The decision by the United States to sanction Tareck El Aissami, the recently-appointed vice president of Venezuela, for his alleged involvement in drug trafficking makes him the highest-ranking official in President Nicolás Maduro's government to be accused of such crimes.
The sanctions, announced by the Treasury Department on February 13 under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, allege that El Aissami "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."
After an investigation into El Aissami that lasted years, the Treasury Department said that during his previous positions as the governor of Aragua (2012- 2017) and Interior Minister of Justice (2008-2012), El Aissami "oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including those with the final destinations of Mexico and the United States."
El Aissami allegedly received payment for the facilitation of drug shipments belonging to Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled Garcia. He is also linked to coordinating drug shipments for Los Zetas and providing protection to Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera and Venezuelan drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco, according to the US document.
The sanctions included another Venezuelan, a businessman named Samark José López Bello, for "providing material assistance, financial support, or goods or services in support of the international narcotics trafficking activities of, and acting for or on behalf of, El Aissami," as well as five US companies owned or controlled by López Bello.
López Bello responded to the sanctions via his website, saying that there is "no factual evidence or legal justification" for including him on the sanctions list.
President Maduro has yet to respond to the latest sanctions from the US, but did retweet comments by El Aissami via his own Twitter account, in which he called the allegations "miserable provocations" and resolved to display "greater strength" in the face of what he defined as imperialist aggressions.
Que no nos distraigan estas miserables provocaciones, nuestra principal tarea es acompañar a @NicolasMaduro en la recuperación económica.— Tareck El Aissami (@TareckPSUV) February 14, 2017
Venezuela is in the midst of a severe economic, social and political crisis, with chronic insecurity, violence and criminality, shortages of food, medicines and basic goods pummeling citizens. Hyperinflation has rendered some bolivar notes worth less than the paper they're printed on, reducing the purchasing power of people's salaries and creating more incentives for criminal and black-market activity.
El Aissami joins a long list of high-ranking government officials to be sanctioned or indicted in the US for drug trafficking or related crimes. Nestor Reverol, Venezuela's current Interior Minister, was indicted on drug trafficking charges last year. The day after the indictment was unsealed, he was appointed to his current role by Maduro.
InSight Crime Analysis
El Aissami's appointment in mid-January was widely interpreted as a sign that Maduro's government was hunkering down to maintain power and weather the economic and social storm that is threatening to consume the country. Maduro gave him exceptional economic and security powers for a VP, and also put him in charge of a new anti-coup commando manned by some of his strongest party loyalists.
Should Maduro step down as president -- something most Venezuelans now want -- El Aissami would stand to take his place. His new position could mean different things -- it could be a sign that a succession process has begun, or an attempt to soften the vitriol against Maduro by positioning a feared, criminal, hardliner as the next alternative.
But following his arrest, Makled reportedly listed El Aissami and his brother Fariz as some of many government officials to whom he paid bribes to allow him to move drugs into and out of Venezuela. Rafael Isea, the former governor of Aragua, who himself is under investigation in Venezuela and is now part of a witness protection program under the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), has also reportedly given testimony on El Aissami's drug trafficking activities.
El Aissami has also been connected to a drug trafficking operation by the nephews of the First Lady, Celia Flores, dubbed the "Narco Sobrinos" (narco nephews) case. A third suspect charged in the case -- Honduran national Roberto de Jesús Soto García -- had allegedly been working with the Cartel of the Suns (a drug trafficking network operating inside Venezuela's armed forces) for many years, and in particular with an operation headed by El Aissami and his entourage.
Venezuela's vice president has also been implicated in a "criminal-terrorist pipeline" that allegedly brought militant Islamists into Venezuela and surrounding countries, and sent illicit funds and drugs from Latin America to the Middle East, part of which involved providing terrorists in Damascus with Venezuelan passports. Joseph Humire, co-author of the book "Iran's Strategic Penetration in Latin America" and founder of the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) think tank, testified on that issue before the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs last year.
El Aissami's new appointment signals a habit of President Maduro's of appointing individuals indicted or sanctioned by the United States for drug trafficking, money laundering and other related crimes to high government positions. Maduro is surrounding himself with cronies who have a vested interest in ensuring the political opposition does not take power, and El Aissami is just one of many individuals with such interests.
As well as Reverol, some of the other officials currently accused of drug trafficking crimes by the United States include: Henry de Jesús Rangel Silva, the former Defense Minister and currently governor of Trujillo state; Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, currently a deputy in the National Assembly Monagas state and the former military counter-intelligence chief; and Ramón Emilio Rodríguez Chacin, current governor of the state of Guárico and a former Interior Minister.
The growing list of drug trafficking accusations against high-ranking Venezuelan government officials could suggest an increasingly "mafia" state in control of a country that is a major transit nation for cocaine. Cocaine produced in neighboring Colombia is then moved across the border to Venezuela for export to lucrative markets in the United States and Europe.
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The latest sanctions do not bode well for the future of US-Venezuela relations, which have been strained for years. Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chávez, formally expelled the DEA in 2005 after accusing it of spying, and both he and Maduro have made an art of framing the United States as the enemy empire. The administration of previous US President Barack Obama levied sanctions against top officials in the Venezuelan government in 2011 for drug trafficking offences, and Maduro famously said that Donald Trump couldn't be a worse president than Obama.
But the latest sanctions from the Trump administration against such a high-ranking member of the Venezuelan government could prove Maduro wrong, and be a sign that the new administration in the United States plans to take an even tougher approach to his government and its criminal activities.
Earlier this month, a letter (pdf) from US senators urged President Trump to take immediate action to sanction "regime officials responsible for profiting off of the dire humanitarian situation and stealing from other state resources and violating human rights in Venezuela. " An investigation by the Associated Press showed that the military was profiting illegally from importing and selling food to starving, impoverished Venezuelans devastated by shortages.
That said, a boldly worded executive order from President Trump on February 9 targeting organized crime and drug cartels contained little substance on how it proposes to get rid of Latin America's "bad hombres." And Venezuela presents a particularly difficult challenge because it's so tough separating the bad hombres from the authorities.