A former Venezuelan vice president and five others, including three men with South Florida connections, were charged today with moving tens of thousands of dollars in cash from Venezuela to the United States in violation of federal sanctions and a drug-smuggling law.
Tareck Zaidan El Aissami served as vice president in 2017 and 2018 and is currently Venezuela’s Minister of Industries and Natural production. The U.S. Treasury first placed him on a list of “Foreign Narcotics Kingpins” back in February 2017 noting that “he oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including those with the final destinations of Mexico and the United States,” according to the 2017 Treasury press release announcing the sanctions.
The agency alleges that he helped coordinate drug shipments for organizations such as the infamous Mexican Zetas drug cartel and Colombian drug kingpin Daniel Barrera Barrera.
El Aissami served as Venezuelan minister of interior and justice starting in 2008. During his tenure, he issued hundreds of passports to members of Hezbollah and Iran’s revolutionary guard. He rose quickly through the Bolivarian government, serving as head of the state of Aragua from 2012 to 2017. During his governorship, Aragua became the most dangerous state in Venezuela.
After he was named Vice President of Venezuela under President Nicolas Maduro, the U.S. Treasury department, at the behest of the Trump administration, placed El Aissami on a list of sanctioned Venezuelan officials.
It was these sanctions that Mr. Aissami and his associates flouted, prosecutors say.
Though federal officials allege El Aissami’s involvement in the drug trade runs deep, the charging documents make little mention of narcotics. Instead, the documents charge that El Aissami and the five others violated the sanctions. Among the co-conspirators are Victor Mones Coro, who was arrested in West Palm Beach, and Michols Orsini Quintero, who went before a judge in Fort Lauderdale, Samark Lopez Bello, who was also indicted but did not appear, purchased palatial $16.5 million mansion in Gables Estates in 2016, the year before he was sanctioned. Only Mr. Mones and Mr. Orsini are in custody.
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The men, prosecutors say, used a series of private jets — some based in the United States — to move between Venezuela, Russia, Turkey, and The Dominican Republic. They are accused of paying for these services with cash smuggled into the United States, a violation of the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, a 1999 law designed to firewall drug traffickers from the international financial system.
Jeffrey M. Kolansky, the attorney for Lopez, declined comment on the charges saying only, “My client maintains his innocence.” Lopez was named in the indictment as Mr. El Aissami’s primary frontman, though his website describes him as “a leading Venezuelan businessman and philanthropist.”
Orsini, one of two of Mr. El Aissami’s co-conspirators who was arrested in South Florida today, has Facebook and Instagram pages that show he is a private pilot. One photo on Facebook shows an instrument panel with the caption “MMTO-KOPF,” which are the airport codes for Toluca International Airport, a facility close to Mexico City, and Miami Opa-locka executive airport, respectively. Orsini is charged with helping the conspirators avoid the provisions of the Kingpin Act. Mones, another co-conspirator facing similar charges, has an Instagram page with a picture of a private jet.
El Aissami remains at large in Venezuela, as do Lopez Bello and another co-consiprator, though the indictment is expected to reduce their freedom of movement to countries that do not have existing extradition treaties with the United States.