The former head of the Office of Identification and Migration (Saime) in Venezuela told the Miami Herald this week that, while he was there, the office issued at least 10,000 passports to Syrian, Iranian, and other Middle Eastern nationals with no ties to Venezuela.
Colonel Vladimir Medrano Rengifo told the Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language Miami Herald, that, during his time at the office, he believed that the Venezuelan consulate in Damascus helped thousands of Syrian nationals with no ties to Venezuela acquire Venezuelan passports. As Venezuela does not have a history of terrorism, a Venezuelan passport is more powerful for international travel than those of the war-torn, terror-ravaged countries of the Middle East.
“The passports were legitimate,” Medrano said, “but the people who carried the documents were not really Venezuelan.” He estimated that up to 25,000 people may have received these passports while he was running the agency, between May 2008 and October 2009.
Medrano says he was fired by Tareck el Aissami, then a senior cabinet member in the socialist party and currently the nation’s vice president. El Aissami’s name has consistently surfaced related to accusations of selling passports to Middle Eastern nationals, particularly Hezbollah members. The U.S. Department of the Treasury recently sanctioned the vice president, freezing his assets in the United States, due to his status as a known drug trafficker under the drug Kingpin Act.
While Medrano ran the office, he says El Aissami would call to intervene when anyone carrying these passports would arouse suspicion upon arriving in Venezuela. “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 individuals would, in many cases, obviously appear non-Venezuelan and fail to be able to yield basic knowledge on their alleged hometowns. “Some would say they were from Caracas, from the Catia or La Pastora neighborhoods, but when we asked them in what part of Catia they lived or what school they went to in La Pastora, they didn’t know how to answer,” according to Medrano. “They would forget their Spanish and even start speaking Arabic.”
“Today we don’t know where these people are, nor what they are doing… They could be anywhere in the world, traveling with Venezuelan documentation,” Medrano warned.
Medrano is the latest to accuse Venezuela of such a passport sales scheme, and the highest-ranking Venezuelan official to confirm the existence of the program. The other former Venezuelan official on record confirming the scheme is Misael López Soto, a former diplomat at the Venezuelan embassy in Baghdad.
In 2015, López fled the embassy and posted a video from an undisclosed location to YouTube, claiming that he fled Iraq after repeatedly being asked to handle bribes provided to the embassy by Mideast nationals from “Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and, in some cases, Pakistan” in exchange for passports, birth certificates, and other legitimate Venezuelan documents. “In many cases, they were tied to terrorist groups, most of the Shiite variety,” he asserted then.
In February, López surfaced in Spain, telling a consistent version of his story to CNN en Español, but with more details.
Venezuelan Ambassador Jonathan Velasco told López, the former diplomat recalled, that “in Iraq, people paid a lot of money for a visa or a passport. I thought it was a joke.” He said the average price for such a document was $10,000.
López estimated that up to 50,000 Middle Eastern nationals are currently using Venezuelan documents.
In response to López’s interview on CNN, the Venezuelan government banned CNN en Español (but not English-language CNN) from airing nationwide and published a bizarre Powerpoint presentation linking López to American Senators Marco Rubio and Robert Menéndez, without explaining their alleged ties.
Prior to López’s revelation, Spanish journalist Emili Blasco published a book claiming that Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro had met with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in Damascus in 2007, at the behest of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, to plan the Venezuelan passport scheme.
Venezuela’s Saime revealed in March that it did not have the materials necessary to keep up with the demand for passports from Venezuelan nationals within Venezuela, desperate to flee the increasingly dramatic economic situation and the rampant political oppression by the socialist regime.