The United States has designated Venezuela's vice president as an international narcotics trafficker under its Kingpin Act.
Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah controlled planes and drug routes and protected and facilitated other narcotics traffickers operating in the South American country, a senior U.S. official told reporters Monday evening.
El Aissami, who was named Venezuela's vice president early last month, was the country's minister of interior and justice between 2008 and 2012, and then governor of Aragua state for the past five years.
In those previous positions, U.S. authorities allege he oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of more than 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including those with the final destinations of Mexico and the United States. He also is alleged to have been involved in money laundering.
U.S. officials stressed that the case against the Venezuelan official — who is the highest-ranking official of that country to be targeted for sanctions — was “years in the making,” and that the action was not taken because he recently became vice president.
The action is “not a political one, not an economic one, not a diplomatic one,” said another high-ranking U.S. official who briefed reporters.
The act is certain to cause a further worsening of relations between Caracas and Washington. Venezuela is facing an economic crisis with triple-digit inflation, and basic necessities are difficult to find.
The government of President Nicolas Maduro, who succeeded the late Hugo Chavez, blames its financial woes on both the domestic political opposition and the United States.
Asked by VOA whether President Donald Trump signed off on the sanctions, U.S. officials declined to explicitly confirm that. One official explained that this was a “very deliberate process” and “every agency that you can imagine was involved.”
Questions have been raised as to whether the previous administration of President Barack Obama declined to go ahead with the action because it might be seen as a provocation by the government in Caracas.
An official replied that “everything came together at this time to move forward.”
El Aissami's alleged primary frontman, Venezuelan national Samark Jose Lopez Bello, also was designated for providing help to El Aissami, according to a U.S. Treasury Department statement.
No comment on others named
Lopez Bello oversees an international network of petroleum, distribution, engineering, telecommunications and other companies.
Thirteen companies owned or controlled by Lopez Bello and others, in the British Virgin Islands, Panama, the United Kingdom, the United States and Venezuela, have been blocked, according to the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
Investigators are not commenting on whether other high-ranking Venezuelan government officials are involved, and deferred to the Justice Department questions about whether the sanctioned vice president faces arrest or imminent indictment.
El Aissami is a significant narcotics trafficker in Venezuela, and Monday's action “demonstrates that power and influence do not protect those who engage in these illicit activities,” said OFAC Acting Director John Smith.
U.S. companies involved
U.S. officials also accuse the Venezuelan vice president of associations with cocaine kingpin Walid Makled Garcia in that country, and that he helped coordinate drug shipments to Los Zetas, a violent Mexican drug cartel.
It is also alleged that El Aissami provided protection to Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera.
Five U.S. companies, as well as a Gulfstream 200 jet registered in the United States, linked to Lopez Bello also are blocked as part of the government action.
VOA sent a message on the Twitter social media platform to El Aissami, where he has an active account, asking for his reaction to the designation. There was no immediate response. He has previously denied all accusations of drug trafficking and money laundering.
Lawmakers send letter to Trump
A bipartisan group of 34 U.S. lawmakers sent a letter last week to Trump urging the president to increase pressure on the socialist government in Caracas by sanctioning top officials responsible for corruption and human rights abuses. The letter named El Aissami for his purported ties to the Lebanon-based Shia terrorist group Hezbollah.
El Aissami's father was a Druze immigrant from Syria who allegedly was a military associate of then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
According to a CNN report last week, El Aissami has been linked to the issuance of 173 Venezuelan passports and identification cards to individuals in the Middle East, including those linked to Hezbollah.