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August 14, 2019New York, NY, United StatesFinancial Crimes

Former vice president of Venezuela Tareck El Aissami and Venezuelan businessman Samark Lopez Bello added to ICE’s Most Wanted List for international narcotics trafficking, money laundering

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."

About HSI New York’s El Dorado Financial Crimes Task Force

El Dorado is the premier financial enforcement and investigative task force in the world, responsible for detecting, disrupting and dismantling transnational criminal financial networks by preventing their access to U.S. financial systems and stemming the flow of their illicit funds through indictments, arrests, and seizures. Within El Dorado, the Foreign Corruption and Sanctions Group consists of special agents, task force officers and intelligence analysts that aggressively target and investigate organizations and individuals that threaten the national security, economy, and policies of the U.S. These investigations, executed in conjunction with other U.S. government agencies such as OFAC, FinCEN, the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, along with foreign law enforcement partners, are founded on a comprehensive analysis of all available holdings, sanction identification’s and special designations that provides HSI investigators with a pathway to attack the illicit financial flows that support and sustain criminal individuals and organizations around the world. HSI then employs a multi-faceted investigative approach that includes international undercover operations, judicially-authorized wiretaps, and other sensitive investigative techniques to target these state/non-state actors that seek to exploit the national economic security of the U.S.

About ICE Homeland Security Investigations

ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is a critical investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security and a vital U.S. asset in combating criminal organizations illegally exploiting America's travel, trade, financial and immigration systems. It investigates more than 400 violations of federal law, including all types of cross-border criminal activities involving child exploitation, commercial trade, fraud, financial crimes, human rights violations and human smuggling, national security and public safety threats, terrorism, narcotics and weapons smuggling, and other types of contraband. ICE HSI special agents also conduct investigations aimed at protecting critical infrastructure industries that are vulnerable to sabotage, attack or exploitation.

With more than 8,500 special agents and intelligence analysts assigned to more than 200 cities throughout the U.S. and more than 60 offices in 51 countries around the globe, ICE HSI works many of its cases alongside investigators from the FBI, Europol, INTERPOL, along with other local, state, federal, and foreign law enforcement agencies.