The Trump administration on Monday slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s new vice president, Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of being an international drug kingpin.
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said that El Aissami, who was named vice president just last month, helped facilitate drug shipments out of the country through his control of air bases and shipping ports. Treasury officials said that in his previous positions as governor of Aragua state and the country’s interior minister, he was involved in large drug shipments bound from Venezuela to Mexico and the United States.
Also sanctioned was his alleged frontman, Samark José López Bello, and 13 companies he owns or controls in the British Virgin Islands, Panama, the United Kingdom, the United States and Venezuela.
The sanctions against the second-highest-ranking government official in Venezuela, who is in line to succeed Socialist President Nicolás Maduro, almost certainly will lead to an erosion in the already strained relations between the two governments.
El Aissami, the son of immigrants from Syria and Lebanon, has had a meteoric political rise. Just over a decade ago, he was a student activist in rural Venezuela. Since then, the 42-year-old has climbed the government ranks to become interior minister and governor.
On Jan. 4, Maduro named El Aissami vice president. El Aissami has a reputation as a hard-line loyalist to the late president Hugo Chávez. He also leads a special task force to root out potential coup plots against Maduro, so he’s trusted by Maduro above few others.
The Treasury Department placed him on a list reserved for “specially designated narcotics traffickers,” part of what’s known as the Kingpin Act. Under the sanctions, assets owned by El Aissami and López Bello are blocked, and it is illegal for U.S. citizens to have any dealings with them.
Two years ago, the Obama administration ordered sanctions against seven government officials it said had repressed political opponents or were corrupt. But in Venezuela, being sanctioned by the United States has become a badge of honor and even grounds for promotion in the government. Among the officials sanctioned for alleged drug trafficking was a top anti-narcotics official, Néstor Reverol.
John E. Smith, acting director of OFAC, said Monday’s sanctions resulted from an investigation into narcotics traffickers spanning several years.
“This case highlights our continued focus on narcotics traffickers and those who help launder their illicit proceeds through the United States,” Smith said. “Denying a safe haven for illicit assets in the United States and protecting the U.S. financial system from abuse remain top priorities of the Treasury Department.”
This month, 34 lawmakers sent a bipartisan letter urging President Trump to place sanctions on Venezuelan government and military officials — including El Aissami — allegedly involved in corruption and human rights abuses.
Venezuela has been under a state of economic emergency for more than a year. Amid hyperinflation and a deep recession caused largely by low oil prices and amplified by mismanagement of the economy, Maduro has pinned the blame on the United States, saying it is plotting to overthrow him.
Hungry Venezuelans must line up for hours to buy food with devalued currency, and Maduro has placed the military in charge of food distribution. Many people have fled to neighboring countries to get medical care.
Nick Miroff contributed to this report.