By Madeleine Hillyer, International News Editor
On February 3, the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced it was placing sanctions on Venezuela’s second highest ranking leader, Vice President Tareck El Aissami.
The sanctions come after investigations by OFAC, and the Treasury Department looking into Mr. El Assiami’s involvement in drug trafficking. Specifically, he is accused of using his position to make Venezuela a hub for narcotics moving to Los Zetas drug cartel in Mexico and to the United States.
OFAC’s actions were taken under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, which aims to target foreign nationals trafficking drugs into the United States.
According to the New York Times, the US Treasury Department said that Mr. El Aissami, “facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela to include control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan air base, (and) narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including those with the final destinations of Mexico and the United States.”
With these sanctions the vice president’s assets in the US will be frozen. Additionally, all US businesses are barred from conducting any business with El Aissami. Others, including prominent Venezuelan business man, Samark Lopez Bello, were also sanctioned because of this investigation. Some businesses located in Miami were also sanctioned due to their connection to El Aissami.
Mr. El Aissami has long been accused of being a kingpin for drugs in Venezuela. Members of the opposition party to his have long brought these accusations against him during elections. Mr. El Aissami denies these claims. He has called on authorities to arrest him if they can bring forth any proof of these accusations.
El Aissami was appointed to the position of vice president by the Venezuelan president, Vincent Maduro, on January 4. He has seen his powers greatly expanded over the past six weeks, including being put in charge of a commando unit tasked with rooting out dissent and arresting people accused of plotting coups against the government. This group has arrested five people while under El Aissami’s command so far.
Many foreign policy experts have begun to speculate what this move will mean for Venezuelan-US relations during President Trump’s administration. Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue policy group spoke to the New York Times about this saying, “This can be seen as the opening salvo of the Trump administration in dealing with Latin America’s deepest crisis,” adding that, “it is hard to imagine that, with this decision, Washington will now be inclined to offer many carrots to the increasingly authoritarian regime.” This may be good news to many who have been calling on the US government to take a stand against the government which has become more authoritarian during Venezuela’s financial crisis, including the 34 members of congress who wrote to President Trump on February 8 calling for the US to take a strong stand against the behavior of Venezuela’s leadership.
However, according to Bloomberg, US officials have said that this decision was not a political but a result of years long investigations into the actions of Tareck El Aissami. Acting OFAC director, John Smith, spoke to CNN about the decision to levy sanctions on the Venezuelan leader. “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.”
A spokesperson for the Treasury Department told the New York Times the US decided to bring these sanctions because, “power and influence do not protect those who engage in these illicit activities, denying a safe haven for illicit assets in the United States and protecting the US financial system from abuse remain top priorities fir the Treasury Department.”
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, February 21st print edition.
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