Former Vice President of Venezuela added to ICE’s Most Wanted List

NEW YORK – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) announced earlier this month the addition of former Venezuelan Vice President and current Minister of Industry and 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.

The action followed an ICE HSI New York 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 earlier this year.

El Aissami was appointed executive vice president of Venezuela in January 2017. He previously served as governor of Venezuela’s Aragua state from 2012 to 2017, as well as Venezuela’s minister of interior and justice starting in 2008. He facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, including control over planes that left from a Venezuelan air base and routing drugs through Venezuelan ports. In his previous positions, he oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of more than 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including those with final destinations in Mexico and the United States.

Lopez Bello, a 45-year-old Venezuelan businessman and El Aissami’s co-conspirator, has been the 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 OFAC pursuant to the Kingpin Act and related regulations.

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.

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. These investigations seek to make the world a smaller place in which corrupt politicians, oligarchs, and politically-exposed persons may travel and do business. Working with prosecutors around the world, 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.

Peter C. Fitzhugh, special agent in charge of HSI New York, followed up by explaining the importance of the Kingpin Act, an OFAC designation targeting those who pose a threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States: “Imposing sanctions against foreign persons like El Aissami and Lopez Bello are necessary, as they sought to gain power and control by circumventing the law.  The indictments reflect HSI New York El Dorado Task Force’s steadfast commitment to holding those willing to violate such sanctions accountable.  Law enforcement around the world knows that they are wanted for these criminal charges; and it is only a matter of time before El Aissami and Lopez Bello are arrested, extradited, and prosecuted right here in New York.”