The newly appointed vice president of Venezuela has reportedly been investigated by the United States for involvement in the drug trade, making him the most recent official with suspected criminal ties to take a top position in the Venezuelan government.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced on January 4 that Tareck El Aissami, the former governor of the state of Aragua who had previously served as interior minister, was selected as vice president amidst a general reordering of the cabinet.
El Aissami has previously been linked to drug trafficking in several media reports citing unnamed US officials. In 2015, El Nuevo Herald reported that anonymous sources had mentioned El Aissami as a potential accomplice in a drug trafficking scheme involving nephews of Venezuela's first lady.
The news outlet again cited an anonymous source in 2016 who stated that El Aissami worked with Roberto de Jesús Soto García, the alleged Honduran connection for the networks of Venezuelan military officials involved in drug trafficking known as the Cartel of the Suns.
In its report on El Aissami's recent appointment as vice president, the Associated Press wrote that two anonymous sources had confirmed that US prosecutors are investigating the Venezuelan official's possible involvement in drug trafficking.
A few days after naming El Aissami as the new vice president, Maduro announced the creation of an "anti-coup command" to be headed by El Aissami, an increasingly influential and hardline figure within Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela - PSUV).
The objective of the "command" will be to "defeat and end once and for all the remains of the oligarchical and right-wing coup against the state," reported the EFE press agency. (The Venezuelan government and some of its supporters often promote conspiracy theories that claim the political opposition is working with shadowy actors to destabilize and eventually overthrow the PSUV's hold on power.)
President Maduro added that several other high-ranking figures would be integrated in the "command," including Interior Minister Néstor Reverol and top PSUV official Diosdado Cabello. Both men have also previously been accused of involvement in drug trafficking.
InSight Crime Analysis
Internal political dynamics within the PSUV may have contributed to Maduro's decision to replace the moderate Aristóbulo Istúriz with the hardline El Aissami as vice president. However, the appointment also represents a pattern of officials suspected of criminal activities being placed in high-level posts in the Venezuelan government.
As Maduro faces a severe and deteriorating economic and security situation in his country, he appears to be surrounding himself with officials who have a substantial interest in ensuring the political opposition does not take power.
"Since El Aissami has been the subject of US drug trafficking and money laundering investigations he has high exit costs and that will make him loyal to the preservation of the Maduro government," David Smilde, an expert on Venezuelan politics who teaches at Tulane University, told InSight Crime.
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As mentioned above, the nomination of El Aissami -- who has been called "the narco of Aragua" by leading opposition figure Henrique Capriles -- is not an isolated case. Néstor Reverol was named interior minister by President Maduro the day after the United States unsealed a drug trafficking indictment against him. And Diosdado Cabello was denounced along with El Aissami as being deeply involved in the drug trade by former top Venezuelan officials who defected to the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal.
As InSight Crime previously explained, these appointments seem to be part of a trend whereby the current administration chooses to protect high-ranking officials accused of crimes in order to cling to its decaying power, by ensuring the president a loyal entourage that would have as much to lose from the president's political demise as Maduro himself.
But this strategy appears to have reached new heights recently, as alleged criminals have now entered some of the most influential cabinet offices and have been appointed to a special "command" within the executive branch. This dynamic could facilitate the expansion of widespread corruption and involvement of Venezuelan officials in other criminal activities.