 times the market price) for any items entering their prison. Food shops, hairdressers and other commerces which did business inside the prison walls began paying these taxes. Families of prisoners and sex workers could enter with greater freedom and drugs and alcohol circulated freely. These criminal gangs then began using the prisons as safe havens, but left to carry out their activities, leading to a rise in violence.
A 2011 riot at the El Rodeo prison in the state of Miranda revealed new evidence about the mafia-like structures which El Aissami had allowed to thrive during his time as minister of interior and justice. In order to keep this quiet, the government created a new ministry for prison affairs, but it seems the initial minister, Iris Varela, continued to work with the prison gangs instead of combating them.
As interior and justice minister, El Aissami created the Bolivarian National Police, which stripped power from local security agencies at the municipal and state level, especially in opposition-held areas. However, crime has only increased in Caracas and other major cities since then. During his term as governor of Aragua, beginning in 2012, violence in the state worsened and it now stands as one of the most unsafe places in Venezuela.
El Aissami’s time as minister of the interior and justice also saw a sharp rise in “megabandas,” criminal gangs of over 50 individuals, dedicated to kidnapping, extortion, vehicle theft, microtrafficking of drugs and other crimes.
Declarations by drug trafficker Walid Makled in 2010, corroborated by Brazilian magazine Veja in March 2015 as well as by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), point to El Aissami having been the link between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC) and Hezbollah. A witness told Veja in 2013 that 35 Hezbollah members had stayed in Venezuela and been provided with Venezuelan passports by El Aissami.
In 2017, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) stated that El Aissami had facilitated drug trafficking operations and protected other drug traffickers operating in Venezuela. According to OFAC, he had received payments from Makled for helping to coordinate drug shipments. The US report also stated that El Aissami has had links to the Zetas Mexican drug cartel, and had also provided protection to Colombian drug trafficker Daniel Barrera Barrera and Venezuelan capo Hermágoras González Polanco, as well as having been involved in the transportation of over 1,000 kilograms of narcotics.
However, El Aissami has not only been investigated by the US government. The New York Times claimed in May 2019 that the Venezuelan intelligence agency itself had investigated the minister’s illegal business dealings, allegedly confirming his links with Hezbollah, Makled and drug trafficking.
According to the US Treasury Department, El Aissami is involved in shipping drugs from Venezuela to Mexico and the United States, both by air and sea.
His supposed links to terrorism have a greater geographical scope. Since 2009, according to former military intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal, El Aissami made visits to Syria to further connections with Hezbollah, while he issued Venezuelan passports to some of the group’s members.
Allies and Enemies
The drug trafficking networks facilitated by Tareck El Aissami have helped him forge relationships with several of the world’s most dangerous criminal groups, including the Zetas in Mexico and Colombia’s now-extinct FARC guerrilla group.
His time in public office has seen him tolerate or encourage the increase in power of criminal groups, such as prison bosses. These links to organized crime have been possible thanks to a well-organized criminal structure within the Venezuelan state.
Amid his high-ranking government positions, El Aissami is accused of a range of charges by the United States, including of collusion with drug traffickers in Venezuela, Colombia, and Mexico.
Although his criminal ties first arose in 2010, El Aissami’s continuing importance in Venezuelan politics means the United States will continue to see him as a major target for investigations. Sanctions issued by the Treasury Department against El Aissami and his associate, Samark López Bello, appear to have somewhat diminished his capacity to act and trade in illegal goods.
But the influence of El Aissami’s criminal structure continues to have wide-ranging influence in Venezuela and the region. His sudden resignation in March 2023, following the arrest of his right-hand man, Joselit Ramirez, mean his future is suddenly uncertain as he may have lost favor with President Maduro.
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