And how have terrorist and criminal organizations like Hezbollah set up shop in Venezuela, apparently with the regime’s blessing?
In this episode, we sit down with Simonovis, who is currently serving as Special Commissioner for Security and Intelligence in the interim government of Venezuela headed by Juan Guaido, and acting as a liaison to the US State Department.
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Ivan Simonovis: Thank you for the opportunity to be here.
Jan Jekielek: You have a pretty incredible story. You started out by being police commissioner of Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, and then you ended up spending 15 years in prison. How did that happen?
Mr. Simonovis: I started as a detective for the criminal investigative police in 1981. I rose up the hierarchy, working in different areas of criminal investigation. Then I became chief of the special operations unit. Being in high-ranking positions enabled me to establish contact and work together with Commissioner William Bratton. At that time, he had just quit as Police Commissioner of New York.
We tried implementing the strategies used in New York City in Caracas in order to reduce crime there. Several of the trainings I did for professional development were here in the United States, with the State Department, with the FBI, and other investigative and intelligence agencies.
That put me in a special category within my country but it was also used against me, because once the political system in Venezuela changed with the arrival of Hugo Chavez, the communists that came into power started to see me not as a friend but as an enemy. So that’s how it started. They began a case against me because of my specialty and my knowledge; they even accused me of being a member of the CIA and that kind of thing.
Then in 2002, there was an impressive demonstration in Caracas, when more than 1 million people went to the presidential palace to ask for Hugo Chavez’s resignation because a dictatorship was imminent. Hugo Chavez’s supporters shot these people who were exercising their right to protest. 19 people died, and at least 100 were injured. Hugo Chavez stepped down from power for three days, and then he came back with the support of the military. At that time, they started to rewrite history in Venezuela.
Instead of being the people who saved lives, we were accused of causing deaths. There was an allegation that I always said made no sense at all because they alleged that the people who opened fire on the demonstrators did so because they were exercising their legitimate right. How can you exercise a legitimate right if you are not authorized to use a weapon, and you don’t have authority [to go against] a uniformed police officer, an authority figure. But those are the strange things that happened in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez already had control of the judiciary. And so we were taken to court, in a trial that was totally rigged, and as I said before, I was the main target because I was trained or I had taken some professional development training in the United States.
This trial went for around three and a half years, and in the end, some teammates of the uniformed police and I were sentenced to 30 years in prison. 30 years in prison is the maximum sentence in my country. So I was held prisoner in the political police headquarters. I was there for the first nine years in prison, where I only saw sunlight for 33 days. All the other days I was secluded in a cell where I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. I didn’t know if it was raining or sunny. I didn’t know anything about the outside world. Those were the first nine years of prison. After these nine years in prison…
Mr. Jekielek: Do you mean you were in solitary confinement?
Mr. Simonovis: No, I mean, I was in a hallway, which could hold 10 political prisoners. In the nine years, the other political prisoners changed. But I did not change. I always remained. But I saw different political figures, military officers. But my sentence was for 30 years, the maximum sentence. So I welcomed and said goodbye to many people. I welcomed people who got imprisoned, and said goodbye to people who were released. So, after spending all that time in this cell, in this dungeon, my physical condition started to deteriorate, and I started to have all kinds of issues, with some illnesses more complicated than others.
[I had] problems with my sight, problems with my spine––I have a serious spine injury—respiratory issues, blood pressure issues. All these things started to worsen because I was locked up in a 1.5 meter by 1.5 meter cell that didn’t even have a toilet. My lawyers, especially my wife, my wife is a lawyer so she was my defense counsel. So she complained about prison conditions. National and international attention got to a point where the regime saw they could not hide the atrocities they were committing against me and others.
So they decided to move me, but not to release me. Instead, I was sent to a military prison known as Ramo Verde. It’s in a mountainous area, about 40 minutes away from the capital city. In that prison, my health didn’t improve, because I was still in jail after all. With the help of a team of lawyers and international pressure ––there were pressures even from the opposition leaders about my condition –– the regime allowed me to be detained at home instead of at the prison. It’s good to mention that by then I had already served a good part of my sentence.
And like anywhere else in the world, when you are detained and you serve part of your sentence, you are entitled to some alternative measures in order to finish serving the sentence. I had been entitled to these other measures since 2012, but the regime didn’t allow me to get probation. Even at home I didn’t get medical attention, and I didn’t have permission to receive visitors or to have meetings. They took photos of me between 6 to 8 times a day to verify that I was still there. I had an electronic shackle on my leg, and I couldn’t see a doctor.
