But as bad as that sounds, El Aissami is only the latest – if the most highly placed – in a long list of Venezuelan officials or people close to power who have been tied to drug trafficking.
In August last year US federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment against retired generals Néstor Reverol and Edilberto José Molina of receiving bribes in exchange for notifying traffickers of upcoming police operations.
According to the indictment, they did so while they respectively held the positions of director and deputy director of Venezuela’s national counter-narcotics office between 2008 and 2010. Shortly after the indictment was announced, Maduro appointed Reverol as minister of the interior.
In 2008, the US treasury sanctioned Hugo Armando Carvajal, a retired military officer and former head of military intelligence, who in 2012 served as president of the National Office Against Organised Crime. He was then named consul in Aruba.
Carvajal was accused along with Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, former interior minister under the late president Hugo Chávez, and Henry Rangel Silva, former defence minister and head of operations of the armed forces.
And in November, two nephews of Maduro’s wife were convicted of conspiring to import nearly a tonne of cocaine into the US after they were arrested in Haiti and extradited to the US.
President Maduro, who succeeded Venezuela’sfirebrand leader Hugo Chávez after he died from cancer in 2013, rejected the sanctions “as part of a systematic attack by the international right against the Bolivarian Revolution”.
He said that since 2005, when the office of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was pushed out of Venezuela, “the state increased its efficiency in the fight against drug trafficking by 60%”.
However, according to the US State Department, a quarter of the cocaine produced in Colombia travels through Venezuela: around 110 tonnes per year, which places it in one of the 22 countries with the highest traffic of drugs in the world.
During El Aissami’s time as minister of interior and justice, Venezuelan organised crime has grown rapidly, said Jeremy McDermott, director of InSight Crime, a thinktank that studies organised crime in Latin America.
“There is no more money to rob from state coffers, so the wheels of corruption may need to turn to other sources of income, like drug trafficking,” he said.
Alejandro Rebolledo, a Venezuelan criminal lawyer specialising in organised crime, said: “In Venezuela there are a lot of laws but there is no political will to enforce them.”
Rebolledo added that prosecutors lack autonomy to pursue in-depth investigation when drug traffickers are arrested. “There is a voluntary blindness [towards] organised crime,” he said.
Luis Cedeño, sociologist and executive director of Paz Activa, a group that runs an organised crime observatory, said Venezuela has already gone beyond a narco-state. “It’s a mafia state where everything is handled like the Cosa Nostra,” he said, noting that other criminal economies have become entrenched, such as gasoline smuggling and contraband in basic goods.
Shortages of food and medicines, as well as inflation and a shrinking economy had led Venezuela’s opposition coalition, known as MUD, to press for a recall referendum to force Maduro from office.
Had the vote been held by the first weeks of this year, it would have meant calling new elections. But the actions of the US Treasury this week mean that the opposition now has much less reason to push for a referendum: since the deadline passed, a successful recall of Maduro would see El Aissami take over as Venezuela’s president.