In February 2017 CNN broke a worrying story that the Venezuelan government via its embassy in Baghdad has given out several hundred passports and visas to Middle Eastern individuals in return for thousands of dollars. Shockingly, some of these purchasers have been revealed to have clear links to terrorist organizations.
A former Venezuelan government official has told CNN that he witnessed passports and visas being given to individuals from Middle Eastern countries like Syria and Iraq in return for thousands of dollars. Misael Lopez was the legal advisor for the Venezuelan Embassy in Iraq but now lives in virtual seclusion in the town of Toledo on the outskirts of Madrid, in fear of his life.
“I’m concerned about my safety and my family’s safety everywhere I go,” Lopez told CNN in an interview last month.
Venezuelan Vice President Linked With 173 Passports
41-year old Lopez (pictured) claims he was witness to a practice of selling passports and visas for thousands of dollars directly out of the Venezuelan Embassy in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Lopez also states that he himself was offered a cut of each deal but declined. Instead, in 2016 Lopez approached CNN and CNN en Español, who were so convinced by Lopez’s story that they elected to work together in a year-long, joint investigation and subsequent exposé.
CNN’s investigation was certainly thorough; thousands of documents were reviewed and dozens of witnesses were interviewed in the US, Spain, the UK as well as Venezuela. As a result, serious irregularities were uncovered pertaining to the issuing of Venezuelan passports and visas to non-citizens.
Particularly scandalous and deeply concerning is a document that CNN claim to be in possession of, which clearly shows that Venezuela’s vice president Tareck El Aissami (pictured) is personally linked to 173 passports and visas that were handed out to people from the Middle East, including some with links to the Lebanese Islamist militant group Hezbollah. El Aissami’s father is Syrian and was a member of the notorious Ba’athist Party.
Corruption From Day One
Misael Lopez is a qualified lawyer who had previously worked in law enforcement in his native Venezuela. He applied for diplomatic work for his country, and his first posting was to the Venezuelan Embassy in Baghdad. However, his dream of a noble career in diplomacy was brought down to earth with a bump on his very first day there in July 2013:
“He gave me an envelope full of visas and passports,” Lopez told CNN. The “he” in question was his new boss, Venezuelan Ambassador Jonathan Velasco (pictured). “He told me, ‘Get this, this is one million U.S. dollars.’ I thought it was like a joke. Then he told me ‘here people pay a lot of money to get a visa or a passport to leave this country.’ ”
Soon after, an Iraqi female interpreter working at the embassy told him that she was making thousands of dollars selling passports and visas, claiming she had a pending deal of 13 visas she was selling to Syrian buyers for $10,000 each – a total of $130,000. She asked him if he wanted to be in on the deal, but Lopez refused.
“I suspect it might be terrorists; that’s why I reject, of course, immediately.” Lopez said.
It wasn’t long before Lopez began digging around, and subsequently found a document that listed 21 Arabic names, only with corresponding Venezuelan passport numbers and Venezuelan identification numbers. When CNN later showed this document to a Venezuelan immigration official who cross-checked the passport numbers, they were all registered as valid, meaning that the users would be free to travel visa-free to more than 130 countries globally, including those of the European Union – as a Venezuelan citizen.
By comparison, an individual travelling under an Iraqi passport would have visa-free access to only 30 countries. In order to travel to the Americas, Africa, Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia or Australasia an Iraqi passport holder would have to acquire a visa detailing their reasons for entering a country and undergo a background check.
Lopez continued to gather information, eventually contacting the Venezuelan authorities in 2014, but his concerns seemingly fell on deaf ears. In 2015 he contracted an FBI official at the US Embassy in Madrid, and the official forwarded Lopez’s information on to the FBI headquarters in Washington DC. Once again, nothing happened.
However, back in Baghdad, the game was up for Lopez, who was accused of “abandoning his post” and subsequently fired. When he returned to Venezuela he found that he was under police investigation for revealing “confidential documents or secrets”. Lopez managed to get out of Venezuela and make his way to Spain with his family and has remained there ever since. Soon after he, contacted CNN en Español who in turn contacted CNN. The news network finally gave Lopez and his story the respect they deserved.
The New “Jackals”?
How ironic that the country that spawned the most famous terrorist of all – Ilyich Ramírez Sánchez, more commonly known as “Carlos the Jackal” (pictured above left) – could now be helping the current generation of Islamic terrorists go about their deadly business? Carlos the Jackal used multiple identities and passports to remain at large for more than 25 years, travelling freely throughout Europe and the Middle East, often with forged diplomatic papers. If true, some of the visas that have been sold from the Venezuelan embassy in Baghdad may also have had diplomatic clearance.
This is not the first time that Venezuela has been linked to passport fraud. There were suspicions that Venezuela was dealing in passport fraud as far back as 2006, when Hugo Chavez (pictured above right) was president. At the time, the US State Department’s claimed that:
“Venezuelan travel and identification documents are extremely easy to obtain by persons not entitled to them.”
Hugo Chavez was notoriously anti-American and a permanent thorn in the side of US presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It’s not inconceivable to think that if Venezuelan passports had ended up in the hands of individuals that were considered threats to the US, Chavez may not have been too concerned.
However, Hugo Chavez died in 2013, and Venezuela – once the richest country in South America because of its vast oil reserves – is now one of the most bankrupt and impoverished nations on earth, and desperately in need of US aid, and not sanctions. Almost every month more news footage emerges of Venezuelan hospitals full of desperately ill patients, but with precious few doctors to attend to them, and virtually no drugs to give them. The news that the Venezuelan government may have been directly involved in aiding the movement of terrorists by supplying them with passports is hardly going to help their current plight.