December 12, 2006
With another election under his belt, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears destined to remain in power until at least 2013 -- and, if his attempts to amend the constitution to abolish term limits succeed, perhaps even longer. Obviously, so long as Chavez -- one of the most colorful and strident leftist leaders in Latin America -- remains in power and touting the appeals of his Bolivarian Revolution, there will be no appreciable change in the tenor of U.S. relations with Caracas.
One of the more serious sticking points in the relationship in recent years has been the role Venezuela plays in fueling illegal immigration into the United States. A House subcommittee report released in October -- titled "A Line in the Sand: Confronting the Threat at the Southwest Border" -- noted that U.S. military and intelligence officials believe Venezuela is emerging as "a potential hub of terrorism in the Western Hemisphere" because "the Venezuelan government is issuing identity documents that could subsequently be used to obtain a U.S. visa and enter the country." The theme and tone of the congressional report are similar to those struck by the State Department's principal deputy coordinator for counterterrorism, Frank Urbancic Jr., who testified before Congress in July on the topic: "Venezuela: Terrorism Hub of South America?"
Washington has very real cause to be concerned in this regard. For years, Venezuela has been one of the most significant ports of entry into the Americas for aliens from other parts of the world -- including many "special interest" aliens from countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan -- due to lax visa laws and a culture of official corruption. However, any true assessment of Venezuela as a security threat to the United States must be kept separate from the political issues related to Chavez and his purposely annoying anti-U.S. rhetoric. For one thing, Venezuela's role as a transit point for aliens being smuggled into the United States predates Chavez and his leftist regime. For another, the Venezuelan president would incur unnecessary risk to his position and his country if he were to knowingly assist jihadists planning a strike on U.S. soil. More to the point, the jihadists would gain nothing from fostering such a relationship either.
As it stands, there is plenty of opportunity for illegal immigrants and more sinister types of criminals to transit Venezuela -- and obtain Venezuelan identity documents there -- without any government assistance whatsoever.
Venezuela as Hemispheric Gateway
Since long before Chavez came to power, Venezuela has served as an important portal for people seeking to immigrate illegally into the United States -- and as a hub of activity for the criminal smuggling organizations that make billions of dollars in assisting them. Large numbers of Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis and immigrants from other Asian and South Asian countries routinely can be seen passing through Caracas on their way to the "promised land."
With this, as with other types of illicit smuggling, precise figures as to the scope of the problem simply do not exist. However, figures from the U.S. Border Patrol can begin to shed light on at least some aspects of the situation: In 2005, the Border Patrol apprehended about 1.2 million illegal aliens -- 165,000 of whom were from countries "other than Mexico" (known as OTM aliens). Of those 165,000, a tiny fraction -- about 650 -- were labeled as coming from "special interest countries," meaning those the intelligence community believes could be exporters of terrorism.
There are two important points to bear in mind when considering such figures. First, they obviously refer only to the number of apprehensions -- a figure that the Border Patrol believes represents only 10 percent to 30 percent of the actual number of people who attempt to cross the U.S. border illegally each year. Second, immigrants with enough cash to purchase travel documents from a secondary country (such as Venezuela, in this case) are far more likely to enter the United States in some way other than sneaking over the border under cover of darkness.
Certainly, Venezuela is not the only landing port in the Americas for OTM aliens from other regions; they might access the region via other countries such as Guatemala, Belize, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. However, Venezuela is known as a major transit hub, and an entire industry has developed in Venezuela around the practice of illegal alien smuggling. There is an "underground railroad" of sorts that begins in Caracas and stretches along the various air, land and sea routes used to move migrants into the United States. This network consists of facilitators, document vendors, pilots, bus and truck drivers, sea captains, small hotels, money exchanges, restaurants and stores that all cater to illegal immigrants.
As a whole, alien smuggling is a multibillion-dollar industry. Some immigrants from Asia are thought to pay tens of thousands of dollars for their passage to the United States -- a price sufficiently high that alien smugglers have plenty of cash on hand to make bribes and "gifts" that help to lubricate the routes of passage. The money goes to immigration inspectors, visa clerks -- and to politicians who can be persuaded not to pass or seek the enforcement of laws against alien smuggling in critical "transit" countries.
This kind of government corruption was established in Venezuela long before Chavez came to power -- and government workers with a capitalistic bent have continued these practices, despite the socialistic ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Mapping the Process
Alien smugglers naturally coalesce around would-be emigrants in a home, or "sending," country. These smugglers can be grouped into two types of businesspeople: those who promise direct immigration from the sending country to the United States and those who use indirect routes involving transit countries (routes that often end with immigrants crossing by land over the U.S.-Mexican border). Those who offer the direct route typically charge a much higher fee for their services, since the overhead involved in the type of fraud required (such as paying an American consular officer to issue a genuine U.S. visa) is considerable. Therefore, entering the United States from a transit country such as Venezuela commonly is seen as the "discount" route.
Obtaining travel documents is an important part of the smuggler's services on several legs of the process. For instance, many smugglers help their passengers apply for passports. Would-be immigrants have legitimate rights to such passports but frequently are illiterate and cannot complete the application forms without assistance. Alternatively, alien smugglers might use counterfeit passports, genuine but altered passports or even genuine passports that are fraudulently obtained from the transit country. However, genuine passports from the sending country are generally the cheapest, easiest and safest.
