Police in Venezuela arrested six government office workers last week in a story largely lost amid the ongoing violent police crackdown on anti-socialist dissidents. The employees stand accused of selling authentic Venezuelan government documents, like passports and birth certificates, to Syrian nationals at $5,000 each.
The arrests are a tacit admission of reports dating back to 2015 that accuse Caracas of selling identification documents to Mideast nationals from its embassies in the region, including individuals believed to have ties to the Hezbollah Shiite terrorist group.
CNN reports that the individuals arrested “all worked as data transcribers at the Venezuelan office that handles identification documents and passports,” the Administrative Service for Identification, Migration, and the Exterior (Saime). They stand accused of selling passports and other documents to people of “Syrian origin,” whom Venezuelan prosecutors did not identify. Those arrested face charges of “corruption, improper access or sabotage of protected systems, unauthorized issuance of identification documents and conspiracy to commit a crime.”
The Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional identifies those arrested as Jethaimet Wiher Blanco, 31; Isamar Gutiérrez Campos, 26; Chery Del Carmen Perdomo, 36; Lilian Irene Castillo, 41; Mariannys Peña Rivera, 27; and Yamilet Galvis Chacón, 45.
The socialist Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro, who is formally allied with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, has long stood accused of selling legitimate government documents to individuals who are not Venezuelan citizens and have no business possessing such documents. Scattered reports suggest that the lucrative document sales began in 2000, during the early days of the Hugo Chávez dictatorship. The practice expanded as current Vice President Tareck El Aissami, a longtime fixture in the socialist government, used his alleged ties to Hezbollah to broker larger deals.
El Aissami’s assets in the United States are currently frozen, as the U.S. Treasury designated him an international drug trafficker for his ties to the Cartel de los Soles, a Venezuelan cocaine-trafficking outlet. Experts have described him as one of “Venezuela’s main contacts with Hezbollah,” the Shiite terrorist organization.
In 2015, a Venezuelan diplomat defected from his office, the Venezuelan embassy in Baghdad, and filmed a video accusing his bosses of selling passports to members of Hezbollah. Misael López Soto claimed that “under the complacent eye of diplomats in the mission [in Baghdad], local employees delivered visas, passports, birth certificates, and other types of Venezuelan documentation to citizens of Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and, in some cases, Pakistan.” He estimated Venezuela made as much as $15,000 per document.
López resurfaced in Spain in February, speaking to CNN about his ordeal. His story was consistent with the video he made in 2015. His story also proved consistent with reports from organizations such as the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) that accused Venezuela of selling passports to Hezbollah, to allow them easier passage to countries where Mideast passports necessitate closer scrutiny of their holders.
El Nacional has reported another concerning accusation regarding the Venezuelan passport system – claims that individuals who did not work in any diplomatic capacity received specialized diplomatic passports, which allow them greater travel freedom. The opposition-run National Assembly recently launched an investigation into these claims, surfacing after an anonymous government employee claimed that Caracas had issued diplomatic passports to high-ranking drug traffickers to facilitate their business.