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Venezuela's Vice President blacklisted with narcotics ‘Kingpin" Act sanctions by U.S.

Vice President oversaw planes, ships exporting cocaine: U.S.

Petroleumworld.com 02 14 2017

Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami has become his country's most notorious politician, shadowed by U.S. allegations of involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering.

After years spent building a dossier, the U.S. made its move on Monday, putting El Aissami and another Venezuelan on a list of foreign nationals subject to economic sanctions because of suspected ties to the narcotics trade. The Treasury Department alleged that El Aissami -- who was elevated to his post last month -- protected drug lords and oversaw a network of planes and ships exporting thousands of kilograms of cocaine. 

“He facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, to include control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan air base, as well as control of drug routes through the ports in Venezuela,” according to a Treasury Department statement , which cited his connection to the Zetas cartel in Mexico. “He also facilitated, coordinated, and protected other narcotics traffickers operating in Venezuela.”

El Aissami has consistently denied all allegations against him, and his office declined to comment on the U.S. decision. He's the highest-ranking Venezuelan hit by U.S. sanctions under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act for alleged ties to drug trafficking and one of the most-senior government leaders of any country listed by the Treasury Department under its various sanctions authorities, according to a U.S. official, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity. Those listed have their assets blocked and U.S. citizens, institutions and companies are prohibited worldwide from dealing with them.

The sanctions mark an extraordinary step against the second-in-command of a foreign government and are sure to lead to a further erosion in U.S. relations with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who appointed El Aissami as vice president on Jan. 4 amid a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis. Maduro was silent as of Monday night on the U.S. measures.

“It is not a political message, an economic message, it is not a message between governments,” said William R. Brownfield, assistant U.S. secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs and a former ambassador to Venezuela between 2004-2007. “It is not even a message of diplomacy. It is a message that says that we will in fact use any tool, any legal and lawful tool in our inventory, to go after those that are engaged in international drug trafficking.”

‘Key Frontman'

The U.S. also listed Samark Lopez Bello , a Venezuelan citizen with no public government affiliation, who's considered to be El Aissami's business associate. According to the official, El Aissami facilitated shipments of more than 1,000 kilograms of drugs on multiple occasions from Venezuela to U.S. and Mexico, and used Lopez Bello to acquire properties on his behalf.

“Lopez Bello is a key frontman for El Aissami and in that capacity launders drug proceeds,” according to the Treasury statement.

In a statement posted on his website, Lopez Bello assailed the U.S. move as “unjustified” and politically motivated. “The listing provides no factual evidence or legal justification as to why Samark Lopez should be placed on the list, other than that Samark Lopez and Tareck El Aissami are personal acquaintances,” he said in the statement, promising to “seek all legal, administrative, and judicial remedies possible.”

Mexican Cartel

Besides linking El Aissami to drug shipments destined for Los Zetas, a violent Mexican drug cartel, the Treasury statement said he provided protection or facilitated trafficking by prominent Venezuelan and Colombian drug lords.

While U.S. officials were gathering evidence under President Barack Obama and prior to El Aissami's ascent to the vice presidency, action stalled until now. The designations didn't require President Donald Trump's personal approval, and Trump has not been involved in the discussions, according to another U.S. official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Sanctions were also imposed on eight companies based in Venezuela, the British Virgin Islands, Panama and the U.K. The U.S. also froze assets of five U.S.-based companies with real estate holdings in Miami, according to the statement. Together, the actions are designed to freeze tens of millions of dollars in assets, said the U.S. official.

Among the properties blocked in the U.S. were three in the Brickell neighborhood of Miami in a building that hosts the Four Seasons Hotel. Two others, blocks away, are in a building known for housing offices for the city's main private business group and bankers association. An official briefing reporters Monday said those properties alone would be far beyond the financial reach of the average Venezuelan public official.

Kingpin Act

The U.S. measures were imposed under the Kingpin Act, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1999. It has targeted approximately 2,000 individuals since 1999, including eight Venezuelan officials, U.S. officials said.

Brownfield, who has served in his position since 2011, said in his experience the evidence behind the designations “is as tight an evidence package as I have seen.”

El Aissami, the son of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, has long been one of Venezuela's most controversial and feared politicians. In just over a decade, the 42-year-old climbed government ranks from a student leader in rural Venezuela, to interior minister, to his previous post as the governor of Aragua state.

Decree Powers

In the weeks since becoming vice president, El Aissami received wide-reaching decree powers from Maduro, who tapped him to lead a newly formed “commando unit” against alleged coup plotters and officials suspected of treason. Among the slew of arrests since the unit's formation is a substitute legislator from a hard-line opposition party and a retired general who, years before, broke ranks with the government.

The sanctions are coming less than a week after a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers called for further measures against Maduro's government. In a Feb. 8 letter to Trump, 34 members of Congress including Senators Ted Cruz and Robert Menendez cited El Aissami's appointment and urged the U.S. to “take immediate action to sanction regime officials.”

The measures promise to worsen a relationship long strained by mistrust and Venezuelan accusations that Washington supported a failed attempt to overthrow then-President Hugo Chavez in 2002. In the years following the attempted coup, Chavez aggressively criticized U.S. ties to Latin America, helped lead rallies around South America against “Yankee aggression” and nationalized investments by companies including U.S.-based Exxon Mobil Corp.

Oil Prices

“It is obviously a decision for the government of Venezuela and its constitutional authorities to determine what steps they will take and how they will react to this designation,” Brownfield said.

Even under Obama, who generally avoided engaging publicly with Chavez or Maduro, ties between the two nations remained strained. In March 2015 , Obama expanded U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan officials and declared worsening relations with the South American nation to be a national emergency as Maduro attempted to stifle dissent.

With the drop in oil prices that began in 2014, Venezuela's economy collapsed. A nation that just a few decades ago was the wealthiest in Latin America has become synonymous with dysfunction, with consumers forced to wait in hours-long lines for basic goods, including medicine. An informal inflation index compiled by Bloomberg shows that prices are rising at almost 1,200 percent annually, the fastest rate in the world.

Political Network

It is in this context that El Aissami, nicknamed "the narco of Aragua” by Venezuela's beleaguered opposition, has thrived. Critics allege he has used his vast political network to help turn the country into an international hub for drugs. The State Department, in its 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, described the Caribbean nation as a “major cocaine transit country,” citing “endemic corruption throughout commerce and government, including law enforcement.”

The vice president's ties to the nation's civil registry services before he became interior minister have also fueled accusations by U.S. investigators that he's aided Middle Eastern extremists by allowing them to create Venezuelan identities and a web of front companies to move money outside the country's borders.

In his previous denials of alleged drug ties, El Aissami has said the accusations are media slander and has offered to hand himself over to authorities if anyone could produce proof.

El Aissami has been investigated by the Homeland Security Department and Drug Enforcement Administration since at least 2011 for alleged money laundering to the Middle East, specifically Lebanon, according to two people familiar with the probe.

As the number two official in Venezuela, El Aissami would be in line to replace Maduro should he cede to opposition pressure to step aside because of the country's economic implosion and social unrest. Maduro has so far quashed the opposition's attempt to hold a referendum on his removal before his term ends in about two years.

Story by Jose Enrique Arrioja, Margaret Talev and Alan Katz from Bloomberg News.

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