The US has imposed sanctions on the new vice-president of Venezuela, accusing him of involvement in international drug trafficking.
The order adds Tareck el-Aissami to the US narcotics “kingpin” sanctions list “for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking”.
Sanctions were also slapped on wealthy businessman Samark Bello, described as Mr Aissami’s “primary frontman”.
Mr Aissami was appointed last month by President Nicolas Maduro.
There was no immediate response from him or Mr Bello. but Mr Aissami has previously denied criminal ties.
The sanctions freeze the vice-president’s assets in the US and bar him from entering the country.
The US Treasury statement says Mr Aissami facilitated huge shipments of narcotics from Venezuela by air and sea. It also says he was in the pay of convicted Venezuelan drug lord Walid Makled for the protection of drug shipments.
John E Smith, acting director of the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said the sanctions were “the culmination 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.
“This case highlights our continued focus on narcotics traffickers and those who help launder their illicit proceeds through the United States,” he said.
AFP – Mr Aissami, seen here with Vladimir Putin in 2010, previously served as interior minister
Mr Aissami was previously the governor of Aragua state and served as minister of the interior and justice in Venezuela from 2008 to 2012.
US media, citing leaked intelligence documents, say Mr Aissami has also been under investigation in the US for suspected ties to the militant group Hezbollah.
During his time as interior minister, fraudulent Venezuelan passports ended up in the hands of members of the Lebanese group, it is claimed.
Earlier this month, 34 members of the US Congress sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking for sanctions against Venezuelan officials.
They said that Mr Aissami’s appointment as vice-president put him in line to become Venezuela’s next leader which, they said, was “troubling given his alleged ties to drug trafficking and terrorist organisations”.