CARACAS, Feb 14 (Reuters) - An associate of Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami has denied drug trafficking after the United States blacklisted both men in the Trump administration’s first move against the socialist government.
The U.S. Department of Treasury on Monday sanctioned El Aissami and an associate, Samark Lopez, on accusations of masterminding an international network shipping drugs to Mexico and the United States.
There was no immediate response from Venezuela’s government, although El Aissami, 42, did tweet pictures of himself receiving an official Chinese delegation in Caracas.
But Lopez said in a statement on his website late on Monday that the listings appeared “politically motivated.”
”Mr. Lopez is a businessman who has known Tareck El Aissami for a number of years,“ the statement said. ”Mr. Lopez is not a government official and has not engaged in drug trafficking.
“Samark Lopez will seek all legal, administrative, and judicial remedies possible.”
President Nicolas Maduro’s government has frequently cast U.S. and opposition accusations of drug-trafficking, corruption and human rights abuses as a false pretext to justify meddling in Venezuela and a push to topple him.
Maduro, 54, narrowly won election in 2013 to replace the late Hugo Chavez, but his popularity has plummeted amid a brutal economic crisis in the nation of 30 million people.
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 had been both a lawmaker and a state governor for the ruling Socialist Party before being named vice president last month.
Venezuelan opposition groups have long accused El Aissami of repressing dissent, participating in drug trafficking rings, and supporting Middle Eastern groups such as Hezbollah. He denies those allegations. (Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)