The U.S. indicted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for drug trafficking on Thursday, offering a $15 million reward for information leading to his arrest, as the Trump administration ramps up pressure on an adversary it has sought to push aside.
The U.S. also indicted 14 key Maduro associates, including former Vice President Diosdado Cabello, offering $10 million for information leading to their arrests. Charges were filed against the country’s defense minister, chief justice and superintendent of cryptocurrency.
“The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality,” Attorney General William Barr said at a news conference in Washington, held remotely because of the coronavirus. “While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money and the proceeds of corruption.”
The charges allege a conspiracy involving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a terrorist group that Barr said was determined to “flood the U.S. with cocaine.” He said that Maduro’s regime gives the FARC, as the group is known, authority to fly drug-filled planes over Venezuelan airspace and safely manufacture cocaine on its territory.
“We estimate that somewhere between 200 and 250 metric tons of cocaine are shipped out of Venezuela by these routes,” Barr said, adding that the shipments were equivalent to 30 million lethal doses of drugs.
The charges against Maduro — which also include weapons offenses and narco-terrorism — carry a minimum sentence of at least 50 years.
President Donald Trump and top U.S. officials have long sought to oust Maduro but have so far failed to replace him with the opposition leader they support, National Assembly President Juan Guaido.
While the U.S. has sanctioned most of Maduro’s inner circle, it had held off on filing drug charges against some senior Venezuelan officials because the Trump administration hoped they might turn on the autocrat. That ultimately led to a failed uprising in Caracas last April where some of those indicted stuck with Maduro rather than defect.
It’s unclear whether the indictments and rewards will create the conditions to push the regime aside. But they are likely to help Trump campaign for re-election in November in the key state of Florida, where Venezuelan and Cuban ex-patriots live in large numbers.
Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that Maduro was indeed a criminal and dictator. But, he added, as coronavirus spreads, this is the time to join with international partners to help the Venezuelan people through increased humanitarian aid.
Barr, asked at the news conference about the timing of the announcement, said that as Venezuelans suffer from the virus and medical shortages, this is a time to remind them that their leaders are criminals who steal from them.
Some $2 billion worth of cocaine, about a quarter of what was produced in Colombia last year, passed through Venezuela before making its way to other countries, according to Jeremy McDermott, co-founder of Insight Crime, a research group that studies organized crime. He called it a fairly typical year for the traffic.
There’s evidence that the criminal groups that transport these drugs have infiltrated Venezuelan government security forces, forming a network known as the ‘Cartel of the Suns’ to facilitate the passage of illicit drugs into and out the country, according to a 2019 report by the United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board.
Last year, Maduro’s former vice president, Tareck El Aissami, was charged with violating a U.S. law targeting foreign drug traffickers by using private jets supplied by American firms. Cabello had also previously been accused by the Treasury Department of narcotics trafficking, while two of Maduro’s nephews are serving prison sentences in the U.S. after convictions on drug charges.
The indictment against Maduro, who isn’t recognized by the U.S. and dozens of other nations, marks the first against a sitting head of state since the U.S. issued charges against former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. Noriega was eventually captured and sentenced to prison after then-President George H. W. Bush sent troops to the country to bring him to justice.
“We do expect to eventually gain custody of these defendants,” Barr said of Maduro and his indicted aides.
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