MEDELLIN, Colombia -- A key informant against one of Venezuelan President Nicolas 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 U.S. sanctions, The Associated Press has learned.
The development threatens the case against Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami, who the U.S. considers one of Venezuela's most corrupt power brokers, giving fuel to claims by the nation's socialist elite that the U.S. is resorting to trumped-up charges to pursue its goal of regime change.
It also follows 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 Sept. 19 in Miami on three counts of knowingly making false statements to U.S. federal agents, according to court filings.
A sworn affidavit accompanying the Sept. 4 arrest order doesn't mention Venezuela or El Aissami.
But it accuses Marin of lying about the equivalent of $140,000 that disappeared from a package of $1.5 million in cash that he transported by private jet to the U.S. in July 2018 at the direction of federal law enforcement officials.
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 U.S. 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 U.S.-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 over allegations of fraud and vote-rigging.
Both men are on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency's 10 most-wanted fugitives list. Both have denied any wrongdoing and Lopez even appealed unsuccessfully to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to block kidnapping victims of Colombian rebels from taking a $318 million chunk of assets frozen in the U.S. after his designation as a "drug kingpin" by the 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 U.S. law enforcement agencies, which have 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 pretrial detention hearing on Wednesday.
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 U.S. federal custody. Only one of them, Victor Mones, owner of the Florida-registered American Charter Services, has pleaded guilty.
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."