(Adds details by U.S. Treasury, comments by lawmakers,
background on relations with Trump administration)
By Lesley Wroughton and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON Feb 13 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.
"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
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
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
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
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
(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Julia Harte in
Washington, and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Editing by Peter
Cooney and Mary Milliken)