U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Venezuela V.P. for Drug Trafficking

Tareck El Aissami
Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami attends the swearing-in ceremony of the new board of directors of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello REUTERS/Marco Bello

The U.S. blacklisted Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami and an associate for drug trafficking, the first crackdown by the Trump administration against top officials in President Nicolas Maduro's government for money laundering and the drug trade.

The U.S. Department of Treasury said it designated El Aissami for sanctions under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. His associate, Samark Lopez Bello, was targeted for providing material assistance, financial support or goods or services in support of El Aissami's activities, Treasury said in a statement.

In addition, the Treasury department's Office of Foreign Assets Control also targeted 13 companies owned or controlled by Lopez Bello or other parties that comprise an international network spanning the British Virgin Islands, Panama, Britain, the United States and Venezuela.

"El Aissami facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, to include control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan airbase, as well as control of drug routes through the ports of Venezuela," a senior U.S. administration official told a conference call with reporters.

"El Aissami oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of more than 1000 kg from Venezuela on multiple occasions including shipments from Mexico and to the United States," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials called Lopez Bello a "key frontman" used by El Aissami to launder drug proceeds and purchase assets.

The Venezuelan government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Maduro frequently accuses U.S. officials of trying to smear his administration.

U.S. officials denied that Monday's designations had anything to do with El Aissami's prominent political role.

"The designation is a result of a years long investigation of narcotics trafficking by OFAC. The designation is not aimed at Venezuela or any specific sectors of the Venezuelan economy," the senior official said.

Since 2015 the Obama administration had sought to use behind-the-scenes diplomacy to ease acrimony with Caracas and the fallout of a string of U.S. drug indictments against Venezuelan officials, such as Nestor Reverol, the head of Venezuela's National Guard.

The so-called "soft landing" approach by Obama's White House had at times clashed with long-time efforts by the U.S. justice department and drug agency, working with informants in Venezuela, to nab influential government officials for money laundering and drug trafficking.

Senior administration officials declined to say whether President Donald Trump had personally signed off on the sanctions or whether he was involved in the decision.

Typical drug trafficking designations would not rise to the level of the president for approval, but the blacklisting of a senior government official of another country is far more sensitive than typical designations.

Another U.S. administration official estimated the value of property blocked in Miami was worth "tens of millions of dollars." Another official suggested the value of the property seized was not commensurate with the salary of a public official.

El Aissami, whom local media report is of Syrian and Lebanese extraction, grew up poor in the Andean state of Merida and went on to study law and criminology. He has been both a lawmaker and a state governor for the ruling Socialist Party before being tapped vice-president last month.

Thirty-four Republican and Democratic members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives sent a letter to Trump on Feb. 8 asking his administration to take action to sanction Venezuelan officials.

Their letter referred to El Aissami, noting that his recent appointment as executive vice president put him in line to become Venezuela's next leader. That, they said, "is extremely troubling given his alleged ties to drug trafficking and terrorist organizations."