NEW YORK -- Charges were unsealed Friday against a former Venezuelan vice president in New York federal court as authorities accused him of using his office to aid international drug traffickers.
Tareck El Aissami and Venezuelan businessman Samark Jose Lopez Bello were charged with violating the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act and U.S. Treasury Department sanctions.
"Both El Aissami and Lopez Bello will have to think twice before leaving Venezuela, as they are wanted to face justice here in New York," said Angel Melendez, who heads New York's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations.
Even before the charges announced Friday, the U.S. has accused El Aissami of playing a major role in global drug trafficking, a charge he denies. El Aissami, who is now the minister of industry and national production, is the most senior Venezuelan official ever targeted by the U.S.
Venezuela's communications minister declined to comment.
U.S. authorities suspect other high-ranking officials in Venezuela are also involved in drug trafficking.
U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a release that El Aissami violated sanctions by hiring U.S. companies to provide private jets.
Melendez of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the official used his position of power to engage in international drug trafficking.
As a result, El Aissami and Lopez Bello, both 44, were each already labeled a "Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker" under the Kingpin Act. El Aissami received the designation in February 2017, just weeks after he became vice president. He served in the position until last June.
If convicted of all five charges contained in an unsealed indictment, El Aissami and Lopez Bello would each face up to 150 years in prison.
Associated Press Writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.