On September 26, 2023, Michols Orsini Quintero, a U.S. pilot, pleaded guilty to violating U.S. sanctions. He was charged with transporting former Venezuelan oil minister Tareck El Aissami, who Washington accused of involvement in drug trafficking. Orsini admitted to one count of conspiracy to violate sanctions during a hearing before U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in Manhattan.

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According to Orsini, agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security visited his home in 2018 after he had flown El Aissami between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. He revealed that he had discussed flying the oil minister with his boss at a Florida-based firm that chartered flights for El Aissami between 2017 and 2019. The agents recorded the call and allowed him to continue flying El Aissami as long as he informed them, but he did not report several subsequent flights out of fear.

This case is related to U.S. sanctions imposed on El Aissami in 2017, accusing him of facilitating drug shipments out of Venezuela, including to the United States and Mexico, through his control of a Venezuelan airbase and shipping ports. The United States charged El Aissami, Orsini, and others with criminal sanctions violations in 2019 as part of efforts to increase pressure on Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, whom they accuse of corruption, human rights violations, and election rigging. El Aissami denied wrongdoing and resigned as oil minister in March as Maduro’s government conducted a separate corruption probe at the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela.