US warns Turkey against Venezuelan ‘blood gold’

Venezuela has emerged as yet another point of dispute between Washington and Ankara.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – The US Treasury Department’s Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing, Marshall Billingslea, visited Turkey last week. His primary concern was enforcing sanctions on Iran, but while there, he warned Turkish business leaders against trading in Venezuelan “blood gold,” Bloomberg News reported on Friday.

Venezuela has emerged as yet another point of dispute between Washington and Ankara, as the US recognizes National Assembly leader Juan Guaido, as the country’s legitimate president, and Turkey, along with Russia, China, and Iran, back Venezuelan strong man, Nicolas Maduro.

Close ties between Ankara and Caracas are relatively new, dating back to 2017. Maduro first visited Turkey in October of that year, while he was on a tour of foreign countries which included Russia and Belarus.

Following that visit, Bloomberg reported, a “mysterious” Turkish company, Sardes, “sprang into existence.” In January 2018, Sardes imported some $41 million of gold from Venezuela, “the first such transactions between the two countries in records that go back 50 years.”

That figure more than doubled in February, and by November 2018, when US President Donald Trump signed an executive order imposing sanctions on trade in Venezuelan gold, Sardes had imported some $900 million worth of the precious metal.

Virtually nothing is known about what happened to that gold, although Sardes apparently stopped its trading.

Trump’s directive was prompted, in part, by concern that the “Maduro regime and associated persons” were plundering “Venezuela’s wealth for their own corrupt purposes,” as the executive order explains.

At that point, Turkey was the biggest importer of Venezuelan gold, and another Turkish company appeared, almost immediately, to step in to replace Sardes in a maneuver organized by the Turkish government at the highest levels.

In early December, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid his first visit—indeed, the first visit of any Turkish leader—to Venezuela. A key purpose of Erdogan’s trip was to resume Turkey’s trade in Venezuelan gold—despite Trump’s executive order banning such trade the month before.

On December 3, Erdogan flew into Caracas airport. Among the dignitaries on the tarmac to greet him was Venezuelan Vice President and Minister of Industries and National Production, Tareck el Aissami.

Aissami is the son of a Syrian immigrant, with ties to the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Aissami, himself, is heavily involved in drug trafficking, and in 2017, the US Treasury Department designated him a drug king pin and imposed sanctions.

Aissami is also widely reported to have ties to Arab extremists. The legendary New York District Attorney, Robert Morgenthau (grandson of Henry Morgenthau, America’s first ambassador to the Ottoman Empire), complained that as head of Venezuela’s passport and naturalization authority, Aissami had provided documents to members of Hamas and Hizbollah.

Last month, Aissami travelled Turkey to “finalize” the deal on gold trade agreed upon during Erdogan’s trip to Caracas, Middle East Eye reported.

On his visit, on January 16, Aissami went to Corum in central Anatolia, where he toured the Ahlatci Metal Refinery. Two days later, he met with Erdogan at Ankara’s Presidential Complex.

The visit to Turkey of the US Treasury Department’s Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing followed two weeks after Aissami’s visit. The gold trade is an extremely sensitive business. To be considered reputable and allowed to engage unhindered in international trade, a company must demonstrate that it is not involved in illegal activities.

Ahlatci is such a company. As its website explains, “Ahlatci Metal Refinery is aware of its responsibility not to be associated with or not to participate with any kind of money laundering and terrorism financing.” 

In Turkey, Marshall Billingslea met with a group of businessmen, who included a senior Ahlatci executive. He “warned the group to avoid dealing with what he called Aissami’s ‘blood gold,’” Bloomberg reported.

Ahlatci decided afterwards not to process the Venezuelan gold.