MANHATTAN (CN) – Two years after the Trump administration designated the former vice president of Venezuela a drug kingpin, U.S. prosecutors brought an indictment Friday that puts him at the center of a sanctions-busting conspiracy hopping across Turkey and Russia.
Appointed to office in 2017 by President Nicolas Maduro, Tareck El Aissami ended his vice presidency last year to serve as minister of industry and national production.
“He has used his position of power to engage in international drug trafficking, earning him the designation of Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker, along with his business partner Samark Lopez Bello,” Angel Melendez, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s special agent in charge, said in a statement Friday, referring to El Aissami.
The charges mark a new escalation in the legal war between the United States and Maduro’s leftist government. The Obama administration prosecuted and convicted two of Maduro’s relatives, his wife’s nephews, for cocaine smuggling in 2016.
Maduro’s government blasted the charges at the time as political, but his power was still formally recognized then by the United States.
Now, with the Trump administration openly seeking Maduro’s ouster, federal prosecutors in the same courthouse have set their sights on his minister, El Aissami, as well as U.S. and Venezuelan citizens in the official’s orbit.
El Aissami’s ally Samark Lopez Bello, a 44-year-old businessman with companies in Venezuela, Panama and Florida, each face up to 150 years imprisonment if convicted of five counts of sanctions busting.
Two of their accused co-conspirators, Victor Mones and Alejandro Leon, face the same possible penalty on charges that they arranged private flights into the United States from Venezuela’s capital to smuggle cash through Florida companies. Prosecutors say Leon set up private flights for El Aissami between Turkey, Venezuela and Russia as recently as this month.
While the indictment contends that the privately chartered flights violated sanctions, prosecutors do not allege drugs were smuggled on those flights.
Mones established American Charter Services, and Leon created the private flight charter companies SVMI Solutions, named after Simon Bolivar International Airport’s code, prosecutors say.
Florida resident Orsini Quintero, 42, is charged separately with one count of violating sanctions. He faces up to 30 years imprisonment if convicted.
Authorities arrested Mones and Quintero this morning in Florida.
Menendez, the DEA agent, said both men had been “looking to fill their pockets with dirty money” by helping men who “pose a threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
Venezuela’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations did not immediately return an email request for comment.