But my medical condition improved somewhat because when you are at home, your family takes care of you. All that makes your mood, your mindset, and physical condition improve somewhat. But some issues simply couldn’t be taken care of even though they needed to be addressed. That’s how 4 years passed by. And then, last year, in what is known as the “April 30th” event that happened in Venezuela, there was a coup attempt. The military rose up against President Maduro, and there were some rumors that I would probably be sent back to jail.
President Guaido had signed a document that I would be released once his administration came to power. That drew the attention of the military and of President Maduro’s circle. And there were reports that I would be sent back to jail. I have a lot of colleagues that are still active, and they warned me that I would almost certainly be sent back to jail. So at that time, I made the decision and I thought, I won’t go back to jail. So it’s either freedom or death.
That’s why on May 6th last year, with the help of some colleagues, active policemen, I escaped from the back of my home, because the front door was guarded by some 12 men from the regime police. I knew some police tactics so I went down by rappel, then I took a vehicle with some teammates. I was in three different sites, hidden for around three weeks in Caracas. After that, I went to the coast of the country. And from the coast, I was able to take a ship that took me to an Island. And from that Island, I took a plane, then I finally landed in the United States,
Thanks to the support of President Trump’s administration, for recognizing Juan Guaido as president. That’s why all these things were possible. After landing here and taking care of some personal issues, President Guaido designated me as the person in charge, the commissioner of security and intelligence for President Guaido with respect to the government of the United States. That’s my current position, and my job is to build a relationship and the exchange of intelligence, not only with American agencies, but also with police agencies, which has been my job my whole life––criminal investigations––and in this case, giving information and anything necessary to erode the regime we currently have in Venezuela.
Mr. Jekielek: How long did it actually take from the moment that you escaped from home to get into the United States?
Mr. Simonovis: Around three weeks and a little more, I mean, I’d say almost a month since I escaped from home until I could land here in the United States. My family, my wife, because of personal issues, they were not in Venezuela. So that was important for me because I knew, as it happened in other cases, if I escaped, and she was still there, she would be the one in jail now. My house was seized by the regime. It was taken from me. They kept it for themselves. There is a lawyer on my team that is in jail. It was totally irrational for them to detain him because if even my wife didn’t know [about the escape plan], how could I have told my lawyer?
This information had to be managed with extreme discretion, with a lot of secrecy, because the actions of the regime made it clear that if they found out what I was doing, they would just take action and I would end up dead, as other people did, who opposed the Maduro Regime.
Mr. Jekielek: I noticed in your photos that you have some very beautiful kids. They’re not in the country either, is that right?
Mr. Simonovis: Right. I have an older daughter that lives here in the United States, in Denver, Colorado. She’s married to an American citizen. And I have two sons that live in Germany. They have European citizenship and passports, because of my wife. They went to a German school. And given the circumstances around us in Caracas, it was best for them to get out of Venezuela. My last name is not very common in Venezuela, so every time they said their last name, it would draw attention. So they ended up making a living in Germany, where they are completing their college degrees.
Mr. Jekielek: How is it that the family stayed together through all this?
Mr. Simonovis: It’s a very interesting question. I think that’s where family values come into play. My family, thank God, has very strong family values and that’s what keeps us united. I think that we just took this as a challenge. Things that happen… families go through different things. Could be an illness, could be an economic tragedy, could be… in our case, our tragedy was this one, we had to assume this responsibility, and if this is what we got, we have to deal with it and move forward. And that’s the message we always gave to our children––that staying united would give us the strength to face all this and come out victorious from this situation.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s go back in time a little bit. What role did you have when Chavez got into power?
Mr. Simonovis: When Hugo Chavez got into power, I was in the criminal investigation agency, in the technical judiciary agency, and I was the national chief of operations. So my position was to oversee and to audit all the operational activities inside Venezuela from the criminal investigation point of view, and to support activities, whenever necessary, in tactical operations, special operations. As I said before, part of my career was dedicated to tactical issues and that’s why I made that my career over there. After this, I was assigned to be police commissioner of Caracas. I used to belong to the national police, but I was asked to solve crimes in Caracas.
