Venezuela’s former oil minister, Tareck El Aissami, was arrested on Tuesday for allegedly participating in an international scheme that made hundreds of millions of dollars from state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).

Attorney General Tarek William Saab said in a press conference that El Aissami has been charged with treason, money laundering and criminal association. El Aissami was once a close associate of the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, and served as vice-president as well as minister of industry before becoming oil minister.

Former finance minister Simon Zerpa and businessman Samark López have also been detained. El Aissami and López had been associated with criminal activity previously, with the US Treasury Department accusing them of collaborating in international drug trafficking and money laundering in 2017, with the two men added to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Most Wanted List in 2019.

In March 2023, El Aissami unexpectedly resigned during a widespread investigation ordered by Maduro into an international oil sales corruption scheme, primarily focused on wrongdoing within PDVSA. Reuters reported that it has been more than a year since El Aissami made public statements regarding his resignation. 

On 20 March 2023, El Aissami announced his resignation on Twitter (now X) to provide “complete support for the investigations”. The investigation mainly concerns PDVSA, which was under the supervision of the oil ministry.

Saab said that El Aissami and his collaborators were unlawfully handling oil shipments and evading the country’s central bank for financial gain, the Guardian reported. He added that this fraudulent activity was part of a larger scheme to disrupt Venezuela’s economy.

The attorney general explained that the case involved a group of PDVSA executives who participated in an “economic conspiracy”, abusing their positions to carry out illegal activities including some involving cryptocurrencies.

According to Saab, the investigation resulted in charges filed against more than 54 Venezuelans, with 17 more arrest warrants pending. Additionally, Reuters said that five individuals have agreed to become protected witnesses. 

The government has not disclosed the exact amount of money lost by the state due to the illegal transactions. However, internal documents of PDVSA, obtained by the Associated Press last year, indicate that as of August 2022, the state oil company was owed $10.1bn (365.2bn bolivars) by 90 mostly unknown trading companies that emerged as significant buyers of Venezuelan crude after the US imposed economic sanctions to pressure Maduro into enforcing fairer elections.

PDVSA used an accounting manoeuvre to reassign responsibility for collecting unpaid invoices directly to the Maduro administration instead of cash royalties. Consequently, an additional $13.3bn, related to 241 shipments, was owed directly to the government, as reported by ABC News.