The United States Department of Treasury has designated Venezuela’s vice president, Tareck el Aissami, a “Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker” for engaging in drug deals throughout the Western Hemisphere. Multiple reports in the past decade have tied El Aissami to groups as varied as the Mexican Zetas cartel and Hezbollah.
The designation prevents all U.S. citizens from “engaging in transactions or otherwise dealing with” El Aissami and his top staffer Samark López. It also freezes assets held and business dealings currently underway in the United States, particularly ongoing real estate deals in Florida. The Treasury Department accuses El Aissami and his associate of “playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking.”
Among the nefarious drug associates El Aissami reportedly keeps, according to the announcement of the designation, are “Los Zetas, a violent Mexican drug cartel… Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera and Venezuelan drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco.”
“Denying a safe haven for illicit assets in the United States and protecting the U.S. financial system from abuse remain top priorities of the Treasury Department,” John E. Smith, the acting director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement.
The Miami Herald notes that the sanctions freezes $3 billion in assets currently in the United States and previously under El Aissami’s control. The Herald also found a number of experts who not only corroborated the Treasury’s claims but added that the statement appeared to omit extensive evidence linking El Aissami to the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah. “He is one of Venezuela’s main contacts with Hezbollah. He has been providing logistical and financial support to those organizations,” The Center for Security Policy’s Luis Fleischman said.
El Aissami became vice president in January, a promotion from his role as governor of Aragua state. Long before then, multiple reports accused him of illicit activity, from cocaine trafficking to granting Hezbollah terrorists easier access to foreign countries. In 2015, Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under George W. Bush, told the Miami Herald that ongoing investigations found evidence to believe both El Aissami and Maduro were working with the Cartel de Los Soles, one of the largest cocaine trafficking outfits in South America. Experts believe National Assembly minority leader Diosdado Cabello, once second-in-command in Venezuela himself, is the leader of the Cartel de Los Soles group.
Before experts began accusing El Aissami of having ties to the Cartel de Los Soles, researchers had found evidence to believe he had worked with Hezbollah. The Center for a Secure Free Society, a D.C. think tank that focuses on terrorist groups, published a report in 2014 accusing El Aissami of securing Venezuelan passports for non-citizen members of Hezbollah, which would allow them to travel more freely than passports from Middle Eastern nations. The Brazilian magazine Veja later published a similar report, going as far as to accuse El Aissami of attempting to help the family of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad move to Venezuela.
Years of investigations have repeatedly confirmed the existence of such a passport scheme, though not only for Hezbollah members but for anyone in the Middle East with $10,000-$15,000 to spare. So claims former Venezuelan embassy official Misael López, who published a video after fleeing his post in Baghdad asserting that he did not want to be complicit in issuing illegal documents to potentially terror-tied foreigners. López’s testimony has become the focal point for a CNN en Español investigation published this week, which resulted in calls from the socialist government to ban CNN from the country.
Additionally, the Gatestone Institute has accused El Aissami of “recruiting young Venezuelan Arabs to be trained in Hezbollah camps in Southern Lebanon.”
El Aissami responded to his newfound “Drug Kingpin” status in the United States with a Twitter tirade accusing the Treasury of “imperialist aggression”: “Before this disgrace and imperialist aggression: 1 INTACT MORALS 2 greater FIRMNESS and anti-imperialist CONVICTION 3 greater CHAVISTA consciousness!!”
“Personally, I receive this miserable and disgraceful aggression as recognition of my revolutionary, anti-imperialist condition,” El Aissami added on Twitter.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has not given any indication he will respond to the sanctions by demanding El Aissami explain himself or resign. On the contrary, since assuming the second-highest office in the country, El Aissami has received numerous extended powers not previously conferred to the Vice President.
“Tarek El Aissami will now be allowed to help approve government budgets, taxes, appointments of ministers, and nationalization orders of private property,” the leftist outlet Telesur reported in late January. El Aissami reportedly received fifteen new powers “to improve government efficiency” in one day.
As Republican presidential nominee, President Donald Trump vowed to use his power in the White House to weaken the socialist dictatorship in Caracas. “Venezuela is a beautiful, vibrant, and resource-rich country, filled with amazing and hardworking people. But Venezuela has been run into the ground by socialists,” Trump said in September 2016. “The next President of the United States must stand in solidarity with all people oppressed in our hemisphere, and I will stand with the oppressed people of Venezuela yearning to be free.”