The next step in the process -- after gathering passports and the crucial down payments from the customers -- frequently is obtaining visas for the transit country. This is not always a requirement: For instance, Chinese citizens do not need visas to enter Venezuela as tourists, but the residents of many other "sending" countries do. Once the smuggler has visas in hand, he can move his load of aliens to the first transit country in the Americas. This is a critical passage, and often the longest leg of the journey.
From that point, movements become more difficult to track. Alien smuggling is a fluid process that shifts frequently, following the path of least resistance. If an operation that takes aliens over the U.S. border into Arizona is shut down, the smugglers are likely to divert to another crossing -- perhaps over the border into Texas or via sea into Puerto Rico or Florida. In other words, once the aliens arrive in their first transit country, they could end up leaving it for several different destinations, using different modes of transportation. Therefore, the smugglers often will not worry about obtaining visas for the second transit country until the last minute, lest they waste their money pursuing an obsolete route.
Once the path of the second leg has been determined, alien smugglers either will set about securing visas from the requisite embassy within the first transit country or -- as is often the case -- express mail the immigrants' passports to a third country to be stamped if they have a friendly visa clerk on the payroll there. Therefore, it is not unusual for a batch of Pakistani passports to be mailed or hand-carried from Caracas to a place like San Salvador, where Guatemalan visas can be obtained, if the smugglers are having problems getting them issued at the Guatemalan Embassy in Caracas.
While waiting for their visas, the immigrants are put up in small hotels and boarding houses. Transit countries are rife with such establishments. Hotels in places such as Caracas and Guatemala City are often filled with Chinese, Indian, Pakistani or Afghan immigrants making their way illicitly to the United States.
Of course, not all alien smugglers go to the trouble of obtaining visas for every transit country. This is particularly true of smugglers who take their immigrants over land borders, where security is far more porous than it is at international airports. It is often easier (and cheaper) to bribe border guards, convincing them to look away while a bus or truck of aliens passes by their checkpoint.
A Jihadist Precedent
Clearly, there is a great deal of corruption in the "socialist worker's paradise" of Bolivarian Venezuela. Alien smugglers, including those whose clientele might include terrorist operatives, can use this to their advantage, and need not rely on a left-leaning or anti-U.S. government for assistance, as a 1993 case in Nicaragua illustrated.
In March 1993, shortly after the bombing of the World Trade Center, U.S. federal agents executed a search warrant at the address listed on the driver's license of Mohammed Salameh, the Palestinian jihadist who rented the van used in the bombing. Living at the address was Ibrahim Elgabrowny, an Egyptian who attempted to assault one of the agents executing the search warrant. Upon arresting him, the agents found a packet of Nicaraguan identity documents in Elgabrowny's jacket pocket.
The documents -- birth certificates, passports, cedulas (national identity cards) and driver's licenses -- had been issued under innocuous names, but all bore the photos or names of Elgabrowny's cousin, El Sayyid Nosair, his wife Karen and their three children. At the time of this discovery, Nosair already had been sentenced to a prison term for a conviction related to the 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane, but investigators had not yet learned of a plan his cohorts had been working on to free him from New York's Attica prison. Had those plans been carried out, fraudulent identity documents for Nosair and his family clearly would have become useful.
Initially, there was suspicion that the Sandinista government of Nicaragua had knowingly assisted the militants in issuing the documents. Certainly, the Sandinistas had offered citizenship to hundreds of militants from Marxist groups such as ETA, the Italian Red Brigades, the Tupamaros and Montoneros of South America and even Middle Eastern Marxists such as the PLO. The Sandinistas also maintained close relations with Libya (whose embassy in Managua dwarfed that of the United States) and Iraq, and received large quantities of cash from Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddhafi through their "special ambassador to the Middle East" -- Palestinian militant George Hallaq.
However, an exhaustive U.S. government investigation determined that the documents found in Elgabrowny's possession had been issued in a very different way from those knowingly issued to militant groups by the Sandinistas. In this case -- and much to the disappointment of some U.S. politicians, who had hoped somehow to tie the Sandinistas in with the bombing plot in New York -- it was just plain old fraud. But from an operational standpoint, this was perfectly logical. There was no reason for the militants involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to have incurred the security risks involved in taking the Sandinistas into their confidence. And making it obvious that they were obtaining documents for Nosair would have been a clear indication that they were laying plans of some kind for his freedom.
Nothing in this argument is intended to deny the aid and support that the Venezuelan government knowingly provides to members of Marxist groups from Colombia and other states, thus contributing to security risks in the region. Nor is there any denial that al Qaeda and other Islamist groups, such as Hezbollah, have a history of operations (financial and otherwise) in Latin America. However, there is no sincere argument to be made by national security conservatives in the United States that Chavez himself poses a threat to the United States by knowingly aiding and abetting jihadists. The premise might be tempting for policy wonks, should Washington (which has been prone to ignoring Chavez while focusing on weightier matters like Iraq) come to the end of its patience, but the logic of the situation simply would not support it.
If one has the right connections, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to purchase genuine Venezuelan birth certificates, cedulas and passports on the street in Caracas. These same documents can be purchased almost as easily (though at higher prices) through document vendors in places like Brooklyn, Miami, London, Beijing, Karachi or Madrid. As a result, there doubtless are many "special interest" aliens -- and perhaps even some actual terrorist operatives -- who are transiting through Venezuela and who might obtain legitimate Venezuelan identification documents. In this case, the "right connections" need not be wired into the political system at all.