(Left to right) Tibisay Lucena, Néstor Reverol, Iris Varela and Elías Jaua

(Left to right) Tibisay Lucena, Néstor Reverol, Iris Varela and Elías Jaua



The latest round of sanctions by the United States against high-ranking Venezuelan officials claim to punish human rights abuses, but several of these powerful figures have also contributed to the growth of organized crime in the crisis-stricken Latin American country.

The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has sanctioned 13 current and former Venezuelan officials for “undermining democracy” in their country, including several top-level politicians like Néstor Reverol, Venezuela‘s Minister of Interior, Justice, and Peace as well as former drug czar and former Commander General of the Bolivarian National Guard; and Iris Varela, a member of Venezuela‘s Presidential Commission for the National Constituent Assembly and former Minister of the Penitentiary Service.

The move comes only days before elections are to be held for seats in Venezuela‘s new National Constituent Assembly, which will have the power to rewrite the constitution and “may choose to dissolve Venezuelan state institutions,” the Treasury explained in a press release.

President Nicolás Maduro controversially ordered the creation of the constituent assembly in a May 2017 presidential decree, even while local elections are months overdue. The country has since witnessed a wave of violent protests, while its deep political and economic turmoil continues.

InSight Crime Analysis

While the US sanctions are aimed at punishing human rights abuses by Venezuela‘s increasingly repressive government, they have also shone the international spotlight on some of the shadiest figures of the socialist regime.

These include members of the so-called Cartel of the Suns, the name given to the loose networks of transnational drug traffickers operating from the highest echelons of the Venezuelan government and military. (See InSight Crime’s diagram of corrupt government officials below). Among them is Interior Minister Reverol, who was appointed to his current position by Maduro the day after being indicted by the United States for allegedly participating in a transnational cocaine trafficking network.

Iris Varela, on the other hand, helped foster an organized criminal system much closer to home. As prisons chief under former President Hugo Chávez and later Maduro, Varela oversaw control of the country’s jails largely pass into the hands of the inmates themselves. This strengthened the power of the “pranes,” or the prison gang bosses, whose system of criminal governance eventually influenced the creation of the “mega-gangs” (“megabandas”) in Venezuela‘s increasingly dangerous streets.


Varela sparked controversy when she was photographed with a “pran” inside prison walls

As InSight Crime has noted in the past, renewed US sanctions could energize domestic opposition and international pressure on the regime. But they could also place the Venezuelan government even further on the defensive as it takes extraordinary steps to maintain its delicate grip on power.


BACKGROUND: Treasury Sanctions 13 Current and Former Senior Officials of the Government of Venezuela



