CARACAS, Venezuela – Tareck El Aissami, one of the most powerful men in Venezuela, just acquired more power. Last week the self-proclaimed “radically Chavista” became the country’s second in command after President Nicolas Maduro appointed him as vice president.
The son of a Lebanese mother and a Syrian father, the 42-year-old El Aissami is also one of the most obscure figures in government circles -- he is suspected of having ties to the Islamist militant group Hezbollah and is reportedly being investigated by U.S. prosecutors for possible involvement in drug trafficking.
“It’s very concerning,” said Joseph Humire, executive director of Secure Free Society and an expert on radical Islam’s presence in Latin America.
“I’m worried that his power will only grow stronger. Iran, in particular, benefits greatly from having El Aissami as VP as he has been their man in Venezuela.”
According to Humire, El Aissami allegedly controls a criminal and terrorist network across at least six countries that operates with several companies, accounts and assets.
This network, he said, moves illicit funds and drugs from Latin America to the Middle East and brings back foreign fighters suspected of belonging to Islamic terrorist organizations and are fleeing justice. El Aissami allegedly provides them with legal support and even money to conceal their true identities, the expert told Fox News.com.
“There are rumors that Tareck El Aissami met with high-level Hezbollah representatives in the Tri-Border Area [of Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil] prior to becoming minister [in 2008] to arrange services by the Venezuelan government. These rumors are not confirmed, but should be investigated,” Humire said.
El Aissami’s stellar rise started a couple of decades ago, when as a student leader he caught late President Hugo Chavez’s attention and was recruited as one of the party’s top assets.
His zeal has remained intact through the years: “Socialism is the way to saving the country, not capitalism; it’s not the terrorist and criminal right,” he said after being sworn in on Jan. 4.
El Aissami, also one of the richest men in Venezuela, was elected to Congress in 2005, appointed vice minister of citizen safety in 2007 and, the following year, he was tapped to the Interior and Justice Ministry. He headed the powerful ministry until 2012, when he was elected governor of Aragua. He left that post last week to become Maduro’s right hand – and a heavy one at that.
El Aissami’s first assignment as vice president has been to create an “Anti-Coup Command” in charge of preventing any attempts to destabilize the regime or unseat the unpopular president.
The so-called command is already bearing fruit, with the arrest Wednesday of a legislator from the opposition, Gilber Caro, and the re-arrest of a former general and strong critic of the regime.
"This is about capturing and breaking up opposition elements that insist in taking the path of violence,” El Aissami said upon Caro’s arrest. “President Nicolás Maduro has deployed the anti-coup command based on information provided by intelligence agencies.”
If he succeeds and elections are called in 2018 as scheduled, El Aissami will very likely be the Chavista candidate.
“He is Maduro’s trusted man and this is probably a wise appointment,” said former Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto, a Chavista. “[In his inaugural speech] he spoke of a reencounter with the people, let’s see if he does that from a place of partisanship or from a more open standpoint,” he told FoxNews.com.
But the more moderate wing of Chavismo has expressed some concern, saying that political persecution is bound to increase.
Nicmer Evans, a political scientist from the Chavista Marea Socialista party, admitted he is worried that El Aissami may resort to extremes to accomplish the very specific mission he’s been assigned.
“He must make sure Maduro finishes his term. He’s the one in charge of chasing and capturing [political opponents],” Evans said. “And he’s willing to do anything to achieve his goal.”
Alex Vasquez is a freelance reporter living in Caracas, Venezuela.