US indicts Venezuela ex-vice president Tareck El Aissami

Venezuelan Industry Minister and ex-vice president Tareck El Aissami was indicted in New York and charged with violating US sanctions, along with businessman Samark Lopez Bello (AFP Photo/Juan BARRETO)

New York (AFP) - The United States indicted Venezuelan industry minister and former vice president Tareck El Aissami on sanctions violations Friday, two years after naming him a narcotics "kingpin" for allegedly giving cover to drug traffickers.

Aissami, a close ally of President Nicolas Maduro, and businessman Samark Lopez Bello were indicted together in New York and charged with violating US sanctions by using private jets to fly to meetings around the world.

The indictment came as the US steps up pressure on the embattled government of Maduro, who the US has branded illegitimate.

"El Aissami and Lopez Bello allegedly used private jets to set up private meetings around the globe including Turkey and Russia," Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent Angel Melendez said in a statement.

"It is necessary to impose sanctions against foreign persons seeking to gain power and control by circumventing the law."

The indictment covered activities by the two, along with four other men also indicted -- three in Florida and one from Panama -- that began in 2017 and continued through last week.

The indictment charged that they violated sanctions when they used US companies to arrange and pay for the flights between Venezuela, Turkey and Russia, the purpose of which was not explained.

Washington is leading international pressure to have Maduro replaced by opposition leader Juan Guaido, whom the US recognizes as the official interim president.

El Aissami and Lopez Bello were designated as complicit in narcotics trafficking in February 2017 under the US Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.

El Aissami, 44, has served as Venezuelan interior minister and was vice president from January 2017 to June 2018, when he shifted to lead the Industry Ministry.

The 2017 designation alleged that as interior minister El Aissami was paid to help protect shipments by Venezuelan drug boss Walid Makled Garcia, and helped coordinate them with Mexico's Los Zetas cartel.

Lopez Bello, the US Treasury said at the time, was a frontman for El Aissami and laundered drug proceeds.