Venezuela’s New Iron-Fisted Boss Facing U.S. Trafficking Probe

Maduro picks Tareck El Aissami as his new vice president.

Tareck El Aissami

Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg 

When Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s new vice president, competed in student elections, his opponents said he brought in armed gangs to bully the competition. Then, they say, when he forgot to register for reelection he phoned the local political boss with a plan to rig the vote.

“I threatened to throw him in jail," said Florencio Porras, the former governor of Merida state. “Since then, he’s declared me his enemy.” Climbing from student leader in rural Venezuela to the country’s number two power broker in just over a decade, El Aissami has made many enemies like Porras.

Facing economic collapse and anemic public support, President Nicolas Maduro has chosen as his chief deputy one of Venezuela’s most controversial and feared politicians, government critics say. El Aissami, 42, is one of a number of Venezuelans under investigation by U.S. authorities for alleged participation in drug trafficking and money laundering rings as well as for playing a key role in helping Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist group, gain footholds in Latin America. A young star in the socialist party that has ruled here for nearly two decades, El Aissami is viewed by both supporters and critics as cunning and skilled. 

Maduro (right) and El Aissami at the Supreme Court of Justice in Caracas on January 15.
Photographer: Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images

“He’s an operator who functions very well for this new stage of the revolution," says Rocio San Miguel, president of Control Ciudadano, a citizen watchdog. “Maduro’s dilemma is how to deal with the opposition while closing internal divisions.”

Maduro, whom the late President Hugo Chavez chose as his own successor, has been under pressure to step aside because of the country’s potential default, widespread social unrest and an emboldened opposition. He has so far quashed—through his control of the legal system—the opposition’s attempt to hold a referendum on his removal before his term ends in about two years. Many analysts say if things continue to decline, the main risk to him is from within the military.

El Aissami’s selection addresses both concerns. Those seeking to oust Maduro probably despise El Aissami more and might hesitate to pursue their efforts. And the new vice president is a strongman with tight control over internal security forces and little loyalty to the military. He would be less tempted to take part in a military-led coup than to resist it.

In the weeks since his accession, Maduro has granted him wide-reaching decree powers and tapped him to lead a newly formed “commando unit” against alleged coup mongers and officials suspected of treason. Among the slew of arrests since the unit’s formation is a substitute legislator from a hard-line opposition party and a retired general who, years before, broke ranks with the government.

Self-described as “radically chavista,” El Aissami first met the late president when he was a student. He openly celebrated the 9/11 terrorist attack on the U.S., according to three witnesses, and served as one of Chavez’s staunchest allies ever since. In his last post as governor, he regularly denounced government opponents as traitors looking to stoke unrest. A court in his Aragua state annulled the recall referendum there, charging the opposition with collecting fraudulent signatures.

Pro-revolution merchandise on display during a rally in Caracas.
Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

Neither the office of the vice president nor the Information Ministry responded to multiple requests for an interview or comment. El Aissami has publicly denied any alleged drug ties, saying they are little more than media slander, and has offered to hand himself over to authorities if anyone could produce proof. Those close to him brush off claims of corruption and a crackdown on dissent. “He’d rather self-immolate before negotiating his principles,”said Hugo Cabezas, a former governor of Trujillo state and classmate of El Aissami’s.

The son of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, El Aissami was one of five children raised Druze in Venezuela’s Andes mountains. Tall, handsome and fit, he is married with two young children and is often surrounded by personally selected guards. His sister, a diplomat, was Venezuela’s ambassador to the Netherlands till last year. His father, a leader of the small local Ba’athist party, sold shoes and furniture and played a supporting role in Chavez’s failed 1992 coup attempt and again, six years later, in his successful presidential bid.

Shortly after the botched attempted overthrow, El Aissami helped lead a leftist student movement at university, where he studied criminology and law and where Chavez’s brother Adan worked as professor. Charismatic and meticulous, he graduated with honors and has held tightly to the alliances he made at college throughout his political career. 

“It’s very clear to him who his friends are," said Miguel Contreras, a professor of criminology at the University of Los Andes, and tutor of El Aissami. Since his appointment as vice president, members of his student movement have been tapped for top posts of minister, governor and in the state oil giant, PDVSA.

His enemies have long accused El Aissami of having a vindictive streak: A former running mate named Nixon Moreno fled the country after breaking ranks and defeating El Aissami in student elections.

After losing his student reelection bid, El Aissami’s longtime friend, Cabezas, called him to the capital to help run a state civil registry program, before he won a seat in congress as a representative of Merida in 2005.

National police officers dressed in riot gear block the roadway to the Electoral National Council as opposition supporters march during a protest demanding for a referendum to remove Maduro, in Caracas on January 23.
Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

Chavez named the young congressmen as vice minister and later minister of interior. Much of what El Aissami tried as interior minister was resisted by the military, says Veronica Zubillaga, a sociologist at Simon Bolivar University, who worked with El Aissami. “I think he learned and I think he got stronger,” she said of that era.

In 2012, El Aissami won the governorship of Aragua state running on a ticket filled with Chavez’s hand-picked candidates. The opposition has since labeled El Aissami "the narco of Aragua,” alleging that he has used his vast political network to help turn the country into an international hub for drugs and Middle Eastern extremists.

Those accusations stem from El Aissami’s ties to civil registry services before he became interior minister and, U.S. investigators say, he appears to have created Venezuelan identities for Middle Eastern extremists. El Aissami, they believe, created a web of front companies to move money outside Venezuela’s borders.

Members of the Venezuelan Military Forces stand at attention before the start of Maduro's annual address at the Supreme Court.
Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

“Tareck’s network is less ideological and more of a service provider,” said Joseph Humire, executive director of Center for a Secure Free Society, a Washington think tank. “It’s not so much built on an ideological affinity to anybody, but who wants to pay to play."

Since at least 2011, Homeland Security Investigations and the Drug Enforcement Administration have been investigating El Aissami for money laundering to the Middle East, specifically Lebanon, according to two people familiar with the probe.

Some believe his appointment will help trigger a more aggressive policy toward Caracas by the new Trump administration. 

“This is a clear one-finger salute to the United States,” said Roger Noriega, who served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under George W. Bush. “Certainly it creates a pretext for Trump to be much more decided in his response to Venezuela.”

In Venezuela, the consensus is that Maduro is more concerned with strengthening his position at home than his standing abroad, which is what Dimitris Pantoulas, a political consultant, means when he says, “He is Maduro’s man.” 

But Pantoulas also notes, “He’s capable of anything,” which suggests that El Aissami has his own ambitions—and loyalty may have its limits.

—With assistance from Ben Bartenstein and Noris Soto.