In a stunning announcement amid the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and several other government officials have been charged with turning Venezuela into a narco-state by collaborating with a leftist Colombian guerrilla group that exported tons of cocaine to the United States.
An indictment, unveiled at a “virtual” news conference in Washington, D.C., accuses Maduro and other top officials in his socialist regime of conspiring with the U.S.-designated terrorist group known as the FARC so that Venezuela could be used for narcotics shipments to finance a long-running civil war against the Colombian government.
Charged along with Maduro are Diosdado Cabello, a former speaker of the National Assembly who is considered the second most powerful political figure in Venezuela, and Vladimir Padrino Lopez, the country’s minister of defense. All three Venezuelan officials face allegations of narco-terrorism, drug trafficking and weapons violations in a scheme initiated in the mid-2000s that was meant to help the Colombian rebel group while enriching themselves with cocaine-tainted bribes, according to federal authorities. Maduro’s indictment marks the second time that the U.S. government has brought criminal charges against a sitting foreign head of state. The last time was in 1989, when federal prosecutors in Miami indicted Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega on drug-trafficking charges. and U.S. military forces seized him late that year. Noriega was convicted at trial, imprisoned in the Miami area and died in 2017.
In announcing Maduro’s indictment, Attorney General William Barr said that the U.S. government will offer a $15 million reward to anyone who provides information on when Maduro leaves Venezuela that assists in his capture.
Barr said at the virtual news conference that Maduro and several other high-ranking officials betrayed the Venezuelan people by offering a “safe haven” in their country for the “extremely violent” Colombian rebel group, so the president and his allies could profit off the drug trade and “flood the United States with cocaine.”
“For more than 20 years, Maduro and a number of high-ranking colleagues allegedly conspired with the FARC, causing tons of cocaine to enter and devastate American communities,” Barr said. “Today’s announcement is focused on rooting out the extensive corruption within the Venezuelan government — a system constructed and controlled to enrich those at the highest levels of the government.
The extraordinary criminal case, which was filed in the Southern District of New York, is undoubtedly meant to put even greater pressure on Maduro, who took over the reins of Venezuela’s government from the late Hugo Chávez after his death in 2013. While the once-prosperous country began its decline under Chávez, Venezuela’s economy has crashed during Maduro’s tenure — leading to the exodus of millions of Venezuelans, including some who resettled in South Florida over the past decade.