U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) announced the addition of former Venezuelan Vice President, now President Nicolas Maduro’s Minister of National Production, Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah and his co-conspirator — Venezuelan businessman Samark Jose Lopez Bello — to its Most Wanted List for international narcotics trafficking and money laundering.
This latest anti-transnational crime case follows an ICE HSI New York City investigation that led to their special designations as narcotics traffickers as well as sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2017 and criminal charges filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York in 2019.
El Aissami, 45, was Maduro’s selected executive vice president for all of Venezuela in January 2017. Prior to his VP post, El Aissami served as the governor of Aragua state from 2012 to 2017, as well as the country’s minister of interior and justice starting in 2008.
He allegedly assured that shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, including his control over planes that left from a Venezuelan air base were safely delivered without interference from law enforcement in Venezuela and in police agencies within those nation’s receiving delivery of the narcotics.
In his previous government positions, he used his power to oversee his partially owned narcotics shipments of more than 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on numerous occasions, including those with destined for Mexico and the United States.
According to HSI’s special agent in charge, Angel Melendez, in New York on Wednesday:
“Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah has held key positions in the Government of Venezuela, including that of former Vice President and current Minister of Industry and National Production. He has used his position of power to engage in international drug trafficking, earning him the designation of Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker, along with his business partner Samark Lopez Bello. It is alleged that those arrested today, looking to fill their pockets with dirty money, aided El Aissami and Lopez Bello in circumventing sanctions and violating the Kingpin Act, an OFAC designation targeting those who pose a threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States. El Aissami and Lopez Bello allegedly used private jets to set up private meetings around the globe including Turkey and Russia,” said Angel M. Melendez, special agent in charge of HSI New York. “It is necessary to impose sanctions against foreign persons seeking to gain power and control by circumventing the law, and today’s indictment reflects HSI New York’s El Dorado Task Force resolve in holding those willing to violate such sanctions accountable. Both El Aissami and Lopez Bello will have to think twice before leaving Venezuela, as they are wanted to face justice here in New York.”
Meanwhile, Lopez Bello, a wealthy Venezuelan businessman and Vice President El Aissami’s co-conspirator, was a subject of a months-long manhunt following the takedown of a complex international sanctions-evasion and money-laundering operation.
“Lopez provided material assistance and financial support to El Aissami’s international narcotics trafficking activities. For more than two years, Lopez and others defrauded the U.S. government by engaging in transactions prohibited by the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act and related regulations, in addition to evading sanctions imposed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC),” according to an ICE HSI report obtained by the 13,000-member National Association of Chiefs of Police on Wednesday.
“An investigation conducted by HSI New York’s El Dorado Financial Crimes Task Force (El Dorado) drove OFAC to designate Tareck El Aissami and Samark Lopez Bello as specially designated narcotics traffickers (SDNT) pursuant to the Kingpin Act in February 2017 for playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking. Following the imposed sanctions, El Aissami and Lopez Bello were charged March 8 in Manhattan federal court with criminal violations of the Kingpin Act,” said ICE officials in their press statement..
As a result of OFAC’s designations, U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with or providing services to El Aissami and Lopez Bello absent authorization from OFAC. El Aissami and Lopez Bello nevertheless worked with, among others, U.S. citizens and U.S. holders, to violate and evade OFAC’s sanctions by obtaining travel services, including private jet charters for El Aissami, Lopez Bello, and their relatives and associates.
El Aissami and Lopez Bello often paid for these services through intermediaries who delivered bulk cash in Venezuela for subsequent laundering to and/or within the U.S. Certain flights are alleged to have been in connection with El Aissami’s official duties, notably trips to Turkey and Russia at and/or near the time when media reporting provided his presence in those countries to be in furtherance of aid packages to the Nicolas Maduro regime.
In targeting El Aissami and Lopez Bello, El Dorado investigators worked to trace financial payments and remittances from Venezuela and around the world to advance U.S. foreign policy goals to investigate and prosecute individuals who would knowingly aid and conspire with a corrupt regime engaged in human rights violations and criminal activities regarding the people and resources of Venezuela.
HSI seeks to charge and arrest these bad actors, while seizing their monies and restraining any assets. Because of the cross-border nature of the crimes investigated and the locations of indicted individuals, HSI sometimes diffuses these warrants to foreign law enforcement partners via INTERPOL Red Notices, which request host-country detention of the subject, if encountered.
As explained by Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, international sanctions are meant to limit the activities of individuals and countries deemed to have policies and practices incompatible with the U.S. from receiving the full benefit of economic, political, humanitarian, and other support the U.S. provides globally.