The United States has charged Tareck El Aissami, one of the most powerful men in Venezuela, and five of his collaborators for violating sanctions imposed in 2017 for alleged drug trafficking, showing Washington is piling on the pressure against Caracas' highest-ranking officials.
The US Justice Department announced the charges issued against El Aissami, currently minister of industries and national production, and businessman, Samark José López Bello, in a federal court in Manhattan for violations of the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.
The charges stated that Venezuela’s former vice president supposedly bypassed the sanctions imposed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) by using US companies to provide international transportation through a private plane.
Additionally, the official document also states El Aissami and López Bello allegedly used private planes to hold confidential meetings "all over the world," including Turkey and Russia.
The US also issued charges against four other individuals, including two American citizens, for being part of the conspiracy against the Kingpin Act by participating in flights to Russia, Turkey, Dominican Republic and Venezuela with El Aissami, including the pilots. Three of these individuals, Michols Orsini Quintero, Alejandro Antonio Quitavalle and Alejandro Miguel León Maal have been arrested and charged in Florida.
El Aissami and Samark López were first the subject of OFAC sanctions in February 2017, for their alleged involvement in drug trafficking. At the time, a number of their assets were frozen and US citizens and companies were blocked from carrying out any commercial activities with them.
El Aissami has been linked to drug traffickers and criminals such as the Zetas in Mexico and Colombian drug lord, Daniel ‘El Loco’ Barrera, since 2008 when he operated as Hugo Chávez’s minister of interior relations. He has also been associated with terrorist groups like Hezbollah, although these connections have not yet been fully verified.
InSight Crime Analysis
Tareck El Aissami is the third senior Venezuelan government official to face charges of drug trafficking in the US. The first two were Hugo Carvajal Barrios, alias "El Pollo", a former chief of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar - DGCIM), who has since turned on the regime, and Néstor Reverol, minister of interior relations.
Two nephews of Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores, namely Franqui Francisco Flores and Efraín Campo Flores, are also serving an 18-year prison sentence in the US for conspiracy to bring drugs into the country.
In addition, InSight Crime has the names of over 120 Venezuelan government officials who either face sanctions, have alleged ties with drug trafficking, and are part of the 'Cartel of the Suns', a criminal organization within the upper echelons of the government and army.
SEE ALSO: Profile of Cartel of the Suns
El Aissami is considered to be one of the most dangerous and powerful men in the regime, after Nicolás Maduro and former vice-president Diosdado Cabello. Even though the 2017 sanctions may have weakened him, this recent episode shows he remains active in the same criminal economies.
The Venezuelan politician has been on the radar of US authorities radar for over eight years. “He has involvement in every criminal activity. We would find El Aissami’s name in every case: drug trafficking, terrorism, money laundering, gold contraband, in everything…,” revealed a US government official after the 2017 sanctions, when El Aissami was vice president.
The official also told InSight Crime that the possibility of El Aissami becoming president had set off alarms within the Trump administration. Information had been received on him trying to create a "drug trafficking organization called the Alba Cartel, with military officials from countries within the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América - ALBA, created by Hugo Chávez in 2004)."
But his ties to crime do not stop there.
During his time as minister of interior relations, between 2008 and 2012, while being responsible for the administration of prisons, he oversaw the creation of the "pranes." These criminal structures operating inside prisons with support from authorities are now among the most feared criminal organizations in Venezuela.
Later, between 2012 and 2017, El Aissami was governor of Aragua state. Over that time, crime in Aragua shot up, with a crime rate of 168 per 100,000 inhabitants, ranking among the five most violent states of the country.