Passport office bust: workers charged with selling IDs to Syrians

Six Venezuelan government employees have been arrested for allegedly selling Venezuelan identification cards and passports to people of “Syrian origin,” according to the Venezuelan attorney general’s office.

The arrests come just weeks after CNN aired a special investigative report into the alleged sale of Venezuelan documents to people who shouldn’t have them, including some linked to the terrorist group Hezbollah. Days after the report aired around the world, the Venezuelan foreign minister accused CNN of carrying out an “imperial media operation” against her country during a press conference, and government officials blocked CNN en Español’s signal throughout Venezuela.

In the most recent case, the employees arrested all worked as data transcribers at the Venezuelan office that handles identification documents and passports. In announcing the arrests Tuesday, authorities say the suspects charged $5,000 a piece for identification documents that Venezuelan officials say did not comply with “corresponding procedures.”

All six workers were charged with corruption, improper access or sabotage of protected systems, unauthorized issuance of identification documents and conspiracy to commit a crime.

The attorney general’s office did not identify or give any details about the people of “Syrian origin” who would have purchased these documents. CNN has made several calls to the attorney general’s office for additional details about the case but has not received a response.

Former Venezuelan diplomat a witness to the scheme

A Venezuelan passport permits entry into more than 130 countries without a visa, including 26 countries in the European Union, according to Henley and Partners, an international company that assists in citizenship and residency issues. A visa is required to enter the United States.

CNN’s special investigative report, which aired in February, included an interview with a former Venezuelan diplomatic official who said he witnessed a scheme to sell passports out of the Venezuelan embassy in Iraq.

Misael Lopez worked at the embassy from 2013 to 2016, and claims he received multiple offers from another employee to help sell official Venezuelan documents to non-Venezuelans, including one offer to sell visas to 13 Syrians for $130,000.

Lopez says he tried to tell Venezuelan authorities what he had learned, but instead of investigating his allegations, the government targeted him for disclosing confidential information.

The ambassador for Venezuela’s mission in Iraq, Jonathan Velasco, denied the allegations. “We have never, ever sold Venezuelan nationalities,” Velasco said.

Dangerous connections

CNN’S investigative story also focused on the man who is now vice president of Venezuela, Tareck El Aissami. Acccording to a confidential intelligence report from a group of Latin American countries obtained by CNN, El Aissami was responsible for the issuance of Venezuelan passports to 173 individuals from the Middle East over a four-year period, some with links to Hezbollah.

El Aissami, who was then minister of the interior, “took charge of issuing, granting visas and nationalizing citizens from different countries, especially Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Iranians and Iraqis,” the report said.

El Aissami did not respond to CNN’s interview requests.

The ease of obtaining documents through Venezuela — and the risk it poses — has been a concern among American security officials since the early 2000s.

One congressional report in 2006 said, “Venezuelan identification and travel documents are extremely easy to obtain for people who are not entitled to them.” Another said, “Venezuela is providing support, including identity documents that could prove useful to radical Islamic groups.”

CNN en Espanol blocked

The Venezuelan government has always denied these allegations.

CNN en Espanol’s signal has been blocked in Venezuela since February 15.

The National Telecommunications Commission of Venezuela (CONATEL) referred to the blackout as a precautionary measure and did not clarify when CNN en Español would return to cable systems. The statement was rejected by press groups and others.

In return, CNN en Español issued a statement highlighting “the essential role that freedom of the press plays in a healthy democracy” and defending the journalistic work of the CNN and its commitment “with truth and transparency.”