by Vanessa Neumann
6 August 2019
Venezuela, my country, is dying. Money has become worthless and we now face the biggest humanitarian disaster ever seen in the Western Hemisphere as the exodus will surpass Syria’s in 2020. The country is projected to lose a third of its population. One in three, and that number is without a hot, shooting war. The main cause of the catastrophe is illicit finance of every stripe: kleptocracy, corruption, money laundering, and terrorist finance. Together, these illicit financial activities have enslaved the country to foreign interests and turned the government against the people, who want freedom and democracy. However, the regime leaders serve only their own enrichment and the interests of foreigners who help prop them up. Amongst these is the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Financial support for terrorism is a policy of the Maduro regime. In short, Venezuela’s dictator Nicolás Maduro is in a strategic partnership with the Iranian Ayatollah to provide Hezbollah terrorists with financiers and an assortment of facilitators for the covert movement of people, money, and material. The network reaches right to the top: it is managed by the former Vice President and current Minister of Industries and National Production, Tareck el-Aissami, and members of his immediate family. Hezbollah’s External Security Organisation is active throughout Latin America: its Business Affairs Component oversees enormous money laundering schemes using a minimum of 11 US-sanctioned operatives. However, Venezuela has become their heartland.
Maduro’s network of illicit financial interests was established when he was Hugo Chávez’s Foreign Minister, though it grew out of shared interests and diaspora flows. Today, this global network of illicit finance is what helps keep him in power: too many people are making too much dirty money to see him go, including Iran, which has long used Venezuela to bust sanctions and used by Hezbollah to make drug money. In 1960, Venezuela co-founded OPEC with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait. After its 1979 Revolution, Iran turned towards Latin America to increase trade in the region, and Venezuela was among the first approached because of this relationship through OPEC. The deeper relationship connection with Iran, that opened up the financial channels, was a policy pursued by Hugo Chávez. During 2001 and 2003 visits to Tehran, the former President signed joint venture accords with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the manufacturing of tractor parts and cars, as well as banking through Banco Toseyeh Saderat and others.
The relationship with Hezbollah developed separately. Latin America received many Lebanese immigrants in the 1980s, amid the country’s civil war of 1975-1990. In the following decade, Lebanese Hezbollah sought to deepen its financial associations with its Latin American diaspora, as its funding had been slashed by nearly seventy percent by the administrations of both presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), further adding to the significant impact of sanctions on the Iranian economy.
The two-track relationship with Iran and Hezbollah merged in 2007, when Nicolás Maduro (then Foreign Minister) and Rafael Issa (then Vice Minister for Finance), joined by one translator, met with Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, in Damascus. Afterwards, Nicolás Maduro flew to Tehran to join Chávez in his meeting with President Ahmadinejad. Here, a multitude of commercial ties were established, but dirty money was hidden among these broader commercial interests. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) opened subsidiaries in Venezuela that moved money through PDVSA (the Venezuelan state-run oil company), using it to enter the international financial system and evade sanctions. Chávez and Ahmadinejad became so close as to call each other ‘brothers’ and Chávez presented him with a replica of the Sword of Bolívar, a national symbol.
Some Chavistas are tied to Hezbollah by family. A prime example is Tareck el-Aissami Maddah who is Venezuelan of Syrian descent. His father was the head of the Ba’ath party in Venezuela and called Osama bin Laden “the great Mujahideen leader” after 9/11 and himself “a Taliban.” His great-uncle Shibli el-Aissami was Assistant to the Secretary General of the Ba’ath party in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. el-Aissami was a radical student leader at the University of the Andes in the city of Mérida, on the border with Colombia. There have been many Hezbollah sympathisers at the top of the Chávez regime: Fadi Kabboul was the Executive Director of planning for PDVSA; Aref Richany Jimenez was the President of Venezuela’s military-industrial complex, CAVIM; and Radwan Sabbagh was the president of the state-owned mining concern, Ferrominera.
Yet it is el-Aissami that continues to be the lynchpin, and the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) designated him under the Kingpin Act in February 2017, for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking, while he was the Executive Vice President of Venezuela. el-Aissami is also linked to the coordination of drug shipments to Los Zetas, a violent Mexican drug cartel, as well as providing protection to Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera and Venezuelan drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco. Los Zetas, Barrera and Polanco were previously named as Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers under the Kingpin Act in April 2009, March 2010, and May 2008, respectively. El-Aissami’s primary frontman, Venezuelan national Samark Jose Lopez Bello, was also designated for providing material assistance to el-Aissami’s drug trafficking activities through an international network spanning the British Virgin Islands, Panama, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Venezuela. El-Aissami and Lopez Bello had an international network of businesses and asset holding companies to launder the drug proceeds. Many had government contracts with PDVSA.
