US-sanctioned Venezuelan VP has alleged ties to Hezbollah
JUAN BARRETO (AFP/File)
The US Department of Treasury in February slapped sanctions on newly designated Vice President of Venezuela, Tareck El-Aissami, amid accusations of money laundering and drug-trade charges. While he has dismissed those allegations, the VP's supposed ties with criminal elements including the Lebanese Hezbollah suggests that there may be more with him than meets the eye.
El-Aissami was last January appointed President Nicolas Maduro's new deputy, replacing Aristobulo Isturiz who served only one year in office, in a surprising and significant political development in the south American nation.
“I designed comrade, Tareck El-Aissami as the new vice president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”, Maduro announced on January during a massive political rally.
Among those responsibilities entrusted to El-Aissami included “the fight against criminals and the right-wing terrorists”, with Maduro remarking his “youth, experience, commitment and courage” making him a top candidate for the job.
El-Aissami’s began his meteoric career as a lawmaker at the Venezuelan National Assembly for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela on 2006, later serving as Deputy Citizen Security minister from 2007-2008, Interior Relations and Justice minister between 2008-2012, and his subsequent election as governor of Aragua State with 55 percent of the vote.
The Syrian descendent enjoyed a fast track to power under the guidance of the late President Hugo Chavez, father of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution and leader of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, in power since 1999.
But were there other elements that contributed to El-Aissami’s appointment as the second-in-command? Many believe so.
An alleged middleman
“In terms of national security, El-Aissami is a strong example of the growing crime-terror nexus in Latin America”, Joseph Humire, executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), a national security think tank based in Washington D.C. told i24NEWS.
“His confirmed links to major transnational criminal organizations such as Los Zetas of Mexico and the FARC of Colombia, along with suspected ties to major foreign terrorist organizations, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, are emblematic of the increasing convergence of transnational criminal and terrorist organizations,” he added during an interview from the United States.
“The arrest of Lebanese national Ayman Joumaa in 2011 provides another glimpse into how Hezbollah uses Latin America to move multi-ton shipments of cocaine and launder multi-million dollars of illicit funds to its benefit,” Humire describes.
“This illicit network managed by Hezbollah is believed to be connected to Mr. El Aissami's illicit network through a company called Importador Silvania, C.A. with offices in Venezuela and Colombia. This company was sanctioned by U.S. Treasury for laundering money for Hezbollah and its owner, Ali Hussein Harb, who was also sanctioned, is allegedly a close associate of the Venezuelan VP's brother Feras El Aissami,” the expert argued.
“I believe Tareck El-Aissami is one of many political figures that Iran has courted and supported in Latin America over the years,” Humire said.
According to Humire, the Iranian regime has infiltrated many South American countries, particularly Venezuela, through its armed forces, civilian militias and the local intelligence apparatus, in addition to territories “that belongs to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its subordinate elements.”
In less than a month on duties, Maduro delegated 15 faculties to El-Aissami, including budget modifications, appointments and expropriations.
In February, the US Department of the Treasury, through its Office of Foreign Assets Control, announced sanctions against El-Aissami in an official statement entitled “Treasury Sanctions Prominent Venezuelan Drug Trafficker Tareck El Aissami and His Primary Frontman Samark Lopez Bello”
The decree stated that “The US Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Venezuelan national Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah (El Aissami) as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act) for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking.”
This network, allegedly run by El-Aissami’s front-man Jose Lopez Bello, included eight designated foreign entities, and five blocked US entities linked to him as well, in addition to a private aircraft registered in Miami, Florida.
In a series of tweets, El-Aissami first called the sanctions a “vile” and “imperialist aggression,” later publishing an open letter sanctions in The New York Times denouncing the measure.
"First, in your capacity as [Office of Foreign Asset Control] Authority you have been deceived by political sectors, lobbyists and stakeholders in the US whose essential interest is to prevent that the United States and Venezuela restore their political and diplomatic relations on the basis of mutual recognition and respect," the letter said.
"These stakeholders not only lack any evidence to demonstrate the extremely serious accusations against me, but they have also built a false positive case in order to criminalize —through me— the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, a country that is decidedly waging a war on transnational drug trafficking business,” El-Aissami stated.
Meanwhile, El-Aissami's alleged "front-man” Samark Lopez, opted to defend himself through an official press release published on his personal website.
“Mr. Lopez is a businessman who has known Tareck El Aissami for a number of years. Mr. Lopez is not a government official and has not engaged in drug trafficking. The listing is unjustified in targeting a legitimate businessman, like Samark Lopez, who has played a key role in helping to support the future of Venezuela”, the statement read.
“The listing provides no factual evidence or legal justification as to why Samark Lopez should be placed on the list, other than that Samark Lopez and Tareck El Aissami are personal acquaintances. The listing appears to be politically motivated,” it concluded.
The Army Men
Despite that a severe economic crisis in Venezuela persists, and with the government is running out of options, Maduro still enjoys the loyalty of the most relevant sector in the country: the Bolivarian Armed Forces. His political future and Venezuela’s destiny will depend on this continued support.
“In order to keep power, the loyalty of the army must be preserved at all costs,” says Federico Gaon, an Intelligence Analyst for Latin America at Max Security, a security company based in Tel-Aviv, Israel, told i24NEWS.
“For this reason, amid ever-growing inflation since ‘Chavismo’ began over 15 years ago, the military has traditionally enjoyed high salaries next to employees on the State’s payroll,” he adds, warning that “as the socioeconomic situation began to sharply deteriorate, more elements within the military have engaged with narco-trafficking actives to make money on the side.".
With an annual inflation over 700%, the Venezuelan government seems to surround itself with its most loyal men, and in this context, El-Aissami’s appointment as Maduro’s number two is especially significant as the country's constitution empowers the head of state with command over the armed forces.
However, it remains uncertain how long this loyalty will last. What is for sure is that El-Aissami will have a predominant role in the destiny of the country, one way or another.
Damian Pachter is i24NEWS's Latin America correspondent and a research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. Follow him on Twitter.
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