USA Foreign Policy First Look

US labels Venezuela's vice president a drug 'kingpin'

The US Department of Treasury on Monday accused Tareck El Aissami of facilitating drug shipments and having links to drug gangs in Mexico and Colombia.

Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami attends the swearing-in ceremony of the new board of directors of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA in Caracas, Venezuela last monh.
Marco Bello/Reuters/File | Caption

The US government labeled Venezuelan vice president Tareck El Aissami a drug "kingpin" on Monday, a designation that he denounced as a "vile" attack. 

In the citation, the US Department of Treasury accused Mr. El Aissami of facilitating drug shipments and having links to drug gangs in Mexico and Colombia, making him the most senior Venezuelan official to be sanctioned by the United States. The new vice president, sworn in on Jan. 4, joins a blacklist that already includes half a dozen other Venezuelan officials and former officials. 

El Aissami hit back in a series of tweets the next day, in which he described his sanctioning as an "imperialist aggression." 

"We shall not be distracted by these miserable provocations," he wrote. "We will see this vile aggression dispelled." 

The sanction marks a departure from the so-called "soft landing" approach taken by the Obama administration, which clashed on occasion with efforts by the US Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration to crack down on money laundering and drug trafficking by influential Venezuelan officials. In recent years, the White House had tried to use behind-the-scenes diplomacy to ease tensions with the Venezuelan government in the aftermath of a series of US drug indictments against Venezuelan officials, including Interior Minister Nestor Reverol. 

This move by the new administration dashes any hopes Socialist President Nicolas Maduro may have had that President Trump would stay out of Venezuelan affairs. Though he frequently criticized former President Barack Obama, painting US accusations of drug trafficking, corruption, and human rights abuses as dishonest excuses to justify interfering with Venezuela, he has yet to speak out against Mr. Trump.  

At the same time, says David Smilde, a Tulane University professor and Venezuela expert, the sanction on El Aissami could benefit Mr. Maduro.  

"This is a tremendous gift to Maduro as it ensures El Aissami's loyalty. It essentially increases El Aissami's exit costs and gives him a personal stake in the continuation of 'Chavismo'," Professor Smilde told Reuters. "To be clear, El Aissami and others should be held responsible for their actions. However it should be understood this process has pernicious unintended consequences. I think we are effectively witnessing the creation of a rogue state." 

The sanctioning comes as increasing numbers of poor and middle-class Venezuelans flee their country to escape worsening economic conditions, as Howard LaFranchi reported for The Christian Science Monitor in November: 

The humanitarian dimensions of the nation’s crisis and its growing regional impact are spurring Venezuela’s neighbors, including the US, to be more active in pressing for a resolution of the country’s deep political and economic woes, many regional experts say.

The question is whether President Nicolás Maduro – and Venezuela’s fractured political opposition – are ready for that.

“We are looking at something catastrophic for Venezuela,” from both economic and humanitarian perspectives, says Patrick Duddy, a former US ambassador to Venezuela. “As this becomes a real hazard for Colombia, but also for Brazil,” the realization is growing that “we’re going to have to double down on regional diplomacy,” adds Mr. Duddy, who is now director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Venezuela has become a major global hub for drug shipments, particularly cocaine, narcotics experts say. According to the Treasury Department, El Aissami oversaw or partially owned shipments of more than 2,200 pounds of an unspecified drug on multiple occasions, including to Mexico and the United States. 

According to a former Obama administration official, the decision to sanction El Aissami was postponed last year at the insistence of the State Department amid concerns that it could interfere in a Vatican-backed attempt at dialogue between the government and opposition, as well as efforts to win the release of Joshua Holt, a US citizen jailed for months on weapons charges. 

"This was an overdue step to ratchet up pressure on the Venezuelan regime and signal that top officials will suffer consequences if they continue to engage in massive corruption, abuse human rights and dismantle democracy," Mark Feierstein, who served as Obama's top national security adviser on Latin America, told the Associated Press. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.