The US has imposed sanctions against Venezuelan Vice-President Tareck El Aissami over his alleged involvement in drug trafficking, in yet another hostile measure that could spark fresh tensions between the two countries.
Late on Monday, the US Treasury Department blacklisted El Aissami and his associate, Venezuelan businessman Samark Lopez, over allegations of having a role in global drug trafficking.
As part of the sanctions effort, 13 companies owned or controlled by Lopez -- including five based in the US state of Florida -- will be blocked and both men will be banned from entering the United States.
Lopez stands accused of serving as El Aissami’s “key front-man” to launder drug proceeds and purchase assets.
El Aissami, who has long denied any criminal ties, did not immediately react to Washington’s move.
Since his days as interior minister, El Aissami has been the target of US law enforcement investigation over allegations of having links with the Lebanese Hezbollah resistance movement.
The sanctions were imposed a week after “a bipartisan group of 34 American politicians sent a letter to [US President] Donald Trump urging him to step up pressure” on Caracas “by immediately sanctioning top officials” of President Nicolas Maduro for “human rights abuses,” according to a report by the Associated Press.
Following the outbreak of anti-government protests in Venezuela in 2014, the US Congress passed legislation authorizing the president to freeze the assets and ban visas “for anyone accused of carrying out acts of violence” against Venezuela’s US-backed opposition elements.
Relations between Washington and Caracas have been deteriorating over the past years. The two governments have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.
This is the first hostile move by the new US administration against Venezuela, Washington’s main critic in Latin America.
Trump mentioned Venezuela only briefly during his election campaign and amid uncertainty on whether he would break from the Obama administration’s policy of relative restraint.
In March 2016, the former US administration renewed an executive order that declares Venezuela a threat to the US, extending sanctions against the South American country for one more year. Caracas condemned the measure back then as a sign of Washington’s perpetual hostility towards the Latin American nation.