US blacklists Venezuela's vice president as drug trafficker

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States blacklisted Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami for drug trafficking, the first crackdown by the Trump administration against a top official in President Nicolas Maduro's government for money laundering and the drug trade.

The U.S. Department of Treasury said it designated El Aissami for sanctions under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. His associate, Samark Jose Lopez Bello, was targeted for providing material assistance and financial support for El Aissami's activities, Treasury said in a statement.

Treasury also targeted 13 companies owned or controlled by Lopez Bello or other parties that comprise an international network spanning the British Virgin Islands, Panama, Britain, the United States and Venezuela.

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Venezuela President Maduro and Vice President Tareck El Aissami
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Venezuela President Maduro and Vice President Tareck El Aissami
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (R) and Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami, shake hands during a meeting to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the arrival to the presidency of the late President Hugo Chavez at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Venezuelan Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami (L) and Russian PM Vladimir Putin after a wreath laying ceremony at Simon Bolivar's pantheon in Caracas, April 2, 2010. Putin arrived here Friday to sign military and energy deals with the presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia that broaden Russia's footprint in Latin America. AFP PHOTO/Miguel Gutierrez (Photo credit should read MIGUEL GUTIERREZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's president, holds a cross given to him by Pope Francis while addressing pro-government supporters in Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. Venezuela's armed forces vowed allegiance to President Nicolas Maduro as the opposition-controlled National Assembly on Tuesday debated the constitutionality of his rule. Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (C) receives a welcome with military honors upon his arrival to a ceremony to mark the opening of the judicial year at the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) in Caracas, Venezuela February 7, 2017. In the front row, L to R: Venezuela's Supreme Court First Vice President Maikel Moreno, President Maduro's wife and deputy of Venezuela's United Socialist Party (PSUV) Cilia Flores, President Maduro, Venezuela's Supreme Court President Gladys Gutierrez, Venezuela's Supreme Court Second Vice President Indira Alfonzo and Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (R) speaks next to Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami, during a meeting to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the arrival to the presidency of the late President Hugo Chavez at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami attends the swearing-in ceremony of the new board of directors of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Colombia's Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera (L) and Venezuela's Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami attend a bilateral meeting in Canaima discussing anti-drugs issues January 26, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS)
Venezuela's Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami holds a weapon confiscated by the police during a news conference in Caracas June 23, 2009. El Aissami said about 2,200 firearms were seized this year in various operations in the Caracas metropolitan area as part of police efforts to combat crime. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins (VENEZUELA CONFLICT CRIME LAW POLITICS)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (2nd R) is welcomed by Venezuela's Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami (R) during a visit to the National Pantheon in Caracas November 27, 2009. REUTERS/Edwin Montilva (VENEZUELA POLITICS)
Tareck El Aissami, vice president of Venezuela, smiles during a swearing in ceremony for the new board of directors of Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), Venezuela's state oil company, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. Nicholas Maduro, president of Venezuela, has given his vice president wide-reaching decree powers, including the ability to determine ministries' spending plans and expropriate private businesses, in a move that has fueled speculation over possible succession plans. Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg via Getty Images
CARACAS-VENEZUELA, FEBRUARY 01: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (R) and Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami (3rd L) attend a military parade in Caracas, Venezuela on February 1, 2017. (Photo by Carlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro addresses members of CARICOM at a plenary session during the 40th Heads of government meeting at the Hilton Trinidad and Conference Centre July 6, 2013. REUTERS/Andrea De Silva (TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO - Tags: POLITICS)
Tareck El Aissami, vice president of Venezuela, left, speaks with Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela, during a swearing in ceremony for the new board of directors of Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), Venezuela's state oil company, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. Maduro has given his vice president wide-reaching decree powers, including the ability to determine ministries' spending plans and expropriate private businesses, in a move that has fueled speculation over possible succession plans. Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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"El Aissami facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, to include control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan airbase, as well as control of drug routes through the ports of Venezuela," a senior U.S. administration official told a conference call with reporters.

The Treasury Department said El Aissami oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of more than 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including shipments to Mexico and the United States.

Another U.S. administration official estimated the value of property blocked in Miami was worth "tens of millions of dollars." Another official suggested the value of the property seized was not commensurate with the salary of a public official.

U.S. officials called Lopez Bello a "key frontman" used by El Aissami to handle financial matters and purchase assets.

The Venezuelan government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Maduro frequently accuses U.S. officials of trying to smear his administration.

U.S. officials denied that Monday's designations had anything to do with El Aissami's prominent political role. He is a former minister of interior and of justice.

"The designation is a result of a years long investigation of narcotics trafficking by OFAC. The designation is not aimed at Venezuela or any specific sectors of the Venezuelan economy," the senior official said.

As a result of these actions, Americans are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions or otherwise dealing with individuals and entities, and any assets they have under U.S. jurisdiction are frozen.

DECISION PRAISED BY LAWMAKERS

The move is a departure from the so-called "soft landing" approach taken by former president Barack Obama's White House, which at times had clashed with efforts by the U.S. Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Agency, working with informants in Venezuela to nab influential government officials for money laundering and drug trafficking.

Since 2015, the Obama administration had sought to use behind-the-scenes diplomacy to ease acrimony with Caracas and the fallout of a string of U.S. drug indictments against Venezuelan officials, such as Nestor Reverol, the head of Venezuela's National Guard.

Senior administration officials declined to say whether President Donald Trump had personally signed off on the sanctions or whether he was involved in the decision.

Typical drug trafficking designations would not normally rise to the level of the president for approval, but the blacklisting of a top government official of another country is far more sensitive than typical designations.

The sanctions are the first test of how the rocky relationship between the ideological foes evolves under Trump. The unpopular Venezuelan president has so far treaded carefully with Trump.

While he blasted the Republican as a "thief" and "bandit" during the U.S. election campaign, Maduro later cooled his rhetoric and said Trump deserved to be given a chance and in any case "won't be worse than Obama".

El Aissami, whom local media report is of Syrian and Lebanese extraction, grew up poor in the Andean state of Merida and went on to study law and criminology. He has been both a lawmaker and a state governor for the ruling Socialist Party before being tapped vice-president last month.

Venezuelan opposition groups have long accused El Aissami of repressing dissent, participating in drug trafficking rings, and supporting Middle East groups such as Hezbollah.

Thirty-four Republican and Democratic members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives sent a letter to Trump on Feb. 8 urging him to act against Venezuelan officials.

Their letter referred to El Aissami, noting that his recent appointment as executive vice president put him in line to become Venezuela's next leader. That, they said, "is extremely troubling given his alleged ties to drug trafficking and terrorist organizations."

In a joint statement Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat, called Monday's move "long overdue" and praised the Trump administration for "acting quickly and decisively" against the Maduro government.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement he hoped Monday's designations were "only the beginning" of a move to pressure the Venezuelan government to stop illicit activities and free political prisoners amid its crackdown on the opposition.

(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Julia Harte in Washington, and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Editing by Peter Cooney and Mary Milliken)


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