WASHINGTON -- The United States should publicize Turkey's involvement in the Venezuelan gold industry, a Treasury Department official said Wednesday.
Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at Treasury, said at a Brookings Institution event that the Turkish government has skirted international sanctions by purchasing tons of Venezuelan gold in recent months.
"These are not your typical gold mines," Billingslea said. "... We're approaching a similar kind of 'blood diamond' situation here with the gold in Venezuela."
Billingslea criticized the government for driving out private mining companies and said the country's mines operate outside of environmental and customs regulation. The mines, according to Billingslea, are a "wholesale" environmental disaster, leading to deforestation as well as disease through mercury contamination of water supplies.
The remarks come days after local opposition figures in Venezuela blamed the ELN, a Colombian guerilla group, of slaying seven people at a remote gold mine in the Venezuelan state of Bolivar.
U.S. officials have spoken in the past of the possibility of Venezuelan gold making its way to Iran through Turkey in violation of international sanctions.
Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of foreign policy at Brookings, said if the Turkish government was illegally involved in the Venezuelan gold industry, it would pose a threat to the legitimacy of international sanctions. Maloney added the shipping of gold to Iran by the Turkish government has helped Iran evade sanctions in the past.
Despite growing international isolation for the government of Venezuela, Turkey has stepped in as a powerful benefactor. Other Turkish efforts include bolstering the Venezuelan government's food rations at a time of a swelling starvation crisis.
Billingslea also addressed Treasury Department efforts to sanction Nicaraguan government officials in response to violent protests that erupted in the country earlier this year.
The governments of Nicaragua and Venezuela are a regional force that "undermine markets," according to Billingslea, and current Treasury Department efforts against Nicaragua intend to "drive Nicaragua to early free and fair elections."
The Senate is considering legislation that would sanction the Nicaraguan government and would direct the Treasury Department to pressure global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to cut off international loans to the Nicaraguan government.
Though Billingslea refused to comment on the measure, Philip Christopher, an American investor who provides legal counsel to small-time Nicaraguan miners and owns a beachfront hotel there, wants the proposed sanctions to pressure international mining companies that participate in the Nicaraguan gold industry.
Christopher has been lobbying for Congress to pass the measure, which has been stalled by the midterm election congressional recess and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. He said he has witnessed "an aggressive expansion of gold resources out of Nicaragua" and called the precious metal "one of the most important cash flows" for the Nicaraguan government.