Washington (AFP) - The United States labeled Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami a major drug trafficker Monday, adding the veteran politician to its narcotics "kingpin" sanctions list.
The US Treasury accused El Aissami, seen as likely heir to President Nicolas Maduro, of facilitating, of protecting and overseeing large shipments of drugs from Venezuela to Mexico and the United States while serving as the country's interior minister and governor of Aragua state.
El Aissami -- who became the South American country's vice president on January 4 -- was allegedly in the pay of Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled Garcia to protect shipments, and coordinated them with Mexico's violent Los Zetas cartel, the Treasury said.
A key ally of El Aissami, businessman Samark Jose Lopez Bello, was also officially designated a narcotics "kingpin," and 13 of his companies spanning five countries were also listed for sanctions.
"Lopez Bello is a key frontman for El Aissami and in that capacity launders drug proceeds," the Treasury said.
The move cast a dark shadow over El Aissami, 42 and a former minister in the government of Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez.
El Aissami, who was born in Merida state, made a name for himself in Venezuela by cracking down on drug gangs.
But he has also helped Maduro take action against the political opposition in the country.
In a January 31 decree, Maduro granted El Aissami expansive new powers to seize property and approve ministers' budgets.
The US Treasury said the sanctioning action Monday was part of a multi-year investigation and was unrelated to El Aissami's recent promotion to vice president.
"The message in this designation is not a political one, an economic one or a political one. It is about international narcotics trafficking," said a senior US administration official in a briefing for journalists.
There was no information available immediately on whether the US is seeking the arrest and extradition of either man, but the official said the evidence against them in the case was very strong.
The case "demonstrates that power and influence do not protect those who engage in these illicit activities," said John Smith, acting director of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, in a statement.
"This case highlights our continued focus on narcotics traffickers and those who help launder their illicit proceeds through the United States."
The sanctions freeze any assets on US territory of those listed, and also ban any US citizens and entities from doing business with either man or the 13 companies.
Officials said they had frozen assets on US soil worth "tens of millions" of dollars, including a private jet and what appeared to be several luxury condominium units in Miami controlled by Lopez Bello.