Within the span of a year, Venezuela illegally issued at least 10,000 passports and other documents to citizens of Syria, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries in a scheme spearheaded by current Vice President Tareck El Aissami, according to a former high-ranking immigration official.
Colonel Vladimir Medrano Rengifo, former director of Venezuela’s Office of Identification and Migration, said that during his 17 months in the post, most passports and visas were granted in the Venezuelan Consulate in Damascus, Syria’s capital.
“Today we don’t know where these people are, nor what they are doing,” said Medrano, who was fired by El Aisaami and now lives in South Florida. “They could be anywhere in the world, traveling with Venezuelan documentation.”
El Aissami, a powerhouse in Venezuela, has long been investigated in the United States for his alleged links to drug trafficking and to the Islamist militant group Hezbollah.
In January, he became the most senior Venezuelan official to ever be targeted by the U.S., when the Trump administration decreed sanctions against him and Samark Lopez, a wealthy Venezuelan businessman believed to be his frontman in Miami.
Medrano was booted from his post in October 2009 by El Aissami, who was then Minister of Interior. He said he was fired because El Aissami knew he was trying to dismantle the human smuggling network.
Whenever his office reported irregularities involving Syria-issued passports, Medrano said, El Aissami ordered him to look the other way. Immigration officials later linked many of the passports to deceased individuals.
On numerous occasions, Medrano said, he detained and tried to deport those trying to enter Venezuela with irregular documents but was ordered to let the detainees into the country.
“He called me every time these flights arrived and we tried to detain [those carrying suspicious passports],” Medrano said. “He pressured us in an excessive manner so that these procedures would not be carried out and to let his ‘cousins,’ as he called them, pass.
“The passports were legitimate,” Medrano said, “but the people who carried the documents were not really Venezuelan.”
Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM