With much of the country on the verge of starvation, food trafficking has become one of the biggest businesses.
Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s new vice president, has hit back at the United States for labelling him a major drug trafficker and slapping sanctions on him, calling the allegations a “vile” attack.
“We shall not be distracted by these miserable provocations,” El Aissami, 42, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.
“Truth is invincible and we will see this vile aggression dispelled.”
US authorities on Monday blacklisted El Aissami on accusations of masterminding an international network shipping drugs to Mexico and the US while serving as the country’s interior minister and governor of Aragua state.
El Aissami, who became 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 US Department of the Treasury said.
The US government also issued sanctions on businessman Samark Lopez, believed to be an associate of El Aissami.
In a statement on his website, Lopez also said the listings appeared “politically motivated”.
Members of the US Senate had previously sent a letter to Trump urging him to act against Venezuelan officials.
Their letter referred to El Aissami, noting that his recent appointment as executive vice president put him in line to become Venezuela’s next leader. That, they said, “is extremely troubling given his alleged ties to drug trafficking and terrorist organisations”.
Senior administration officials declined to say whether Trump had personally signed off on the sanctions or whether he was involved in the decision.
Maduro’s government has frequently cast US and opposition accusations of drug-trafficking, corruption and human rights abuses as a false pretext to justify meddling in Venezuela and a push to topple him.
El Aissami, whom local media report is of Syrian and Lebanese extraction, grew up poor in the Andean state of Merida.
He went on to study law and criminology and made a name for himself in Venezuela by cracking down on drug gangs.
El Aissami had been both a member of parliament and a state governor for the ruling Socialist Party before being named vice president last month.