The U.S. government is preparing sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tarek El Aissami, a measure that might involve the freezing of a fortune estimated in the billions of dollars, after months of investigating his links to drug traffickers and Muslim extremists, Bloomberg reported.
Once announced, El Aissami would be the latest of a number of Venezuelan government officials and supporters to be listed as drug traffickers by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the agency in charge of enforcing U.S. sanctions.
“El Aissami would be the highest-ranking Venezuelan official hit by U.S. sanctions. The penalties are still in the works but could be issued by the Treasury Department early this week,” Bloomberg reported.
Sources familiar with the situation told el Nuevo Herald that the decision might also lead to the freezing of foreign bank accounts belonging to some of the vice president’s closest associates.
U.S. officials estimate that El Aissami, one of the most feared men in Venezuela, has a personal fortune worth more than $3 billion.
El Aissami, who has not hidden his presidential ambitions, has been under U.S. investigation for many months because he is considered to be one of the top leaders of drug smuggling operations in Venezuela.
His recent appointment as vice president by President Nicolás Maduro is seen as more evidence of the criminal nature of the Maduro regime.
El Aissami’s addition to the OFAC list came just weeks after Maduro appointed him as as executive vice president, a move that signaled a victory for the pro-Havana Francisco de Miranda Front in its fight inside the Chavista movement against the regime’s military and nationalist wing.
The promotion puts El Aissami in first place to replace Maduro if the president leaves office for any reason.
Far more alarming for many Venezuela-watchers are his ties with radical Islamic organizations in the Middle East, including the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
El Aissami is one of the main contacts in Latin America for the extremist organizations, said Luis Fleischman, senior adviser at the Center for Security Policy (CSP) in Washington, D.C.
“He is one of Venezuela’s main contacts with Hezbollah,” said Fleischman, who keeps a close eye on the South American country. “He has been providing logistical and financial support to those organizations.”
A 2014 report by the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) highlighted allegations that El Aissami played a key role in efforts by Muslim fundamentalists to create a network in Latin America that would finance terrorism in other parts of the world.
“Over the years, Tarek El Aissami has developed a sophisticated and multilevel financial network that functions as a criminal terrorist pipeline for bringing Islamic radicals to Venezuela and its neighbors, and to send illegal funds from Latin America to the Middle East,” the report said.
The vice president “has used his political prominence to establish intelligence and financial channels with Islamic nations, especially Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Iran,” the report added.
The investigation also concluded that when El Aissami was minister of the interior, he issued Venezuelan passports and other documents to members of the radical Islamic organizations.
“The majority (of 173 individuals) had Venezuelan passports,” said Joseph Humire, executive director of SFS and one of the authors of the report. “Others had identity cards and others had Venezuelan visas. In some cases, these people had birth certificates.”
The individuals “were from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. But the majority were from Iran, Lebanon and Syria. Seventy percent of them came from those countries and had some sort of ties to Hezbollah,” Humire told el Nuevo Herald.