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The United States on Monday labelled Venezuela’s vice president an international drug trafficker, saying he had facilitated multiple one-ton narcotics shipments to Mexico and the United States from a Venezuelan air base and the country’s ports, and froze millions of dollars worth of his US-based wealth.

The US Department of the Treasury formally designated Tarek El Aissami a drug kingpin for “playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking” just one month after President Nicolas Maduro tapped the former governor of Aragua state as his likely successor.

The US also designated El Aissami’s “primary frontman”, Samark Lopez Bello, for acting on his behalf and supporting the drug trade. The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control moved to block a 13-company network owned or controlled by Lopez Bello – an international businessman – or others in the US, United Kingdom, Venezuela, Panama and the British Virgin Islands.

In the Miami area alone, the US froze real estate linked to El Aissami that “can be measured in the tens of millions of dollars,” according to a senior administration official. Frozen assets linked to Lopez Bello or others in the countries listed included waterfront property in Miami and a Gulfstream aircraft.

John Smith, OFAC’s acting director, said the action was “the culmination of a multi-year investigation.”

Along with arranging his own shipments to foreign customers, El Aissami was paid to safeguard drug shipments by two other Venezuelan drug lords, Walid Makled Garcia and Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco; the Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera; and Los Zetas, a notorious Mexican cartel, according to US officials. All previously have been designated by the US under the drug kingpin act.

US officials, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the sanctions were directed solely against the individuals and companies named and were not intended to send a message to the leftist government in Venezuela. The Maduro government has long been at odds with Washington, but the Venezuelan leader’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin had raised questions in Caracas about how tough a line the new US president would adopt.

The US officials refused to answer repeated questions as to whether President Donald Trump had personally approved the action.

Venezuela ships about 700,000 barrels of oil each day to the US, making its northern neighbour the country’s largest cash client.

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