White House

U.S. hits Venezuela VP for drug dealing in latest move against Maduro inner circle

A demonstrator wore a banner that reads in Spanish: “Prohibited to forget” during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday.
A demonstrator wore a banner that reads in Spanish: “Prohibited to forget” during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday. AP

In a major escalation of its confrontation with Venezuela, the United States on Monday accused that country’s vice president of drug trafficking and money laundering.

The Trump administration said its took the action after a years-long investigation into Vice President Tareck El Aissami’s ties to the international narcotics trade.

El Aissami, Venezuela’s former minister of interior who was once the governor of Aragua state, is the highest-ranking Venezuelan to be hit by U.S. sanctions, which included a freeze on all his known U.S. assets, including several Miami properties and a private airplane.

The message is not a political one.

Trump administration official

U.S. officials said they moved as part of a long standing commitment to hold people accountable regardless of their position or rank and that the U.S. government’s political differences with Venezuela had not influenced the decision.

“The message is not a political one,” said a senior administration official who could not be identified under the ground rules of a briefing for reporters. “It’s not an economic one. It’s not a diplomatic one. It’s about going after international narcotics trafficking. And we do that aggressively.”’

Nonetheless, the new sanctions will undoubtedly inflame already tense U.S.-Venezuela relations. The two countries haven’t had full diplomatic relations since 2010, when Venezuela refused to admit the newly appointed American ambassador.

The Trump administration appears to be continuing, if not expanding, the Obama administration’s efforts to ratchet up the pressure on high-ranking members of Venezuela’s socialist government for their suspected role in allowing the country to become an important transit hub for narcotics. President Donald Trump has raised concerns about developments Venezuela over the last couple weeks with leaders in the hemisphere, including a phone conversation over the weekend with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

Florida members of Congress praised the decision. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, urged the government to take an even tougher stand.

“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.

Two Miami Republicans, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, hailed the move. Ros-Lehtinen said the move signaled “a fundamental step in charting a positive role the United States can continue to play given the deteriorating crisis in Venezuela.”

El Aissami was named vice president last month amid a cabinet shuffle by embattled President Nicolas Maduro. He’s seen as a hardliner in Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela and a young stars of the Maduro government.

Last week, a bipartisan group of 34 U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to Trump urging him to step up pressure on Venezuela’s government and El Aissami’s alleged ties to drug trafficking and Middle Eastern terror groups.

The sanctioning of El Aissami comes just months after a New York federal jury convicted two of Maduro’ nephews of conspiring to smuggle hundreds of kilograms of cocaine to the United States. Testimony at the nephews’ trial said shipments would depart from the presidential hangar at the Caracas airport for Honduras, where they would then travel on to the United States.

Officials Monday promised further investigation into the drug links of top Venezuelan officials.

“The designation today sends a clear message that we’ll use any of these legal tools within our inventory to after those involved in international drug trafficking,” the senior administration official said.