March 24, 2024

DC federal appeals court upholds Samark Jose Lopez Bello’s narcotics trafficking designation

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently ruled to uphold the designation of Samark Jose Lopez Bello as a Specially Designated Narcotic Trafficker (“SDNT”) by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. Lopez Bello, a citizen of Venezuela and Italy, was a businessman who operated several corporations related to Venezuelan oil and gas industries, held U.S. visas, and resided in Florida. The designation effectively froze his assets in the United States, including 13 entities and an aircraft, and banned transactions involving frozen property.  According to an OFAC press release, Lopez Bello was designated for assisting narcotics trafficker Tareck Zaidan El Aissami and serving as his “primary frontman” who laundered drug proceeds and “handled business arrangements and financial matters” on El Aissami’s behalf.  Lopez Bello filed the appeal after his efforts to challenge the designation in the US District Court for the District of Columbia were rejected by the court and his claim was dismissed in 2022.

In 2017, Lopez Bello was designated by OFAC for materially assisting and supporting El Aissami, a narcotics trafficker who OFAC designated simultaneously as a SDNT. Lopez Bello challenged the simultaneous designation arguing that his actions did not violate U.S. sanctions because El Aissami had not been designated at the time the services were provided.  As a result, Lopez Bello claimed that the simultaneous designation exceeded the statutory authority granted to OFAC in the Kingpin Act and should be overturned. He also claimed that the simultaneous designation deprived him of fair notice of the prohibited conduct and that he was denied due process because of OFAC’s failure to provide him with sufficient post-deprivation notice.  Lopez Bello claimed that the insufficient post-deprivation notice prevented him from understanding the designation and offering rebuttal arguments.

The Court of Appeals rejected each of Lopez Bello’s claims and held that the Kingpin Act permits OFAC to designate a Tier 2 Trafficker (Lopez Bello) and a Tier 1 Trafficker (El Aissami) at the same time.  According to the court, OFAC had imposed simultaneous designations involving Tier 1 and Tier 2 traffickers since at least 2010. The court reasoned that this provided the public and, in particular, Lopez Bello with sufficient notice that assisting and servicing a not-yet-designated trafficker would subject him to potential OFAC sanctions. The court also determined that “the redacted administrative record, unclassified summary, Blocking Memorandum, Federal Register notice and press release” given to Lopez Bello by OFAC following his designation provided him with sufficient post-deprivation notice as well as an opportunity to be heard.  According to the court, “[d]ue process does not require more.”

U.S. Court of Appeals Opinion