The drug trafficker was sitting in a Colombian prison cell, but he claimed to have a very valuable connection — the interior and justice minister of Venezuela.
The trafficker did not make that boast quietly. In 2010, he told a Colombian television network that the minister, Tareck El Aissami, was a “friend,” and that one of Mr. El Aissami’s brothers would do “whatever favor I needed.”
More accusations against Mr. El Aissami, 42, came to light this week, but this time it was not a criminal making them, but the United States Treasury Department, which said that Mr. El Aissami was involved in narcotics rackets from Colombia to Mexico.
The department said that one of his underworld partners was that drug trafficker, Walid Makled García. It imposed sanctions on Mr. El Aissami and froze his assets in the United States, which American officials said amounted to tens of millions of dollars.
In the years after Mr. Makled, a fellow Venezuelan, bragged about his connection, Mr. El Aissami rose rapidly through the ranks of Venezuela’s power structure, becoming the country’s vice president last month.
The sanctions have now brought international scrutiny on Mr. El Aissami, the son of Middle Eastern immigrants who went from being an unknown student leader to the country’s powerful interior and justice minister. He also became a confidant of President Hugo Chávez. As vice president, Mr. El Aissami wields newly decreed authority to expropriate businesses and lock up rivals seen by the leftist government as traitors.
That Mr. El Aissami is also accused of being a drug kingpin leaves him in the company of other top officials in the Venezuelan government.
The current interior and justice minister, Nestor Reverol, faces a federal indictment in Brooklyn charging him with assisting drug traffickers in Venezuela in his previous posts — tipping them off to raids, obstructing investigations and accepting bribes. Last November, two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady, Cilia Flores, were found guilty in Federal District Court in Manhattan of conspiring to transport more than 1,700 pounds of cocaine to the United States. They each face 10 years in prison.
But Mr. El Aissami, a leading contender among leftists to run for president in 2018, is the highest-level official yet to face such accusations.
According to the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, he “facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, to include control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan air base” and “oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms.” He was linked to traffickers from Mexico to Colombia — among them Mr. Makled.
Mr. El Aissami did not respond to a request for comment made through the Venezuelan government. But President Nicolás Maduro this week vigorously defended his deputy on national television, saying that in every position Mr. El Aissami had held he had been the enemy of the narcotics rackets.
Mr. El Aissami had ordered the arrest of scores of Venezuelan kingpins over the years, some of whom were even extradited to the United States, Mr. Maduro asserted.
Mr. El Aissami was born in Mérida, a hardscrabble Andes state in Venezuela’s west, famous for its tough mountain culture and dwellers known as “gochos.” He was one of five children of immigrants who came from Syria and Lebanon. He took a degree in criminology and law at Mérida’s University of the Andes, where he was also a student leader of a leftist group.
When he was about 30, he entered politics, taking a seat in the country’s National Assembly, representing the governing leftist movement led by Mr. Chávez. Eventually, he came into Mr. Chávez’s orbit and soon found himself catapulted into the center of power as a vice minister, then in 2008 as country’s interior and justice minister.
It was there that analysts say he forged unorthodox positions on law enforcement, particularly when it came to policing and the prison system.
In 2009, he and Mr. Chávez created a force called the Bolivarian National Police. While Mr. El Aissami said the new system would fight crime by bringing it under a national command, critics saw a political motivation: taking security out of the hands of opposition mayors and governors who ran their own forces in places like Caracas, the capital.
Crime has soared in Caracas and elsewhere in the years since.
When a prison riot shook the country in 2011, Mr. El Aissami responded by ceding more control to the restive gang leaders in an effort to end the rebellion, said Jeremy McDermott, director of InSight Crime, a research organization.
According to Mr. McDermott, who interviewed people linked to the prison system, the government began relaxing control over the prisons, which allowed gang leaders to take over.
This may have prevented more riots, but it fueled the growth of powerful organized crime rings, known as the pranes, that flourish behind bars and continue to haunt Venezuela today.
“It was one of the key moments in the development of the pranes,” Mr. McDermott said of Mr. El Aissami’s tenure as interior and justice minister.
In 2012, after four years at the ministry, Mr. Chávez appointed Mr. El Aissami governor of Aragua, a coastal state adjoining Caracas. But people interviewed there say that the influence of gangs began to grow shortly after his arrival.
The state became dominated by a group called El Picure gang that got its start stealing cars, then expanded into extortion, kidnapping and the killing of police officers. At the same time, the state’s Tocorón prison became a center of organized crime, where many kidnapping victims were brought for ransom, according to residents.
Rodrigo Campos, an opposition politician from the state, says he blames Mr. El Aissami for allowing criminal groups to expand while focusing primarily on cracking down on political opponents. “He was permissive of everything that happened,” he said.
By the time Mr. El Aissami left the governorship to become vice president, the state was among the most dangerous in the nation, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a nongovernmental group that tracks crime.
The United States sanctions now suggest that Mr. El Aissami might not only have looked the other way when it came to Venezuela’s rising crime, but played an active role in it. The Treasury announcement, however, included no evidence for the accusations.
That has left some in Venezuela again demanding an inquiry as Mr. Maduro calls the sanctions yet another foreign plot to destabilize his government.
Carlos Ramírez López, a Venezuelan legal expert, rejected the view that the sanctions were political. “They are not sanctioning him because he’s a revolutionary,” he said, adding that the Americans were following charges that had haunted Mr. El Aissami for years.
The case of Mr. Makled, the drug trafficker who named Mr. El Aissami in 2010, is also being revived. Ismael García, an opposition lawmaker in the National Assembly, said that he had tried to get prosecutors to investigate the case when the interview was broadcast.
Now that the opposition has control of the National Assembly, he has vowed to renew his push for an inquiry.
The sanctions were not Mr. El Aissami’s only troubles in recent days. CNN broadcast a report saying it had obtained a file linking Mr. El Aissami to a passport-selling racket that operated out of the Venezuelan embassy in Baghdad.
Mr. Maduro’s response on Wednesday? Taking CNN’s Spanish-language channel off the air.
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