Action Targets Officials of Entities Undermining Democracy in Venezuela
Washington – Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated 13 current or former senior officials of the Venezuelan Government pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13692, which authorizes sanctions against officials of the Government of Venezuela and others undermining democracy there.  The sanctions come ahead of the planned July 30, 2017 election orchestrated by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of a National Constituent Assembly (Asamblea Nacional Constituyente, or ANC) that will have the power to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution and may choose to dissolve Venezuelan state institutions.  A flawed ANC election process all but guarantees that a majority of the Assembly’s members will represent the interests of President Maduro’s government.  In a “popular consultation” organized by the opposition and held on July 16, 2017, Venezuelans overwhelmingly opposed the ANC process.
“As President Trump has made clear, the United States will not ignore the Maduro regime’s ongoing efforts to undermine democracy, freedom, and the rule of law,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin.  “As our sanctions demonstrate, the United States is standing by the Venezuelan people in their quest to restore their country to a full and prosperous democracy.  Anyone elected to the National Constituent Assembly should know that their role in undermining democratic processes and institutions in Venezuela could expose them to potential U.S. sanctions.”
Today’s designations focus on current and former officials of Venezuelan Government agencies associated with the elections or the undermining of democracy, as well as the government’s rampant violence against opposition protesters and its corruption.  As a result of today’s actions, all assets of these individuals subject to U.S. jurisdiction are frozen, and U.S. persons are prohibited from dealing with them.
OFAC today designated four senior officials of Venezuelan Government agencies that are actively pursuing the Constituent Assembly elections or otherwise undermining democracy or human rights in Venezuela:
·         Tibisay Lucena Ramirez is the President of the Maduro-controlled National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, or CNE) and President of Venezuela’s National Board of Elections.
·         Elias Jose Jaua Milano is the head of the Presidential Commission for the National Constituent Assembly responsible for forming and operating the ANC process.  He is also the Minister of Education, the Sectoral Vice President of Social Development and the Revolution of Missions, and the former Executive Vice President of Venezuela.
·         Tarek William Saab Halabi is Venezuela’s Ombudsman and President of Venezuela’s Republican Moral Council.  As the “People’s Defender,” it is ostensibly his role to stand up for human rights in Venezuela.
·         Maria Iris Varela Rangel is a Member of Venezuela’s Presidential Commission for the National Constituent Assembly and the former Minister of the Penitentiary Service.
The Government’s undermining of democracy in Venezuela has driven the people of Venezuela into the streets in protest, and the Maduro government has responded with repression and violence.  The Venezuelan opposition estimates that up to 15,000 civilians have been wounded in recent protests, with over 3,000 people arrested and 431 political prisoners in detention without fair and transparent judicial process.  Arbitrary arrests are rampant, as is physical abuse against detainees; alleged instances of torture and other violations and abuses of human rights are perpetrated by the Bolivarian National Guard, the Bolivarian National Police, and other security services.
OFAC today has sanctioned five current and former senior officials of those Venezuelan Government agencies responsible for the violence and repression:
·         Nestor Luis Reverol Torres is Venezuela’s Minister of Interior, Justice, and Peace. He is also the former Commander General of the Bolivarian National Guard and the former Director of Venezuela’s Anti-Narcotics Agency.  In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed an indictment against Reverol for his participation in an international cocaine distribution conspiracy.
·         Carlos Alfredo Perez Ampueda is the National Director of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Police and former Commander of the Carabobo Zone for Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard.
·         Sergio Jose Rivero Marcano is the Commander General of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard and the former Commander of the East Integral Strategic Defense Region of Venezuela’s National Armed Forces.
·         Jesus Rafael Suarez Chourio is the General Commander of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Army and the former Commander of Venezuela’s Central Integral Strategic Defense Region of Venezuela’s National Armed Forces.  In addition, Suarez was formerly the leader of the Venezuelan President’s Protection and Security Unit.
·         Franklin Horacio Garcia Duque is the former National Director of the Bolivarian National Police and the former Commander of the West Integral Strategic Defense Region of Venezuela’s National Armed Forces.
Finally, Venezuelan Government corruption is associated heavily – but by no means exclusively – with two government entities.  The first of these is Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), from which approximately $11 billion went missing between 2004 and 2014, according to news accounts of a report by a Venezuelan congressional commission.  Another significant engine of corruption in Venezuela involves the black market surrounding the official exchange rate regime set by the National Center for Foreign Commerce (Centro Nacional de Comercio Exterior, or CENCOEX).
OFAC today designated four current or former officials of these entities:
·         Rocco Albisinni Serrano is the President of CENCOEX.
·         Alejandro Antonio Fleming Cabrera is the Vice Minister for Europe of Venezuela’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the former President of CENCOEX.
·         Simon Alejandro Zerpa Delgado is the Vice President of Finance for PDVSA and the President of Venezuela’s Economic and Social Development Bank (BANDES), and the President of Venezuela’s National Development Fund (FONDEN).  He is the former Vice Minister of Investment for Development of Venezuela’s Ministry of Economy and Finance and the current or former Presidential Commissioner to the Joint Chinese Venezuelan Fund.
·         Carlos Erik Malpica Flores is the former National Treasurer and former Vice President of Finance for PDVSA.