US indicts Maduro over drug trade
Venezuela president faces terrorism rap
WASHINGTON: The US government on Thursday indicted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and more than a dozen other top Venezuelan officials on charges of “narco-terrorism”, the latest escalation of the Trump administration’s pressure campaign aimed at ousting the socialist leader.
The State Department offered a reward of up to $15 million (488.5 million baht) for information leading to the arrest of Mr Maduro, whose country has been convulsed by years of a deep economic crisis and political upheaval.
The indictment, a rare US action against a foreign head of state, marks a serious new phase against Mr Maduro at a time when some US officials have privately said President Donald Trump is increasingly frustrated with the results of his Venezuela policy.
Attorney General William Barr, announcing charges that include narco-terrorism conspiracy, corruption and drug trafficking, accused Mr Maduro and his associates of colluding with a dissident faction of the demobilised Colombian guerrilla group, the FARC, “to flood the United States with cocaine”.
But Trump administration officials are mindful that their chances are slim of getting Mr Maduro or the other major figures in custody anytime soon, a person familiar with the situation said on condition of anonymity.
“While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money and the proceeds of their corruption,” Mr Barr said.
“You are a miserable person, Donald Trump,” Mr Maduro said in a state television address during which he dismissed the charges as false and racist.
Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said the charges were aimed at benefiting Mr Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
Mr Trump’s pressure on Venezuela, an Opec member, has gone over well among Cuban Americans in South Florida, a key voting bloc in a major presidential swing state.
The US government has previously lodged criminal indictments against members of Mr Maduro’s family and inner circle.
He and his allies have dismissed such allegations as a smear campaign, and argue the United States is responsible for drug trafficking, given its role as a leading consumer.
Mr Maduro is already under US sanctions and has been the target of a US effort aimed at pushing him from power. He took office in 2013 after the death of his mentor President Hugo Chavez, a staunch foe of the United States.
Other Venezuelan officials whose indictments were announced on Thursday include Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino, senior socialist leader Diosdado Cabello, and the chief justice of the country’s supreme court, Maikel Moreno, who was charged with money laundering.
The US government is offering $10 million for information leading to Mr Cabello’s arrest.
The United States and dozens of other countries have recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president, regarding Mr Maduro’s 2018 re-election as a sham.
But Mr Maduro has remained in power, backed by the country’s military and by Russia, China and Cuba.
US officials have long accused Mr Maduro and his associates or running a “narco-state”, saying they have used proceeds from drugs transshipped from neighbouring Colombia to make up for lost revenue from a Venezuelan oil sector hit by US sanctions.
Mr Trump denied that the charges were an attempt to take advantage of Venezuela at a vulnerable time when it is expected to be hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
“No, no. We don’t look at a weak point. This is a serious problem for over 150 nations,” Mr Trump said, “Maduro and Venezuela, we’re watching it very closely.”
The indictments were unsealed in New York, Florida and Washington.
Mr Barr dodged a reporter’s question on whether Mr Trump, who has pressed his aides in recent months for a tougher approach on Venezuela, was briefed in advance.
Mr Maduro and his closest allies ran a “narco-terrorism partnership with the FARC for the past 20 years”, stated Geoffrey Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who said the Venezuelan president “very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon”.
The US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Ariana Fajardo Orshan, said she sees signs of Venezuelan officials’ laundered money throughout her area every day, from lavish yachts to million-dollar condos.
“This party is coming to an end,” she said.
Thursday’s charges altogether carry a maximum penalty of up to life in prison.
Asked whether the US government wants to capture Mr Maduro dead or alive, Mr Barr said: “We want him captured so he can face justice in US court.”
But he offered no indication of how US authorities might get their hands on Maduro, who has endured more than a year of international pressure and onagain, off-again street protests.
Mr Maduro’s international travel could be restricted, given Washington would be able to request that he be handed over if he visits a country that has an extradition treaty with the United States. Authorities can also freeze any assets he has in the United States, though such holdings are considered unlikely.
The Justice Department said that since 1999, Mr Maduro, along with Mr Cabello and others, acted as leaders of the “Cartel of the Suns”.
The name, it said, refers to the sun insignias affixed to uniforms of highranking Venezuelan military officials.
An indictment accused Mr Padrino of using his control of the military to facilitate cocaine flights to the United States.