The U.S. government added Venezuelan Vice President Tarek El Aissami to its sanctions list Monday, saying he “played a significant role in international narcotics trafficking” and freezing his access to a fortune estimated at $3 billion after a lengthy investigation of his alleged links to drug traffickers and Muslim extremists.
The measure also covers Samark Lopez — accused of being the principal front man for El Aissami — and nearly a dozen companies linked to Lopez, including some in Miami.
El Aissami and Lopez were the latest of several Venezuelan government officials and supporters listed as alleged drug traffickers by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the agency in charge of enforcing U.S. sanctions. The sanctions were authorized under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.
“OFAC’s action today is the culmination of a multi-year investigation under the Kingpin Act to target significant narcotics traffickers in Venezuela and demonstrates that power and influence do not protect those who engage in these illicit activities,” OFAC Acting Director John E. Smith said.
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“This case highlights our continued focus on narcotics traffickers and those who help launder their illicit proceeds through the United States,” Smith added in a statement. “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.”
The sanctioned companies own three condos at the upscale Millennium Tower Residences at the Four Seasons hotel in Brickell. The companies paid nearly $7 million for the three units in 2012 and 2013, Miami-Dade County property records show.
South Florida’s real estate market is a known conduit for dirty cash. Since 2015, an anti-money laundering push by the U.S. Treasury Department has required extra checks on shell companies buying luxury homes in Miami-Dade County and Manhattan. (The heightened monitoring was later imposed on other pricey real estate markets around the nation.)
OFAC also identified and blocked properties held by 13 companies owned or controlled by Lopez or others “that comprise an international network spanning the British Virgin Islands, Panama, the United Kingdom, the United States and Venezuela,” the news release said. Lopez oversees an international network of petroleum, distribution and other companies, according to the release.
El Aissami, who has not hidden his presidential ambitions, has been under U.S. investigation for many months because he is considered to be one of the top leaders of drug-smuggling operations in Venezuela.
He was appointed vice president in January by President Nicolás Maduro after serving as governor of Venezuela’s Aragua state from 2012 to 2017. The Treasury Department news release said he “facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela” by plane. The statement also said he “oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms” from Venezuela with a final destination of the U.S. or Mexico.
The U.S. also said he received payment for facilitating drug shipments from Venezuelan “drug kingpin” Walid Makled Garcia, and officials linked him to Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel. They said he provided protection to Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera and Venezuelan drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Palanco.
As vice president, El Aissami is first in line to replace Maduro if the president leaves office for any reason.
Most alarming for many Venezuela-watchers are his ties with radical Islamic organizations in the Middle East, including the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
El Aissami is one of the main contacts in Latin America for the extremist organizations, said Luis Fleischman, senior adviser at the Center for Security Policy (CSP) in Washington, D.C.
“He is one of Venezuela’s main contacts with Hezbollah,” said Fleischman, who keeps a close eye on the South American country. “He has been providing logistical and financial support to those organizations.”
A 2014 report by the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) highlighted allegations that El Aissami played a key role in efforts by Muslim fundamentalists to create a network in Latin America that would finance terrorism in other parts of the world.
“Over the years, Tarek El Aissami has developed a sophisticated and multilevel financial network that functions as a criminal terrorist pipeline for bringing Islamic radicals to Venezuela and its neighbors, and to send illegal funds from Latin America to the Middle East,” the report said.
The vice president “has used his political prominence to establish intelligence and financial channels with Islamic nations, especially Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Iran,” the report added.
The investigation also concluded that when El Aissami was minister of the interior, he issued Venezuelan passports and other documents to members of the radical Islamic organizations.
“The majority [of 173 individuals] had Venezuelan passports,” said Joseph Humire, executive director of SFS and one of the authors of the report. “Others had identity cards and others had Venezuelan visas. In some cases, these people had birth certificates.”
The individuals “were from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. But the majority were from Iran, Lebanon and Syria. Seventy percent of them came from those countries and had some sort of ties to Hezbollah,” Humire told el Nuevo Herald.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, was among the Miami-area politicians who welcomed the sanctions.
“The Venezuelan government is run by corrupt, incompetent and criminal thugs who have inflicted misery on their own people and routinely used violence to crush dissent,” Rubio said. “For years, I’ve talked about how Venezuelan regime officials are committing crimes in Venezuela, stealing from the Venezuelan people and then spending their riches living in the lap of luxury in Miami. Today’s announcement further confirms how true this is, and the extent to which corrupt and criminal Venezuelan regime officials have been allowed to freely travel and prance around U.S. soil with impunity.”
Miami Herald reporter Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report. Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter: @DelgadoAntonioM