Tuesday, February 14, 2017

U.S. adds Venezuelan VP to Drug Kingpin list (Feb. 14, 2017)

The U.S. government added Venezuelan vice president Tareck El Aissami on a sanctions list, for allegedly aiding drug traffickers. The U.S. Treasury used the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act), and said Aissami played "a significant role in international narcotics trafficking." The Treasury also added Venezuelan businessman Samaro López Bello to the sanctions list, calling him El Aissami's frontman.

Adding them to the sanctions list freezes their U.S. assets and blocks U.S. companies and individuals from doing business with them. The actions are the result of a "multi-year investigation under the Kingpin Act to target significant narcotics traffickers in Venezuela and demonstrates that power and influence do not protect those who engage in these illicit activities," according to the statement.

The statement details that El Aissami "facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, to include control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan air base, as well as control of drug routes through the ports in Venezuela.  In his previous positions, he oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including those with the final destinations of Mexico and the United States."

"He also facilitated, coordinated, and protected other narcotics traffickers operating in Venezuela.  Specifically, El Aissami received payment for the facilitation of drug shipments belonging to Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled Garcia.  El Aissami also is linked to coordinating drug shipments to Los Zetas, a violent Mexican drug cartel, as well as providing protection to Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera and Venezuelan drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco."

Previous attempts by the U.S. to single out Venezuelan officials in relation to drug trafficking have been dismissed in the past by the government as destabilization attempts, notes the Wall Street Journal. And last year Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro promoted 

However, this is the most senior Venezuelan official targeted by U.S. sanctions, and the move is bound to further deteriorate relations between the two countries, according to the Associated Press.

It would seem to be a message about how the new U.S. administration intends to deal with the country's pressing crisis, and likely to set a hostile tone to relations between the two governments, according to the New York Times.

Though the Obama administration had its share of tense moments with Venezuela's government, the move is a change from the "so-called 'soft landing' approach" taken by the former administration, "which at times had clashed with efforts by the U.S. Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Agency, working with informants in Venezuela to nab influential government officials for money laundering and drug trafficking," according to Reuters.

El Aissami has consistently denied all allegations against him, and said on his Twitter account Tuesday that the allegations are "miserable provocations," reports Bloomberg. López also said the sanctions were politically motivated, reports Efecto Cocuyo.

El Aissami was promoted to first in line of succession last month, amid speculation that President Nicolás Maduro will not manage to complete his mandate, which ends in 2018. (See Jan. 5's post.) U.S. officials said the sanctions were not a reaction to that promotion, reports EFE.

The move comes a week after a bipartisan group of 34 American politicians sent a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump urging him to sanction top officials responsible for corruption and human rights abuses, notes the AP. The letter specifically singled out El Aissami for his purported ties to terrorist organizations. (See last Wednesday's briefs.) Some experts have accused El Aissami of links to radical Islamic organizations in the Middle East, including the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, reports the Miami Herald.

InSight Crime casts doubt on the links, noting that "the nexus between Islamic terrorist organizations and Latin American organized crime has historically been exaggerated for various reasons. This does not mean that the trafficking of Venezuelan passports raised by the senators' letter and the CNN investigation is not a real scheme. But the available evidence suggests that the passports were being sold by corrupt officials for their personal economic gain, rather than as a coordinated policy to aid international terrorist organizations."

The sanctions announced yesterday are only related to drug trafficking charges.

Efecto Cocuyo reports on the affected assets.

El Aissami has been put in charge of an "anti-coup" unit of government, responsible for detaining members of the political opposition last month. (See Jan. 12's post.)

The U.S. and Venezuela have been on tense diplomatic footing for over 15 years, and haven't exchanged ambassadors since 2010. There has so far been little indication of what direction Trump will move Venezuelan policy, and Maduro has held off from open antagonism since Trump's inauguration. 

But this weekend Trump voiced concern over the direction of Venezuelan politics in phone conversations with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, reports Efecto Cocuyo. (Before news of the sanctions, which were announced yesterday.)

U.S. sanctions against Venezuela and officials have backfired before -- giving chavista supporters a rallying point. Last year Maduro promoted Gen. Nestor Reverol as Minister of Interior and Justice a day after U.S. prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging him with conspiracy to help cocaine shipments going from Colombia to the U.S. At the time David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights argued it was part of a strategy to build "a core security team among officials that have in some way been blacklisted by the US. This makes sense since these officials have high 'exit costs' in any transition scenario. Put differently, they will be loyal and fight to finish because their ability to avoid US justice depends on the survival of Chavismo in power." He also points to a similar logic behind putting the military in charge of food distribution -- the government's weakest flank -- as a way potentially making them the targets of eventual social unrest." (See briefs for Aug. 8, 2016.)

