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U.S. Tags Venezuelan Vice President a Drug Trafficker, Sanctions Him

Image: Venezuelan VP El Aissami imposed with sanctions by US Treasury Dept
File photo of Venezuelan Pres. Nicolas Maduro (R) and Vice Pres. Tareck El Aissami (L). MIGUEL GUTIERREZ / EPA

WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of lawmakers cheered the administration's decision to sanction Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami under the "Kingpin Act" that designates him a narcotics trafficker.

The Treasury Department's website late Monday, said it was using the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act to impose the sanctions against him and Samark Jose Lopez Bello, a wealthy Venezuelan businessman believed to be El Aissami's main front man.

As part of the action, 13 companies owned or controlled by Lopez, including five in Florida, will be blocked and both men will be barred from entering the United States. The designation also freezes their assets and those of the companies.

Millions protest in streets of Venezuela 2:58

John E. Smith, acting director of the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement that the action against Venezuela is the result of a multi-year investigation under the KIngpin Act "to target significant narcotics traffickers in Venezuela."

Just last week, nearly three dozen members of Congress wrote a letter to the Trump administration urging the visa ban and other sanctions. Venezuela is on the verge of economic collapse and the country is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis as people are unable to get food and other basics. The lawmakers accused El Aissami, Lopez and other government officials of profiting from the crisis and noted his purported ties to Hezbollah.

RELATED: Congressional Group Urges Ban for Venezuelan Officials

In a joint statement, Sen. Bob Menéndez, D-N.J. and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said the sanctions were long overdue.

"With democracy under total siege in Venezuela and without any due process or rule of law left, we can and must do more to hold the Maduro regime accountable ...," the lawmakers said in their statement. Nicolás Maduro is president of Venezuela.

"We commend the administration for acting quickly and decisively as the human rights violations, political persecution and impunity in Venezuela cannot go unpunished," Menéndez and Ros-Lehtinen said.

Image: File Photo: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a meeting to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the arrival to the presidency of the late President Hugo Chavez at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas
File Photo: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (R) speaks next to Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami, during a meeting in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS / Reuters

A former Obama administration official told The Associated Press the decision to sanction El Aissami was months in the making and involved several U.S. federal agencies. But it was held up last year, at the insistence of the State Department, for fear it could interfere in a Vatican-backed attempt at dialogue between the government and opposition as well as efforts to win the release of a U.S. citizen, Joshua Holt, jailed for months on what are seen as trumped-up weapons charges.

"This was an overdue step to ratchet up pressure on the Venezuelan regime and signal that top officials will suffer consequences if they continue to engage in massive corruption, abuse human rights and dismantle democracy," said Mark Feierstein, who served as Obama's top national security adviser on Latin America.

The talks between the opposition and Venezuela have since collapsed.

In the wake of Maduro's crackdown on dissent following anti-government protests in 2014, the U.S. Congress passed legislation authorizing the U.S. president to freeze the assets and ban visas for anyone accused of carrying out acts of violence or violating the human rights of those opposing Venezuela's government. Monday's sanctions were imposed under rules passed during the Clinton administration allowing the U.S. to go after the assets of anyone designated a drug kingpin.

El Aissami, 42, has been the target of U.S. law enforcement investigation for years, stemming from his days as interior minister when dozens of fraudulent Venezuelan passports ended up in the hands of people from the Middle East, including alleged members of Hezbollah.

Venezuela's top convicted drug trafficker, Walid Makled, before being sent back from Colombia in 2011, said he paid bribes through El Aissami's brother to officials so they could turn a blind eye to cocaine shipments that have proliferated in Venezuela during the past two decades of socialist rule.

El Aissami was named vice president last month as Maduro struggles to hold together a loose coalition of civilian leftist and military supporters whose loyalty to the revolution started by the late Hugo Chavez has frayed. Recent polls say more than 80 percent of Venezuelans want Maduro gone.

"The sanctions in and of themselves will not bring about a democratic transition,"Feierstein said. "That will require the Venezuelan opposition to remobilize its followers and U.S. diplomatic efforts to marshal governments in the region to isolate Maduro."

Image:
A demonstrator wears a banner that reads in Spanish: "Prohibited to forget" during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2017, the third anniversary of a student's killing. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano) Fernando Llano / AP

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a statement he hoped the sanctions would be followed by more action to make sure the "Maduro regime feels pressure to cease its illicit activities, free all political prisoners, tolerate dissent, and respect the will of the Venezuelan people, who voted to abandon the disastrous path of Chavez and Maduro."

Tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela have been on the rise for years. The countries haven't exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

But Trump mentioned the country only briefly during the campaign, and amid uncertainty on whether he would break from the Obama administration's policy of relative restraint, Maduro had adopted a softer tack. After blasting Trump as a "bandit" and "mental patient" during the campaign, Maduro has remained quiet since.

Trump spoke with Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos Monday and expressed concern about Venezuela and the two discussed the importance of promoting respect for democratic institutions, according to a White House summary of the call.

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