Tag Archives: drug trafficking

U.S. sanctions Venezuelan vice president and accuses him of being a drug kingpin

The Miami Herald

The U.S. government added Venezuelan Vice President Tarek El Aissami to its sanctions list Monday, saying he “played a significant role in international narcotics trafficking” and freezing his access to a fortune estimated at $3 billion after a lengthy investigation of his alleged links to drug traffickers and Muslim extremists.

The measure also covers Samark Lopez — accused of being the principal front man for El Aissami — and nearly a dozen companies linked to Lopez, including some in Miami.

El Aissami and Lopez were the latest of several Venezuelan government officials and supporters listed as alleged drug traffickers by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the agency in charge of enforcing U.S. sanctions. The sanctions were authorized under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.

“OFAC’s action today is the culmination of a multi-year investigation under the Kingpin Act to target significant narcotics traffickers in Venezuela and demonstrates that power and influence do not protect those who engage in these illicit activities,” OFAC Acting Director John E. Smith said.

“This case highlights our continued focus on narcotics traffickers and those who help launder their illicit proceeds through the United States,” Smith added in a statement. “Denying a safe haven for illicit assets in the United States and protecting the U.S. financial system from abuse remain top priorities of the Treasury Department.”

The sanctioned companies own three condos at the upscale Millennium Tower Residences at the Four Seasons hotel in Brickell. The companies paid nearly $7 million for the three units in 2012 and 2013, Miami-Dade County property records show.

South Florida’s real estate market is a known conduit for dirty cash. Since 2015, an anti-money laundering push by the U.S. Treasury Department has required extra checks on shell companies buying luxury homes in Miami-Dade County and Manhattan. (The heightened monitoring was later imposed on other pricey real estate markets around the nation.)

OFAC also identified and blocked properties held by 13 companies owned or controlled by Lopez or others “that comprise an international network spanning the British Virgin Islands, Panama, the United Kingdom, the United States and Venezuela,” the news release said. Lopez oversees an international network of petroleum, distribution and other companies, according to the release.

El Aissami, who has not hidden his presidential ambitions, has been under U.S. investigation for many months because he is considered to be one of the top leaders of drug-smuggling operations in Venezuela.

He was appointed vice president in January by President Nicolás Maduro after serving as governor of Venezuela’s Aragua state fromm 2012 to 2017. The Treasury Department news release said he “facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela” by plane. The statement also said he “oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms” from Venezuela with a final destination of the U.S. or Mexico.

The U.S. also said he received payment for facilitating drug shipments from Venezuelan “drug kingpin” Walid Makled Garcia, and officials linked him to Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel. They said he provided protection to Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera and Venezuelan drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Palanco.

As vice president, El Aissami is first in line to replace Maduro if the president leaves office for any reason.

Most alarming for many Venezuela-watchers are his ties with radical Islamic organizations in the Middle East, including the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

El Aissami is one of the main contacts in Latin America for the extremist organizations, said Luis Fleischman, senior adviser at the Center for Security Policy (CSP) in Washington, D.C.

“He is one of Venezuela’s main contacts with Hezbollah,” said Fleischman, who keeps a close eye on the South American country. “He has been providing logistical and financial support to those organizations.”

A 2014 report by the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) highlighted allegations that El Aissami played a key role in efforts by Muslim fundamentalists to create a network in Latin America that would finance terrorism in other parts of the world.

“Over the years, Tarek El Aissami has developed a sophisticated and multilevel financial network that functions as a criminal terrorist pipeline for bringing Islamic radicals to Venezuela and its neighbors, and to send illegal funds from Latin America to the Middle East,” the report said.

The vice president “has used his political prominence to establish intelligence and financial channels with Islamic nations, especially Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Iran,” the report added.

The investigation also concluded that when El Aissami was minister of the interior, he issued Venezuelan passports and other documents to members of the radical Islamic organizations.

“The majority [of 173 individuals] had Venezuelan passports,” said Joseph Humire, executive director of SFS and one of the authors of the report. “Others had identity cards and others had Venezuelan visas. In some cases, these people had birth certificates.”

The individuals “were from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. But the majority were from Iran, Lebanon and Syria. Seventy percent of them came from those countries and had some sort of ties to Hezbollah,” Humire told el Nuevo Herald.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, was among the Miami-area politicians who welcomed the sanctions.

“The Venezuelan government is run by corrupt, incompetent and criminal thugs who have inflicted misery on their own people and routinely used violence to crush dissent,” Rubio said. “For years, I’ve talked about how Venezuelan regime officials are committing crimes in Venezuela, stealing from the Venezuelan people and then spending their riches living in the lap of luxury in Miami. Today’s announcement further confirms how true this is, and the extent to which corrupt and criminal Venezuelan regime officials have been allowed to freely travel and prance around U.S. soil with impunity.”

