Samark López Bello is a Venezuelan businessman and currently a fugitive from American justice facing charges of laundering drug money.
In 2017, the US Treasury Department identified him as a front man for Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela's current Oil Minister. López Bello has denied the accusations but not his link to El Aissami.
As of 2013, López Bello’s name started to appear publicly due to his supposed involvement in the purchase of Cadena Capriles, one of the oldest media outlets in Venezuela and the one with the largest audience reach. Following the publication’s purchase, its editorial line changed drastically in favor of the government.
However, López Bello’s relationship with the state through shady business practices dates back many years. His seemingly corrupt involvement has been found in projects related to construction, food supplies, the petroleum sector, and even the importing of Christmas trees.
The links between Samark López Bello and the Venezuelan government date back at least a decade.
Between 2000 and 2008, the economist worked as director of planning and budgets in the Mérida state government during the administration of Florencio Porras. His contract ended on Porras' demand, who later said that López Bello had been involved in corruption.
At this time, López Bello began a close friendship with Tareck El Aissami, when the latter was a top student leader at the Universidad de Los Andes.
After leaving the government, and despite having been sued by the Bank of Venezuela in 2007 for owing the bank an important debt, López Bello entered the private sector. He would go on to own five companies in Venezuela: Profit Corporation, C. A., Alfa One, C. A., SMT Tecnología, Grupo Sahect, C. A, and Servicios Tecnológicos Industriales, C. A. He also signed contracts with the state-owned oil company, PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela) and the Ministry of the Interior and Justice (headed up by El Aissami between 2008 and 2012).
However, it was not until 2013 that his name became well-known after allegations linked him to the purchase of Cadena Capriles. His involvement was called into question as the media company's editorial line began to favor the government. However, López Bello's role in the purchase has never been confirmed, and the identity of the owners of Cadena Capriles remains unknown.
His rapid growth as a businessman resulted in him owning various holdings in the United States: MF Food Service, LLC, LH Industries Supplies INC and Sahect Holding LLC.
In Panama, he owned the Yakima Trading Corp, created in February 2002, and of which he was named president in 2014. Yakima had various commercial ties to the Venezuelan government, including the sale of 5,712 pre-fabricated housing units to PDVSA.
An investigation by news site Armando.info also connected him to Postar Intertrade Limited, which signed a contract in 2016 with Venezuela's Corporation of Foreign Trade (Corporación Venezolana de Comercio Exterior- Corpovex) to import Christmas trees. Later, Postar Intertrade would also agree to the sale of food boxes to Corpovex.
But in February 2017, the United States pointed to López Bello as a frontman for El Aissami, who was accused of a range of crimes, including protecting drug traffickers and arranging shipments of drugs for unspecified cartels. ópez defended himself against accusations by the United States’ fiscal authority on his personal blog, alleging that his inclusion on the list was not justified, calling himself a legitimate businessman.
Two years later, on March 8, 2019, the US government filed a new charge against El Aissami and López, this time for allegedly violating Washington’s 2017 sanctions by using private planes belonging to US companies to travel between Venezuela and Russia.
On May 12, 2019, the Attorney General’s Specialized Anti-Asset Laundering Office in the Dominican Republic, accompanied by the country's National Drug Control Office (Dirección Nacional de Control de Drogas - DNCD) and US federal agents, raided two villas of a tourist complex in Verón, Punta Cana, which were reportedly owned by López Bello.
Another investigation by Armando Info, following the leak of documents known as the Pandora Papers, linked López Bello to a Venezuelan bank called Bancamiga. This bank has seen enormous growth in the depressed Venezuelan banking sector since individuals linked to López Bello were named as shareholders and executives.
Three US contractors, who were once kidnapped by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - FARC) in 2003, and those entitled to compensation for what happened launched a court case in 2019 to keep assets seized from López. They alleged that the businessman maintained indirect links with the FARC through El Aissami, and won their case in 2020. However, the absence of evidence to prove an alleged relationship with the FARC led López to appealing. In 2022, the judicial order for his assets to be given to the contractors was overturned.
López has been linked to corruption crimes since his first foray into public administration.
After his departure from the government of Mérida, then-governor, Florencio Porras, accused him of collecting bribes to favor certain infrastructure projects. But these accusations did not prevent him from entering the private sector and owning at least 13 domestic and international enterprises after the former governor removed him from his position. Through these holdings, López Bello managed to ensure important and murky contracts with the Venezuelan state.
The most evident example of this link was the US accusation in 2017 that López Bello is the front man for Tareck El Aissami and that he has helped a Venezuelan narcotrafficking network embedded within the government, known as the Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles), to launder their profits.
The US law enforcement statement points to López as “a key front man for El Aissami”, who launders El Aissami’s drug trafficking profits by purchasing assets and handling trade deals on his behalf.
Both men face charges for violating sanctions imposed by the Department of the Treasury.
Samark López Bello’s corrupt business empire, made up of 13 companies, spanneded Venezuela, the United States, Panama, The British Virgin Islands, and the United Kingdom. He has also been indirectly linked to a business based in Barbados.
The Dominican Republic, where López Bello maintained luxury properties, appears to have been one of his base of operations since authorities began going after him.
Allies and Enemies
According to investigations, Samark López Bello’s greatest ally is the current Oil Minister, Tareck El Aissami. This friendship has assured that his corrupt business practices have endured for years. His business empire has diversified into construction, food, banking, oil and gas, and even Christmas tree imports, through companies related directly or indirectly to López Bello.
Still, his criminal activities have been halted by the US justice system. By connecting him with narcotrafficking actions, the US government has confiscated his assets, frozen his accounts, and is now trying to track him down.
The disclosure of the criminal links between López Bello and Tareck El Aissami is an important step in stopping their illegal activities. US sanctions have prevented them from doing business with American companies and have stripped them of their assets abroad, limiting their range of action. On top of this, the constant surveillance they are now facing curtails continuing their corrupt business practices outside Venezuela.
However, López Bello's business interests inside Venezuela seem sure to continue growing due to his close relations with the government.
The inaction of the Venezuelan state in respect to El Aissami’s and López Bello's proven narcotrafficking activities demonstrate the complexities of this mafia state.