On Monday, the US government announced sanctions against the highest-profile Venezuelan official yet targeted — Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who was named to the position by President Nicolas Maduro in early January.
The US Treasury Department declared El Aissami to be a specially designated narcotics trafficker for allegedly “playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking.”
The US government also designated Venezuelan citizen Samark Jose Lopez Bello for providing material or financial assistance to the narcotics trafficking activities of El Aissami and blocked 13 properties owned by Lopez or others that it said “comprise an international network.”
The Treasury Department alleges that El Aissami oversaw narcotics shipments via planes leaving air bases and boats leaving the country’s ports. Suspicions about his involvement in the drug trade have earned El Aissami the moniker “the narco of Aragua,” after his home state.
“There’s information that El Aissami has been protecting loads of cocaine — we’re talking about ton quantities — coming from Colombia using Venezuela as a transshipment point,” Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider.
“There’s information that indicates that El Aissami actually directed … how that cocaine would be transshipped through a lot of their airports and seaports, and then he worked in collusion with what we call a testaferro, or a front man, by the name of Samark Lopez, who has been establishing front companies,” Vigil said.
At the tail end of his presidential campaign Donald Trump adopted a hardline stance on the Venezuela, but his team wasn’t the driving force behind this round of sanctions, the investigation for which began under Obama.
“The timing, however, is indeed curious,” Tim Gill, a post-doctoral fellow at Tulane University focused on Venezuelan foreign relations, told Business Insider. “El Aissami recently became the Venezuelan Vice President and received extensive economic powers from Maduro, and Trump recently became U.S. President.”
The sanctions send a “clear message to people of Venezuela that America stands with them,” newly appointed Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Tuesday, adding that the measures would freeze “tens of millions of dollars.”
El Aissami and Maduro wasted no time in responding.
The vice president called the sanctions “miserable provocations” and pledged to show “greater strength” in response to what he called imperialist aggressions.
Maduro said he would present a formal note of protest to the US government over the designation and declared that he was the ultimate target of US policies.
“They are not attacking Tareck, they are attacking a country, a revolution and I am the final objective,” he said.
While El Aissami is a new designee and was relatively recently appointed to the vice presidency, he looms large over Venezuelan politics and has been implicated in some of the country’s more sinister institutions.
Born in November 1974, El Aissami had humble beginnings in Merida, in western Venezuela. The son of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, his father, Carlos El-Aissami, was the head of a local branch of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party.
El Aissami soon moved east, to Aragua, where he attended the Basic School of the National Armed Forces.
He later moved back west, where he attended the University of the Andes in Merida, according to a profile by Venezuelan news site Vertice News.
There, one of his professors was Adan Chavez, brother of Hugo Chavez, who would later be president from 1999 until his death in 2013.
“His politics are really all a product of the Chavez era,” Alejandro Velasco, a history professor at New York University, told Business Insider.
“He’s part of the new generation, younger generation … certainly his radicalism can’t be traced to a pre-Chavez era,” Velasco said, “and most of his actual politics came in … the Andes, where he was a student.”
El Aissami earned degrees in law and criminology and became involved in politics while in school, where he eventually met Hugo Chavez.
Other students grew suspicious of him, however, coming to believe he had connections to guerrilla movements that operated in the Venezuela-Colombia border area. He was also accused of bringing in armed thugs to bully the competition in student elections.
After leaving school, he took a position in the Venezuelan Interior Ministry’s passport and naturalization agency, before being elected to the national parliament in 2005.
He was appointed minister of interior and justice in 2008, holding that position until he was elected governor of Aragua state, which stretches south from the Caribbean coast in central Venezuela.
“My sense in terms of El Aissami is that his pretensions were always national in scope,” Velasco said. “His ideas weren’t about making any major inroads — it was really looking ahead to the bigger and brighter things.”
Those political ambitions could have facilitated the narco activity El Aissami has been accused of.
Empowered by his status among the ranks of Chavez supporters, called chavistas, El Aissami may have linked up with elements within the armed forces that increasingly came to see their logistical resources and relative impunity as means to pursue illicit activities — narcotics trafficking chief among them.
“Sometime back in 2010, Venezuela’s largest … drug trafficker — a guy by the name of Walid Makled Garcia — was arrested in Cucuta, Colombia, and he gave declarations immediately to Colombian security forces and said that his biggest associates in Venezuela were all generals,” Vigil told Business Insider.
“And he also indicated that he was providing money to El Aissami’s brother that was going to a lot of high-ranking government officials so that they could protect the loads of cocaine being transshipped through Venezuela,” said Vigil, author of “Metal Coffins: The Blood Alliance Cartel.”
“The other thing is that Aragua … provides [El Aissami] with actually a really clear link to two crucial nodes of the narcotics trade,” Velasco said.
“One being the border region with Colombia through Tachira state, and the other one being Aragua, which is in a central region,” he continued, “and so there you have sort of the clear path from the source country … to the exit area, which would be the Caribbean.”
El Aissami’s links to the border region, Vigil said, also allegedly include ties to Colombia’s left-wing FARC rebels, a stalwart in the drug trade, and to the right-wing paramilitaries that fought the FARC and also maintained a presence in the drug trade.
While the US indictment only pertains to El Aissami’s suspected narcotics activity, there have been accusations he was involved in black-market passport sales, distributing Venezuelan passports, which grant the holder entry to 130 countries, to people from the Middle East, some of whom were connected to the terrorist group Hezbollah, according to a CNN investigation.
“So he came to the attention of the US government several years ago, under the Obama administration, when a multitude of fraudulent Venezuelan passports started to popping up in many places,” Vigil said. “So with those passports they could literally travel to just about any country in the world.”
The extent of Venezuela’s involvement with Islamic extremism is questionable. Actions like the sale of passports may just constitute crimes of opportunity, rather than indicate any kind of deeper ideological or operational linkage.
And while groups like Hezbollah have connections to Venezuelan officials, it appears that, for now, those groups’ undertakings in Latin America are limited to “money laundering and the funneling of drug profits to their organization, because now a lot of these terrorist networks are using drug profits to fund their operations,” Vigil said.
What is much less clear is what the leveling of sanctions on a high-profile official like Tareck El Aissami means for the US-Venezuela relationship going forward.
The investigation in El Aissami was largely conducted under the Obama administration, and, Vigil said, was delayed in recent months because the Obama State Department wanted to see if a dialogue between the Maduro government and the opposition — locked in a deep-seated political conflict — could be established.
Venezuela’s response may also signal a desire for further engagement.
“El Aissami has, of course, condemned the sanctions, but he has not specifically condemned Trump himself,” Tim Gill, post-doctoral fellow at Tulane University, told Business Insider.
“This suggests that the Venezuela government might still try to play its hand with Trump, especially given Trump’s warmth towards Russia, one of Venezuela’s closest international allies,” Gill added.
While Trump appears to have voiced support for factions of Venezuela’s opposition, the ultimate shape of his policy toward Venezuela remains to be seen.
“Pressure is mounting from both Democratic and Republican members of Congress, as evidenced in a recent letter signed by 34 individuals, to take a harsher position on the Maduro government,” Gill said.
“At the moment, the administration appears tied up with issues involving China, Mexico, and Russia, as well as the Middle East,” he added. “Trump will eventually have to say something on Venezuela, and this will set the tone for the future of U.S.-Venezuela relations.”