Maduro’s diplomatic corps has shown to be the circulatory system of the transnational crime syndicate. Tareck el-Aissami’s sister is posted to the Netherlands, where she oversees the traffic in narcotics and diamonds, shielded by her diplomatic immunity. Chávez’s daughter, Maria Gabriela, is Venezuela’s wealthiest woman (with a net worth of over US$ 4 billion) and was (until recently) the Deputy Chief of Mission to the United Nations. Rocío Maneiro, Maduro’s Ambassador to the Court of St. James, still occupies all three of our buildings in London, and uses them freely to house staff and rent rooms, despite the fact that she is indicted for grand larceny from a money laundering account in Andorra (two separate crimes). She retains her immunity and the properties, despite the fact that the UK recognises Juan Guaidó, and not Nicolás Maduro, as the legitimate head of state and government. Hence the frequently used hashtag #MaduroCrimeFamily. I am personally pressuring for the US and UK to appropriately apply counter-organised crime statutes against the Maduro regime.
The vast and multi-layered money laundering network set up by el-Aissami works through a structure designed by the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Syria, Ghazi Nasr al Din, who was sanctioned in 2008 by OFAC and designated a ‘person of interest’ by the FBI in 2015 for his support of Hezbollah. While el-Aissami was Interior Minister (2008-2012), 173 Middle Easterners with suspected ties to Hezbollah were provided with authentic, fully-legal Venezuelan passports, birth certificates, and national identification cards. In short, they were provided with completely new Venezuelan identities, to conceal these Hezbollah operatives from detection by international intelligence agencies. This case was covered in a CNN documentary, Passports to Terror. The main source of information on this is Misael López Soto, a legal attaché at the Venezuelan embassy in Baghdad, who turned whistleblower in 24 November 2015 and revealed the identities of several of these suspected Hezbollah militants. These are highly skilled and effective well beyond their numbers.
Amongst them is Hakim Diab Fattah, a Palestinian-Venezuelan dual national with suspected ties to the 9/11 hijackers. In 2015 he resurfaced in Amman, where he was arrested for potentially plotting a terrorist attack on the Allenby Bridge, connecting Jordan to the West Bank. The Venezuelan consulate in Jordan funded his legal defence. On 28 October 2014, Lebanese national and accused Hezbollah operative Muhammad Ghaleb Hamdar, was arrested in Lima, Peru for allegedly planning a terrorist attack. During questioning, he admitted he travelled to Venezuela to obtain new identification, which was eventually secured in Liberia. As recently as February 2018, OFAC sanctioned Jihad Muhammad Qansu (who has a Venezuelan passport) and five other individuals tied to an important Hezbollah financier, Adam Tabaja. The sanctions announcement describes him as “a Hezbollah member that maintains direct ties to the senior leadership.”
In October 2018 the US Department of Justice named Hezbollah one of the top five transnational criminal organisations in Latin America. The Drug Enforcement Administration led an effort to undercut Hezbollah financing from illicit drug sources, known as Operation Cassandra. Within Cassandra was Operation Perseus, targeting the Venezuelan syndicate. The effort uncovered links between two important Hezbollah financiers, directly related to Nasrallah, and cutouts connected to Maduro. Venezuela under Maduro is a hub for the convergence of criminal and terrorist networks that fund Hezbollah, loot Venezuela, and destabilize both the Western Hemisphere and the Middle East. Getting Maduro and his cartel out of power and restoring Venezuela to democracy, will not only end the horrible suffering of 32 million people, a newly free Venezuela will deal a significant blow to Hezbollah operational capabilities. That is a diplomatic win-win if ever there was one.
Dr. Vanessa Neumann is President Juan Guaidó’s appointed Ambassador and Chief of Diplomatic Mission to the United Kingdom. She is also the President of the British-Venezuelan Society and Chamber of Commerce, which is partnered with UK Trade & Investment’s Oil & Gas Team for the Americas, as well as the Caracas-based British-Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce. Prior to her diplomatic appointment, Dr. Neumann was a long-standing expert on crime-terror pipelines, the founder & CEO of Asymmetrica, and the author of “Blood Profits: How American Consumers Unwittingly Fund Terrorists.”