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US labels Venezuelan vice-president a drug kingpin

The United States on Monday labelled Venezuela’s vice-president an international drug trafficker, freezing millions of dollars worth of his US-based wealth as it accused him of facilitating multiple one-ton narcotics shipments to Mexico and the US from a Venezuelan air base and the country’s ports.

The US Department of the Treasury formally designated Tareck El Aissami a drug kingpin for “playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking” just one month after President Nicolás Maduro tapped the former governor of Aragua state as his likely successor. Mr El Aissami has long denied any criminal ties.

The US also designated Mr El Aissami’s “primary frontman”, Samark Lopez Bello, an international businessman, 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 linked to Mr Lopez Bello or others in the US, the UK, Venezuela, Panama and the British Virgin Islands.

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

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

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

Before Venezuelan justice, they [socialist officials] are untouchable. But international justice does proceed, so they should not cry foul now

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.

Henrique Capriles, the Venezuelan opposition leader, said of the sanctions: “Before Venezuelan justice, they [socialist officials] are untouchable. But international justice does proceed, so they should not cry foul now.”

Acknowledging the recent uncertainty over US-Venezuela relations in the Trump era, he added that Mr Maduro “has been very silent” regarding the new administration in Washington, Caracas’ ideological foe.

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

Via FT