It was at that time that, because of my connections to the NY Police––I knew commissioner Bill Bratton and some of his staff –– so we started to work and to outline some strategies, the same ones that were applied in New York to reduce crimes. We wanted to mirror their strategy in the capital city of Caracas, and reduce crime. I’m afraid we were not able to do much because, as I said before, I repeat, the presence of Will Bratton and the trainings I had with the US agencies made me… a main target of the regime because they are socialist, communist-leaning. So from the beginning, as it was seen over time, they had hostility, aversion, hatred toward everything that represents the American soil, the American government.
Mr. Jekielek: Actually, you’ve sort of started answering my next question already, which is, how did things shift from before Hugo Chavez to the Maduro regime?
Mr. Simonovis: Ok, first of all, the Hugo Chavez government was a puppet whose control originated in Cuba. Fidel Castro, when he was alive, adopted Chavez as his puppet in Venezuela. They were interested in it for two reasons. One, and the most important one, was money. Cuba, as everyone knows, is an island that has no way of sustaining itself, except with the support of outside countries. Before, it was Russia, but not anymore. So their only way to survive was with the support of another country that would subsidize everything that happens within the island of Cuba.
So that was one of the reasons why Fidel was very interested in taking control of Venezuela. On the other hand, there’s an organization called the Sao Paulo forum. The Sao Paulo Forum is no more than a congregation of socialists and communists––who I consider to be criminals –– that have tried to push socialism in Latin America. So that’s where Kirchner is, where Evo Morales is ––who was just ousted from Bolivia––Brazil that also had important changes, and among this group was Hugo Chavez. Hugo Chavez was the favorite son of Fidel Castro and it was for those two reasons that those alliances were made. How did Venezuela change? Well, it was a radical change, like a 180 degree turn. The values and principles that we traditionally knew started to change.
There is a strong socialist belief that only a group, an elite group within the Nicolas Maduro regime, are the ones who got rich. Everyone else gets ripped off. They were made to believe that if you take from the rich and give it to the poor, the economy will just be better. The truth is that, in the end, more than 7,000 private companies stopped operating in the country. The oil industry, which is the most important sector from a financial point of view, as it provided the biggest revenue to Venezuela, is completely finished. All the training, all the government staff have been influenced by these new socialist theories.
Many of the policemen, many of the army officers have been brainwashed and made to believe that socialism is the right way for people to move up. But in the end, the proof is in the pudding, Venezuela, according to organizations that analyze economics, Venezuela is in an extremely poor position.
There is no food in Venezuela, there is no medicine in Venezuela. Crime kills around 25,000 people a year, and we’re talking about a country that used to have 30 million people. Now, there are less than 25 million because in the last two years more than 5 million people have left the country. They are not looking to fulfill any dreams. They are looking to survive. Because one thing is that you go to a country and say, “I’m going to the United States because of that American dream motto.” Some people come to America to pursue “The American Dream,” but these people left their country, Venezuela because they wanted to survive. It’s a collapsed economy. However, they still control the army, and a very small number of generals are the ones that keep the control, and I’m afraid we weren’t able to move toward the democracy that the country deserves and that we need to recover. In Venezuela there is a totalitarian regime so whoever doesn’t comply or agree with the ideas promoted by the dictator Nicolas Maduro and his circle, simply ends up in jail or dead.
The sanctions imposed on Venezuela are sanctions against individuals, and the way it’s been handled, the financial suffocation of the Nicolas Maduro regime, made it possible to open a door, on the other hand, to reinforce the alliances with criminal organizations, [and] international organizations, for example, FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], as well as the ELN [National Liberation Army], another Colombian guerrilla [group] have both been working with Nicolas Maduro and Hugo Chavez for years; widely-known terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. The military branch of Hezbollah has operations in Venezuela. The South of the country, a place known as the Orinoco Belt, was given to this terrorist organization. And from there, they perform two criminal activities:
One is mining exploitation, the development of all kinds of minerals there, there are diamonds, there is iron, there is copper, bauxite. And on the other side is drug trafficking. All that money is used to keep these organizations operating. The criminal organizations nowadays work as companies. They have an operational area and a financial area. The operational area is the one in charge of doing things. The financial area is in charge of managing the money, the cash flow to make things work. Hezbollah is an organization that is sponsored and fueled by Iran and that’s nothing new. And there’s a lot of information about this.
Not long ago, two, or more well-known members of the Nicolas Maduro regime, when the Soleimani event happened, they went out to honor him in Venezuela. Why? Because in Venezuela, the Nicolas Maduro regime wants to keep a strong alliance with Iran because it helps them to set up terrorism in Venezuela, to operate money laundering for the rest of the world. As I said on other occasions, Venezuela is now the biggest money launderer in the world because the whole regime is dedicated to that. Any criminal organization, no matter their focus, organ trafficking, drug trafficking, diamond trafficking, anything, when they need to legitimize some capital, they have to talk with the people related to the Nicolas Maduro regime so they can open the doors for them and protect them within Venezuela territory so they can freely do their criminal activities.
