THE statement by the United States Treasury Department was blunt. It alleges that Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s vice-president, is a “prominent” drug trafficker, who amassed great wealth through his connections to gangs across Latin America, including Mexico’s vicious Zetas. Among the now-frozen American assets linked to him are three lavish apartments in the Four Seasons complex in Miami and a Gulfstream jet. If the allegations are true, Mr El Aissami’s carefully cultivated image as a true believer in the socialist ideology of Venezuela’s government is just a cover.

As normally happens when any outsider accuses anyone in the Venezuelan regime of wrongdoing, the country’s leaders have closed ranks. The foreign ministry accused the United States government of committing “an international crime”. Mr El Aissami himself denounces the allegations as untrue, “miserable and vile”.

But rumours of malfeasance have swirled around the dapper politician since he came to prominence under President Hugo Chávez in the early 2000s. He was interior minister, and then governor of the coastal Aragua state. Defectors accuse him of running his own intelligence agency to intimidate his enemies. They say proceeds from drug trafficking have smoothed his advance, which culminated in his appointment, at the age of 42, to the vice-presidency in January. Venezuela’s current president, Nicolás Maduro, gave him sweeping decree powers to oversee ministries’ spending and expropriate private firms.

Mr El Aissami is not the first Venezuelan official to be branded a drug trafficker. In August 2016 an American court indicted Néstor Reverol, a former head of the anti-narcotics agency, for taking money from drug gangs. The day after the indictment was made public, Mr Maduro made him interior minister. The army, which pledges support to Mr El Aissami, has been accused by human-rights groups of large-scale corruption.

American officials say that the sanctions against Mr El Aissami are the result of a “years-long investigation” and do not necessarily indicate a change of policy towards Venezuela under the new administration. Donald Trump called for the release of a prominent political prisoner on February 15th. The blacklisting of Mr El Aissami is unlikely to moderate the regime’s ferocious crackdown on the opposition. But it hardly reflects well on the regime.