The Capture of ‘The Ghost,’ a Criminal Legend of Miami’s Cocaine Era

mustelier

The Atlantic

Anibal Mustelier is tied to a famous Florida bank heist, Colombian cartel murders in the 1980s, and even Cuban government assassinations.

During the years Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel flooded Miami with cocaine, authorities say Anibal Mustelier was one of the city’s more deadly hitmen. In 1989, he allegedly machine-gunned a local businessman accused of taking money from the cartel. When that failed, he is said to have bombed the man’s car.

Mustelier is now 66, and has spent the past 26 years hiding as a fugitive from the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, and authorities in several countries. It was that knack for evasion that earned him the nickname “The Ghost.” He was so successful at hiding, in fact, that when officers in a Miami suburb caught a lead on a group of bank robbers earlier this month, they didn’t even know whom they were chasing.

Mustelier was arrested over the weekend with little attention. It was only Tuesday that local media outlets published the news. Of the robbery that brought down him down, the Miami New Times reported that Mustelier and his crew had cut a hole in the roof of a nail salon adjacent to a jewelry store. They planned to tunnel through another wall once inside, but they had:

… accidentally drilled through a metal pipe with wires inside, shorting out the lights in the entire shopping center.

Around 8:50 a.m. the next morning, a witness says he saw a “suspicious male” standing outside the store acting as a lookout and heard unknown voices emanating from inside the jewelry store. Possibly realizing they’d been seen, the alleged robbers bolted, carrying large black duffel bags with them and shielding their eyes with their hands.
After the robbery, a confidential informant helped officers record conversations with some of the suspected robbers, one of whom, to their surprise, turned out to be Mustelier. On Sunday, police raided the aging criminal’s home. Inside, they found jewelry, a bulletproof vest, gloves, a mask, and weapons.

Along with charges connected to the robbery, Mustelier has warrants out from an old bank robbery, and an attempted murder. Mustelier is believed to have masterminded one of South Florida’s largest robberies, that of the SunTrust Bank in Miami in 1996. The heist allegedly earned Mustelier and his associates $5 million, and a starring role in an episode of America’s Most Wanted.

Local police said Mustelier was at one time linked to former Cuban President Fidel Castro, working as an assassin for the government. He was believed to have hidden in Cuba for a long time, and possibly in Venezuela. In 2001 he was seen visiting family in the Miami area, but quickly vanished. Lately, Mustelier lived in a small, single-story home with his girlfriend.

U.S. diplomat recommends caution in Cuba talks

obama

The Miami Herald

Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics and Law Enforcement said the United States should be “very careful” in stepping up cooperation with Cuban security agencies.

Assistant Secretary of State William W. Brownfield, who heads the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, has recommends caution in talks with Cuba on law enforcement issues, saying they should not get ahead of the broader bilateral negotiations.

“The point of this is to do it very, very carefully. The two governments have to conclude that there’s value for them in taking this road and taking additional steps,” Brownfield said during a visit to Miami on Monday. “There will be times when this will make sense to both, and other times when it will make sense to only one of them.”

The diplomat said there is “a new reality” because the two sides at least are talking about the issues, “in contrast to what was happening two years ago. But we can’t forget that there were reasons behind the more than 50 years of bad relations between the two governments, and those issues will have to be addressed along the way.”

The diplomat said there is “a new reality” because the two sides at least are talking about the issues, “in contrast to what was happening two years ago. But we can’t forget that there were reasons behind the more than 50 years of bad relations between the two governments, and those issues will have to be addressed along the way.”

Continue reading U.S. diplomat recommends caution in Cuba talks

Thanks to Obama’s new Cuba policy, the Castros are increasing their exports

panamdrug

Fox News Latino

401 kilos of cocaine found on Cuban ship; Diaz-Balart: Castro regime ‘caught red-handed’

Panamanian authorities seized 401 kilos, about 882 pounds, of cocaine on a ship headed to Belgium from Cuba on Thursday.

The cocaine was found camouflaged among tanks of cane-sugar syrup, according to the country’s National Police (PN), part of operation Caña Brava. The PN did not elaborate further on the raid.

Despite the lack of details available, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Florida) fired off a press release blaming the Cuban government and the Castro regime for trafficking cocaine.

“The Castro regime has once again been caught red-handed violating international law and norms,” Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American, said. “This time, it reportedly was caught red-handed sending hundreds of kilos of cocaine to Belgium. This is only the latest in the Castro regime’s long history of links to narcotrafficking.”

Diaz-Balart pointed to a 2015 case in which Colombian authorities discovered a hidden shipment of weapons from Cuba on a Chinese ship and a 2013 case in which Panamanian authorities caught the Castro regime smuggling 240 tons of military weaponry, including MiG-21 fighter jets, to North Korea.