Mr. Jekielek: What are you working on with the law enforcement and the intelligence community here in the U.S.?
Mr. Simonovis: Part of my job is to collect intelligence to help solve the cases, and it leads to the conclusion that this regime is indeed facilitating, helping, collaborating with relevant criminal organizations from all over the world. This is no secret. Secretary Pompeo knows. That’s how it was stated in different levels of the American government. There are two important jobs that are being done.
One of these is being done by Congressman Carlos Paparoni. Congressman Carlos Paparoni is managing all of the financial side and along with the offices in charge of auditing these international operations, they have provided evidence of this irregular movement of money that makes it clear that those are criminal and terrorist activities.
And on my side, I bring true intelligence about the presence of these groups in Venezuela. I mentioned before, for example, the case of someone who was the Vice President for the Economy, Tareck El Aissami, currently designated to [restructure] the oil industry. His father was of Syrian-Shia origin, and he has had links with Hezbollah all throughout his life. In his college years, there were investigations that found that he would hide drugs or stolen vehicles, activities that were to sponsor or help terrorist groups, in this case, Hezbollah.
Nowadays, he has a much stronger position, a bigger position, and he has become the key individual in Latin America, along with some others that support these groups, to facilitate that cash flow that these terrorist organizations need. In every single meeting I’ve attended, I always stressed this point to the representatives of the US government. I warned them that only 1,200 miles away from Florida, from the United States, the most deadly criminal organizations on the planet are gathered. There they are working and planning things that, if no one acts quickly, if no one acts with diligence, they could become a threat not only to Latin America, not only to America, but for the whole world.
Mr. Jekielek: I was reading the letter that you gave to President Trump and you said that saving Venezuela is saving the world. Now I think I understand what you were talking about. So, you’re not going back to Venezuela. What hope do you see? And what should the international community do?
Mr. Simonovis: The first thing is to say that President Juan Guaido is recognized by 60 countries and among these countries are the most important economic and political powers in the world. That makes it clear that there’s an important legitimacy in the recognition of President Guaido and of those who make up his administration. On the other hand, president Trump’s support has been absolutely convincing, determined, and clear, and the same with his administration staff. Sec. Pompeo, Elliot Abrams, all of them, not only care, but also take care of anything needed to restore democracy in Venezuela. I think we are in a very important phase. We are moving forward along the right path.
But as I said before, it’s also time to speed up, to speed up and to show the teeth to these individuals. If they are not stopped in time, then when we do stop them, it will be too late. When the world found out that Hitler or Mussolini were a threat to the world, there were many that got together and decided to do something. I believe that many need to get together and realize that Nicolas Maduro, Diosdado Cabello, Tareck El Aissami, and other important groups of individuals that make a living by the regime in Venezuela, are a threat.
They are a threat, I insist, not only to Latin America and to America, but also to the whole world. Europe is just starting to understand that if they don’t more actively engage in curbing the activities of these individuals, there will be consequences, and the price will probably be paid by innocent people.
Mr. Jekielek: Your personal story is terrible, but amazing at the same time because now you’re actually able to play this advocacy role. But there are many others and who are still experiencing what you experienced, right?
Mr. Simonovis: Yes. In Venezuela, my case is symbolic, maybe because of the time I was detained and because I was one of the first ones. There are four of my teammates still in prison. Many of them have served more than half of their sentences, and they should get probation. Four honest policemen. But besides that, there are more than 700 political prisoners, more than 250 military officers. In the last 2 years, the regime has killed 279 people for participating in demonstrations or just because they spoke their minds. That’s the reality of what’s going on in Venezuela.
Mr. Jekielek: What are the next steps for you now?
Mr. Simonovis: I arrived in this country and, first of all, I’m very grateful to the American government for all the support I was given. I’m also very grateful to the American people. We have a new life. This is a new opportunity for me. I’m very grateful, not only for me but for the millions of Venezuelans that are here trying to realize new dreams and have a decent life. My next step is to work tirelessly for the freedom of my country. I swore to uphold the law, and that’s what I will keep doing. Unless I see the Maduro regime disappear and democracy back in my country, I will keep working nonstop.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you.