Venezuelan Vice President, Tareck El Aissami
By Caribbean News Now contributor
WASHINGTON, USA -- The US government added newly appointed Venezuelan vice president Tareck El Aissami to its list of sanctioned individuals on Monday, saying he “played a significant role in international narcotics trafficking” and freezing his access to a fortune estimated at $3 billion after a lengthy investigation of his alleged links to drug traffickers and Muslim extremists.
The measure by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the agency in charge of enforcing US sanctions. also covers Samark Lopez -- accused of being the principal front man for El Aissami -- and nearly a dozen companies linked to Lopez.
“OFAC’s action today is the culmination of a multi-year investigation … to target significant narcotics traffickers in Venezuela and demonstrates that power and influence do not protect those who engage in these illicit activities,” OFAC acting director John E. Smith said.
“This case highlights our continued focus on narcotics traffickers and those who help launder their illicit proceeds through the United States,” Smith added in a statement. “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.”
OFAC also identified and blocked properties held by 13 companies owned or controlled by Lopez or others “that comprise an international network spanning the British Virgin Islands, Panama, the United Kingdom, the United States and Venezuela,” the news release said. Lopez oversees an international network of petroleum, distribution and other companies, according to the release.
El Aissami has been under US investigation for many months because he is considered to be one of the top leaders of drug-smuggling operations in Venezuela.
He was appointed vice president in January by President Nicolás Maduro.
A confidential intelligence document obtained by CNN also linked El Aissami to 173 Venezuelan passports and IDs that were issued to individuals from the Middle East, including people connected to the terrorist group Hezbollah.
“He is one of Venezuela’s main contacts with Hezbollah,” said Luis Fleischman, senior adviser at the Center for Security Policy (CSP) in Washington, DC. “He has been providing logistical and financial support to those organizations.”
A 2014 report by the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) highlighted allegations that El Aissami played a key role in efforts by Muslim fundamentalists to create a network in Latin America that would finance terrorism in other parts of the world.
“Over the years, Tarek El Aissami has developed a sophisticated and multilevel financial network that functions as a criminal terrorist pipeline for bringing Islamic radicals to Venezuela and its neighbors, and to send illegal funds from Latin America to the Middle East,” the report said.
The vice president “has used his political prominence to establish intelligence and financial channels with Islamic nations, especially Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Iran,” the report added.