The congressman has opposed U.S. President Barack Obama’s overtures to normalize relations with Cuba’s communist regime and has that the initiative has only served to “embolden” the Castro regime and “escalate its illicit activities.”

The bust took place in Colón, Panama, an official source told EFE.

U.S. to charge Venezuela’s National Guard chief with drug trafficking

nestoreverol

En Español Reuters

Reuters

U.S. prosecutors are preparing to unveil drug trafficking charges against the head of Venezuela’s National Guard, according to people familiar with the case, as the United States investigates the suspected involvement of senior Venezuelan officials in the cocaine trade.

Nestor Reverol, the former head of Venezuela’s anti-narcotics agency and a long-time ally of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, is named in a sealed indictment pending in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, according to the people.

He would be one of the highest-ranking Venezuelan officials – and the only one currently in office – to face U.S. drug charges.

Reverol, who leads the branch of Venezuela’s armed forces that controls the country’s borders, could not be reached for comment by Reuters.

In recent years, he has rejected U.S. accusations that Venezuela has failed to curb illicit drug shipments and has touted the government’s success in cracking down on the flow of cocaine from neighboring Colombia.

The National Guard did not respond to an email seeking comment, and a National Guard press official contacted by telephone declined to comment. Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to an emailed request for reaction.

It is unclear what the specific charges are against Reverol, or when the charges against him will be made public.

U.S. Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr and a spokesperson for Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Robert Capers, whose office is handling the case against Reverol, declined to comment. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman Joseph Moses declined to comment.

U.S. prosecutors have unsealed indictments charging at least five former Venezuelan officials with drug trafficking crimes over the past four years, according to records from Florida and New York district courts.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro dismisses charges of official involvement in drug trafficking as an international right-wing campaign to discredit socialism in Venezuela.

His Socialist Party says drug interdiction efforts have improved since Venezuela expelled the DEA in 2005.

Venezuelan opposition leaders have for years accused high-level government officials of involvement in the drug trade or of turning a blind eye to the role of military officers in narcotics trafficking.

The U.S. State Department said in its annual narcotics control report this year that Venezuela has become one of the main transit routes for illegal drugs from South America due to the country’s porous border with neighboring Colombia, its “weak judicial system, sporadic international counter narcotics cooperation, and permissive and corrupt environment.”

Up to a quarter of all cocaine exported from South America in 2011 departed from Venezuela, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Members of Venezuela’s National Guard have been heavily involved in the drug trade, according to Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations.

“The National Guard has been key to opening up the doors into Venezuela for Colombian drug trafficking organizations and subversive groups,” he said. “They have transformed Venezuela into a massive pipeline for cocaine into the United States and Europe.”

Two other former officials with the National Guard have been indicted on U.S. drugs charges in recent years.

Relatives of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores have also been caught up in U.S. anti-drug-trafficking efforts.

Two of her nephews, Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, were arrested in Haiti last month and indicted in federal court in Manhattan on cocaine trafficking charges. Lawyers for the nephews did not immediately respond to requests for comment. They have previously said the pair would plead not guilty.

U.S. officials said those arrests were not an effort to go after Maduro’s government but a case of U.S. law enforcement seeking to prosecute suspected wrongdoing.

Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro’s Relatives Indicted in U.S. for Cocaine Smuggling

madurocilia

Newsweek

Two of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s relatives have been indicted in the United States for cocaine smuggling, according to court papers on Thursday, following an international sting that Venezuela cast as an “imperialist” attack.

Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30, and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, 29—who are nephews of Maduro’s wife and first lady Cilia Flores—were charged in a one-count indictment filed in federal court in Manhattan.

The two were arrested in Haiti and flown to New York on Tuesday, people familiar with the matter said. They were expected to appear in court later on Thursday.

The charge against them alleged that in October, the pair participated in meetings in Venezuela  regarding a shipment of cocaine that was to be sent to the United States via Honduras.

The case is an embarrassment for Maduro, the 52-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez, as his ruling socialists head towards parliamentary elections in December.

The party faces the possibility of losing the National Assembly for the first time in the “Chavismo” movement’s 16-year rule due to voter anger over economic crisis in the OPEC member, which has been hit hard by falling oil prices.

Maduro and other senior officials have long said accusations of collusion with drug trafficking by the United States are part of an international campaign to discredit socialism in  Venezuela .

Flores, who was in Geneva on Thursday with Maduro as he addressed the United Nations human rights body, refused to speak to reporters seeking comment on her nephews.

Government officials point to scores of local arrests as evidence of their efforts to clamp down on the drug trade, but U.S. investigators appear to be chasing a plethora of cases that allegedly involve  Venezuela n officials.

“Neither attacks nor imperialist ambushes can harm the people of the liberators,” tweeted Maduro, soon after news that the two Venezuela ns had been whisked out of Haiti to New York.

“The fatherland will follow its course,” he added.

