WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Venezuela poses a clear threat to regional stability and its economic collapse could drag down key U.S. allies in Latin America such as Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, a senior Treasury Department official warned on Tuesday.
Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department, also accused the government of President Nicolas Maduro of contaminating Venezuelan water supplies at gold mining sites.
“Venezuela poses a clear threat to regional stability and security on top of the horrific humanitarian crisis that is unfolding before our very eyes,” Billingslea told the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
“This is a hemispheric issue and the implosion of the regime there is a direct challenge for us,” he added.
Oil rich Venezuela’s economy has sunk into crisis under Maduro forcing tens of thousands of Venezuelans into neighbouring countries amid hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, and power cuts.
Billingslea said Maduro’s government was “one of the largest criminal enterprises in the Western Hemisphere” involved in money laundering, graft, fraud and illegal mining schemes, including mining gold and sending it to Turkey for processing.
“It is being done not just illegally, but it is being done at enormous environmental expense,” he said, “The regime has basically awarded itself control over a huge percentage of the country and is now stripping this gold out and dumping massive amounts of chemical and mercury contaminants into water supplies.”
“We have highlighted the fact that a lot of this non-monetary gold appears to be destined for Turkey,” he added.
Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment about Billingslea’s remarks.
The Trump administration has sought to pressure Maduro, his relatives, and senior members of the Socialist Party through sanctions but the government has shown no willingness to hand over power or negotiate a transition.
Billingslea said the United States was collaborating with countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Panama, Argentina and Spain to block assets stolen from Venezuela.
“We are on the hunt for Maduro and (his wife) Cilia Flores’ money and we are not going to stop until we find it,” Billingslea said, adding: “It’s not their money, it’s money they stole.”
Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; editing by Bernadette Baum and James Dalgleish