Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on February 14 denouncing a move by the Trump administration to sanction Venezuelan Vice-President Tarek El Aissami over drug trafficking allegations.
On February 13, the Treasury Department froze all of El Aissami’s alleged assets in the US under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. This makes Venezuela’s vice-president the top-ranking official of any country to be sanctioned in this way.
In particular, the sanctions target 13 companies owned by Samark Jose Lopez Bello, who is accused of being a “key frontman” for the Venezuelan official.
According to a Treasury statement, El Aissami is alleged to have “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” — reportedly in connection with the Las Zetas Cartel in Mexico.
The Trump administration has yet, however, to release any evidence to bolster the accusations. The US Justice Department has not publically opened investigations into El Aissami or his alleged associate.
Venezuela’s foreign ministry, for its part, denounced the move as an “unprecedented act” in US-Venezuelan relations, accusing the Trump administration of violating international law.
“These actions, which attempt to validate the vulgar and inadmissible existence of an imperial law, granting special police powers to US government entities, lacks the most minimum legality under international law,” the ministry said.
The foreign ministry also noted that since the government of former President Hugo Chavez’s expulsion of the US Drug Enforcement Agency in 2005 over espionage accusations, Venezuela has increased its efficiency in drug seizures by 60%.
During El Aissami’s tenure as interior minister, he reportedly oversaw the arrest and prosecution of 102 drug kingpins, extraditing as many as 21 accused drug traffickers to the United States.
However, the Treasury measure was applauded by US Congress members on both sides of the aisle. Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez issued a joint statement on February 13 calling the step “long overdue”.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio said he hoped the sanctions were “only the beginning”.
The move marks an escalation of the Obama administration’s aggressive policies towards Venezuela, which saw Washington designate the South American country an “unusual and extraordinary threat” and sanction top officials.
The former Aragua governor is not the first senior Venezuelan official to face these accusations. In 2015, the Wall Street Journal ran a story accusing then Venezuelan National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello of heading a drug cartel, citing anonymous US Justice Department officials.
However, no charges have ever been brought against the socialist lawmaker.
[Abridged from Venezuela Analysis.]