On Monday, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami “for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking.” In a press release, OFAC also blacklisted Samark José López Bello – who the agency called El Aissami’s primary frontman – for providing financial support, services, assistance for or on behalf of the Venezuelan VP. The agency has also targeted 13 companies either run or owned by either of the two men. OFAC charges that El Aissami has eased the process of shipping narcotics from Venezuela, as well as through the country. It also claims that he owned – either completely or partially – narcotic shipments of more than 1,000 kilograms that made their way to United States and Mexico and linked him to Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel.
“OFAC’s action today is the culmination of a multi-year investigation under the Kingpin Act to target significant narcotics traffickers in Venezuela and demonstrates that power and influence do not protect those who engage in these illicit activities,” said Acting Director of OFAC John E. Smith in the press release. “This case highlights our continued focus on narcotics traffickers and those who help launder their illicit proceeds through the United States. Denying a safe haven for illicit assets in the United States and protecting the US financial system from abuse remain top priorities of the Treasury Department.”
The sanction freezes his US assets – including properties in Florida and five companies based in the United States – and prohibits anyone in the US from conducting business with him. Though officials didn’t confirm whether President Donald Trump took part in any of the decision making, it does mark the first strike against one of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s top officials. CNN reports that a senior administration official reiterated that the OFAC’s actions are “not a reaction to El Aissami’s role as executive vice president of Venezuela.” Regardless, it’s a deviation from Trump’s predecessor – President Barack Obama – who sometimes found himself at odds with the US Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Agency’s efforts. Obama opted for a milder, less direct course of action after indictments against Venezuelan officials led to tensions between the two countries.
However, as Reuters reports, 34 Republican and Democratic members of the Senate urged Trump to take action against Venezuelan officials in a February 8 letter. His recent appointment as executive vice president of Venezuela means El Aissami – whose alleged ties to a convicted drug trafficker and a Middle Eastern militant group have placed him on US law enforcement’s radar – is next in line for the presidency, either in the case that Maduro is recalled or in the upcoming presidential elections. The letter noted that this “is extremely troubling given his alleged ties to drug trafficking and terrorist organizations.”
“We are writing to request that your administration take immediate action to sanction regime officials responsible for profiting off of the dire humanitarian situation and stealing from other state resources and violating human rights in Venezuela,” the letter reads. “…We urge you to exercise these authorities and send a strong signal to the Maduro regime and other bad actors in the region that human rights abusers will be held accountable for the misery and suffering it has needlessly brought to the people of Venezuela.”
Both El Aissami and López have spoken out against OFEC’s charges. El Aissami took to Twitter to call it a vile attack, Aljazeera reports. “We shall not be distracted by these miserable provocations,” he wrote. “Truth is invincible and we will see this vile aggression dispelled.”