Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, right, and Tareck El Aissami tour La Rinconada baseball stadium on the outskirts of Caracas. File picture: Ricardo Mazalan/AP
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, right, and Tareck El Aissami tour La Rinconada baseball stadium on the outskirts of Caracas. File picture: Ricardo Mazalan/AP

Informant in case against top Maduro aide lied to US feds

By AP Time of article published Sep 26, 2020

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Medellin, Colombia - A key informant against one of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s closest aides has been accused of lying to his law enforcement handlers in a case involving millions of dollars transported on private jets in violation of US sanctions, The Associated Press has learned.

The surprise reversal could hurt the case against Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami, who the US considers one of Venezuela’s most corrupt power brokers, giving oxygen to claims by the nation’s socialist elite that the US is resorting to trumped-up charges to pursue its goal of regime change.

It also follows embarrassing revelations in another sanctions case in which a federal judge excoriated the same unit of Manhattan prosecutors targeting El Aissami for withholding exculpatory information about an Iranian businessman seen as a nexus in growing ties between the Islamic republic and Venezuela.

Alejandro Marin, a Venezuelan-born pilot and businessman, was arrested on September 19 in Miami on three counts of knowingly making false statements to US federal agents, according to court filings.

A sworn affidavit accompanying the September 4 arrest order doesn’t mention Venezuela or El Aissami.

But it accuses Marin of lying about the equivalent of $140 000 that went missing from a package of 1.3 million euros in cash that he transported by private jet to the US in July 2018 at the direction of federal law enforcement.

Marin, 46, runs a chartered flight business out of Miami’s Opa Locka executive airport. He was signed up as a confidential source to help investigate then Vice President El Aissami and his alleged frontman, businessman Samark Lopez, according to an individual familiar with the case speaking anonymously to discuss the ongoing probe.

The Trump administration sanctioned both men as drug kingpins in 2017, seizing hundreds of millions of dollars from US bank accounts, two yachts, a private plane and Miami real estate it said were the illegal proceeds of cocaine shipments to Mexican cartels coordinated at the highest levels of Venezuela’s government and military.

It later charged them with violating those same sanctions by allegedly using US-based charter companies to arrange private flights on American-registered aircraft to Russia, Turkey and inside Venezuela during Maduro's 2018 presidential campaign, which the opposition boycotted amid allegations of fraud and vote-rigging.

Both men are on the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 10 most wanted fugitives list. Both have denied any wrongdoing and Lopez even appealed unsuccessfully to the US Supreme Court to try and block kidnapping victims of Colombian rebels from taking a $318 million chunk of assets frozen in the US following his designation as a “drug kingpin” by the US Treasury Department.

A former student activist schooled in radical politics by his father, a Druse Syrian-Lebanese immigrant, the 45-year-old El Aissami has risen steadily through the ranks of Venezuela’s red-shirted revolution. Along the way he's earned a reputation for ruthlessness but also pragmatism that stands in sharp contrast to his anti-imperialist sloganeering.

Perhaps more than any other of the dozens of Venezuelan officials under investigation, he’s been a thorn in the side of US law enforcement, which has spent much of the past decade looking for evidence tying him to Colombia's cartels and Middle Eastern terrorist groups.

But neither he nor Lopez have been charged for drug trafficking even as prosecutors in March added Maduro and others to sweeping narcoterrorist conspiracy charges effectively accusing Venezuela’s government of being a criminal enterprise at the service of drug traffickers and terrorist groups.

Christian Dunham, a federal public defender representing Marin, declined to comment but said his client is expected to appear in court for a pre-trial detention hearing on September 30.

A spokesman for the US Attorney’s office in Manhattan declined to comment.

According to the arrest order, approximately $140 000 of the cash owed to the U.S. government was removed from the packages Marin helped transport on orders of a foreign associate identified only as “Individual 1.” US investigators instructed Marin to try and recover the missing funds by having them wired to an account under the control of Homeland Security Investigations, a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that is the lead agency for financial crimes stretching beyond US borders.

After two wire transfers were rejected, the money was finally deposited months later to a company controlled by Marin, who never told investigators. About $90 000 came from an organization affiliated with an unnamed foreign soccer team associated with “Individual 1,” according to the testimony of HSI Special Agent Timothy McCann.

Two years later, federal officials in August 2020 asked Marin about the funds that went missing from the package labelled “Marin.” In a series of phone calls with US attorneys and in a subsequent meeting in Manhattan he reiterated that he didn’t recover any of the missing cash.

However, on August 28, he changed his story and said that after further consultation with his accountant he recalled that he had in fact received $130 000 from “Individual-1," part of which came from the organization associated with the soccer club.

McCann didn't name the soccer club in his testimony. El Aissami, a huge soccer fan, in 2015 was added to the roster for a first-division Venezuelan soccer team from the state of Aragua, which he governed from 2012 to 2017. A spokeswoman for the soccer team wouldn't comment.

It’s not clear what impact, if any, the new revelations will have on the sanctions-busting case against El Aissami, Lopez and three co-defendants who are currently in US federal custody. Only one of them, Victor Mones, owner of the Florida-registered American Charter Services, has pleaded guilty.

Assistant US Attorney Amanda Houle in a hearing this week for one of the co-defendants asked Judge Alvin Hellerstein for more time to produce evidence it is required to hand over to defendants that may help them prove their innocence.

“Your Honor, given the developing situation with the confidential source, I don’t want to rule out the possibility that additional information could be collected in the next two weeks,” she said, without mentioning any arrest or referring to the source by name.

Judge Hellerstein, responding to complaints by the defendant’s attorney that the government has been dragging its feet for more than a year, gave the government a final 30-day extension, expressing disgust that it hadn’t already collected all information.

“After that, there may be repercussions,” he said.

Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor in New York, said the charges against a government informant for lying “is obviously detrimental to the government’s case but it’s not a death knell.”

She likened the development to what happened in another high profile Venezuela case, the narcotics trial of First Lady Cilia Flores’ nephews, where the government had to tear up mid-way a cooperation agreement with a father-son informant team who were also found lying to the government. The case nonetheless proceeded, and the two so-called “narco nephews” were convicted by a jury and sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2017.

She said it’s likely the terrorism and international narcotics unit in the southern district of New York is acting aggressively to disclose the misconduct in light of criticism it tried to bury evidence in the case against Ali Sadr Hshemi Nejad. Prosecutors in June abruptly dropped charges against the Iranian businessman after he had been convicted over what it described as “disclosure-related issues” that would’ve altered his defense.

“The government did the right thing by disclosing this,” Klapper said about Marin. “Too often this sort of stuff gets buried under the rug.”

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