News Briefs
  • Venezuelan health authorities reported a second child death from diphtheria this year, reports Efecto Cocuyo.  An outbreak of the bacterial infection, which is particularly lethal for children but increasingly rare due to immunizations, shows the country's vulnerability to health risks amid shortages of medicine and vaccinations, reported Reuters last week.
  • As the economic crisis in Venezuela deepens, nationals lead the region in U.S. asylum requests for the first time, reports the Associated Press. Though most applicants don't meet the political persecution requirements for asylum, many are willing to take advantage of a two-year processing delay to temporarily live and work in the U.S.
  • Food and medical shortages in Venezuela have been much reported on. Now the country doesn't even have paper for passports, according to the Miami Herald.
  • Paraguayan authorities are investigating a 30 metric ton load of Venezuelan cash discovered in a private house near the Brazilian border, reports the Associated Press. Officials are looking into whether the load of 50- and 100-bolivar bills were brought in legally. (Last year Maduro's sudden removal from circulation of the 100 bolivar bill was officially blamed on transnational gangs hoarding the currency -- an explanation most experts scoffed at. See Dec. 16's post, for example.) Police said the stash in Paraguay belonged to a national arms dealer and suspect the paper from the notes was intended for use in creating counterfeit U.S. dollars, reports the BBC.
  • Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met yesterday in Washington. In the post meeting press conference, Trump promised that NAFTA renegotiations with the U.S.'s northern neighbor would be mere tweaks, "it's a much less severe situation than what's taking place on the southern border," he said, according to the Associated Press.
  • Mexican lawmakers are threatening to retaliate to U.S. possible import tariffs by chanelling the country's corn purchases towards Brazil and Argentina instead of the U.S., reports CNN
  • Crackdowns last week by U.S. immigrations officials led to over 680 arrests, reports Reuters. Though officials said they were business as usual, migrant advocates said they were more sweeping than raids carried out by the former administration. Of those captured last week, 75 percent had criminal records, which includes everything from homicide to driving under the influence of alcohol, as well as people who ignored deportation orders. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The Odebrecht revelations of nearly $800 million paid in bribes to government officials around Latin America are cascading across the region and impacting high level officials everywhere from Panama to Peru. The New York Times adds the latest report to coverage of the case. (See yesterday's and Friday's briefs, and last Wednesday's post.)
  • Brazilian authorities have opened disciplinary proceedings against dozens of military police officers whose strike last week led to violent looting in Espirito Santo state, reports the Associated Press. State officials initiated procedures to fire 161 military police this morning. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • The Intercept reports on the case of Brazilian press articles on the prosecution of a hacker who stole the first lady's private phone data, which were promptly deleted by the country's two largest newspapers after President Michel Temer obtained a judicial order making the issue off limits. "This case and the underlying material are plainly in the public interest. While Temer and his wife deny that they reveal any wrongdoing on their part, there was a criminal prosecution over these allegations that led to someone’s lengthy imprisonment. Allegations that the president of the country engaged in particularly illegal or otherwise unethical conduct should be resolved by an examination of the evidence, not by censorship of newspapers."
  • Paraguayan campesinos marched this week demanding the resignation of President Horacio Cartes, reports TeleSUR.
  • A former Sandinista -- a Roman Catholic priest and noted poet -- is accusing the Nicaraguan government of political persecution through a lawsuit, reports the Associated Press.
  • Will medical marijuana save Puerto Rico's ailing economy? The newly founded Puerto Rico Medicinal Cannabis Association argues that the industry will put millions of tax dollars in public coffers, reports EFE.
  • Protest art has come a long way from Berlin Wall. Artists are using everything from glow-in-the-dark stickers to plywood in their works on the U.S.-Mexico border, reports the Guardian. And old school graffiti has made its way to Havana, where the sly social criticism of artist Yulier Rodriguez Perez is notable in a place where graffiti is rare, according to the Associated Press.
  • Happy Valentines Day: Buy Colombian roses with the knowledge that police security protocols specifically protect the country's major legal export from penetration by cocaine trafficking drug gangs, reports the Associated Press.

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