Influential First Lady

The pair had contacted an undercover U.S. agent about selling 800 kg (1,763 lb) of cocaine, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing two sources familiar with the matter.

The two were arrested at a hotel in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, on Tuesday by anti-narcotics police at the request of U.S. authorities, according to a senior Haitian official. They were flown out of the country accompanied by agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the official said.

Mainstream media coverage of the affair in  Venezuela  was muted. The front page of two leading newspapers, which have softened their criticism of the government since recent changes of ownerships, made no mention of Flores’ nephews.

Opposition critics, however, took to Twitter to poke fun at the powerful first lady. One digital mock-up put her face into an advert for the Spanish-language soap opera “La Reina del Sur,” which is about a female drug kingpin.

Another revamped the Coca-Cola logo to read “Coca-Flores,” with the government’s “Made in Socialism” seal added mockingly.

Flores, 62, called the “First Combatant” by the president, is highly influential in her husband’s government. She was on the legal team of late socialist leader Chavez, working to secure his 1994 release from prison after a failed coup attempt.

In 2006, she became the first woman elected to lead the legislature, taking over that role from Maduro, and is registered as a candidate in the Dec. 6 legislative elections.

The U.S. State Department says more than half of the cocaine produced in neighboring Colombia moves through  Venezuela  toward Europe and the United States.

The U.S. Treasury has nine Venezuelan officials on a “kingpin” list, which bars those suspected of involvement in large-scale drug trafficking from the U.S. financial system.

BREAKING NEWS – Relatives of Venezuelan president arrested trying to smuggle nearly 1 ton of drugs into U.S.

madurocilia

Fox News Latino

Nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his wife have been arrested on charges of drug smuggling, Fox News Latino has confirmed.

The two men were arrested in Haiti on Tuesday as part of a sting operation coordinated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York presented the charges against Efraín Antonio Campos Flores and Francisco Flores de Freites, Spanish news outlet ABC said.

Campos claimed to be the son of Flores and stepson of President Nicolas Maduro, said former DEA official Michael Vigil to the Associated Press. Vigil says he was briefed by U.S. authorities about the undercover operation that resulted in the arrests.

The men allegedly were in the process of smuggling cocaine – just under a ton, roughly about 1,700 lbs. – into the United States when they were arrested in Port-au-Prince, where their plane arrived, and brought by authorities to New York.

Both men are scheduled to appear before a federal judge on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal says.

The arrests come at as U.S. officials have been saying that drug smuggling involves people at the highest ranks of the Venezuelan government.

The young men told authorities that they had diplomatic immunity, but police found no basis for their claim, ABC said.

They told the DEA that they were acting in connection with Diosdado Cabello, speaker of the National Assembly, as well as with a governor, Tarck el Aissami, who is the former Venezuelan Minister of the Interior.

They said that the high-ranking officials had helped with the drug shipment.

One of the young men, it is unclear which one, was raised by Maduro and his wife, Cilia Flores.

Cabello, Venezuela’s second most powerful figure, has been a focus of U.S. drug-trafficking investigation involving top members of the Venezuelan government.

A longtime ally of late President Hugo Chavez, whom he met while in the Military Academy back in the 80s, Cabello is known these days as Chavismo´s main bully and has repeatedly been accused of corruption.

This is not the first time that young people related to Maduro and Flores have been implicated in drug smuggling.

A former chief of security for the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, said that Walter Jacob Gavidia Flores, son of Maduro’s wife, and Nicolas Maduro, son of the current president, used small planes belonging to the national petroleum company, PDVSA, to transport drugs, according to ABC.

The security chief also implicated Hugito Chavez, the son of the late president, and Cuba’s former ambassador to Venezuela, German Sanchez Otero – and other Cuban officials — in cocaine smuggling. He said that they used PDVSA’s corporate jets to take drug shipments to Cuba, and then smuggled to the United States.

By investigating Cabello, the U.S. is taking on one of the Venezuela’s most influential figures – one whose downfall could further fracture an administration already reeling from an economy on the brink of collapse.

Last month not many were shocked when he sued 22 media executives whose outlets had carried news reported by Spanish newspaper ABC regarding him being investigated in the U.S. – basically anticipating The Wall Street Journal article that broke the news to the American world this week.

The media executives found out too that a court order now also bans them from leaving the country, and Cabello readily admitted on his TV show that he was behind the move.

Longtime critics of the Maduro and Chavez governments say the arrests are yet another example of the corruption that has pervaded the administration.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult for the Venezuelan government to hide its true colors,” said Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation and a relative of the jailed opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez. “Venezuela’s government is a criminal enterprise composed of a drug cartel, a money laundering financial system, and a kleptocracy.”

“Maduro, his family, and his henchmen make Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel look disorganized and small-time,” Halvorssen said. “Venezuela uses its army, its foreign ministry, and its banking sector as accessories to a profitable drug business.”