Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, other top officials charged in US drug trafficking inquiry

Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was charged with federal drug trafficking crimes as part of a far-reaching U.S. investigation involving prosecutors in New York, Washington and Miami, officials said Thursday.

Attorney General William Barr announced the extraordinary action Thursday, saying charges were filed against more than a dozen other current and former Venezuelan officials, including the country's Supreme Court chief justice and the minister of defense.

The years-long investigation, federal authorities said, revealed a government immersed in "corruption at the highest levels."

Maduro's government, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said, "betrayed the Venezuelan people … to line their pockets with drug money."

The four-count indictment against Maduro was unsealed in New York and named Diosdado Cabello Rondón, head of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly; Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, former director of military intelligence; and Clíver Antonio Alcalá Cordones, a former general in the Venezuelan armed forces.

“The scope and magnitude of the drug trafficking alleged was made possible only because Maduro and others corrupted the institutions of Venezuela and provided political and military protection for the rampant narco-terrorism crimes described in our charges," Berman said. Maduro and other officials "expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and well being of our nation." 

Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski, chief of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, said the charges show that the Maduro regime was "propped up by a sham judiciary and a corrupt military," adding that the country's defense minister authorized regular and enormous shipments of cocaine destined for the U.S.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro "corrupted the institutions of Venezuela and provided political and military protection for the rampant narco-terrorism crimes," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman says.

In conjunction with the Justice Department action, the State Department announced a reward of up to $15 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Maduro and up to $10 million for other Venezuelan officials named in the indictment.

“These individuals violated the public trust by facilitating shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, including control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan air base, as well as control of drug routes through the ports in Venezuela,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

The payments are offered through the State Department’s Narcotics Rewards Program. 

For more than two decades, according to federal prosecutors, Maduro and other top leaders managed a criminal enterprise known as the Cartel de Los Soles (Cartel of the Suns) that conspired with Colombia's leftist guerrilla group known as the FARC to ship tons of cocaine to Central America and the USA.

According to court documents, the cartel not only sought to enrich its members and bolster its political clout but also to exact maximum harm on the USA by expediting cocaine shipments to American users.

Maduro and his alleged conspirators, prosecutors asserted, "abused the Venezuelan people and corrupted the legitimate institutions of Venezuela," from the judiciary and intelligence agencies to the legislature and military.

As the cartel's leader, Maduro arranged for "multi-ton" shipments of FARC-produced cocaine, directed the cartel to provide military weapons to the Colombian revolutionary group and used them to train a separate militia that functioned as "an armed force" for the cartel.

The legal action against Maduro ratchets up tensions with Venezuela where the United States and more than 50 other countries have long called for Maduro's ouster and thrown their support to Juan Guaido as the country's leader.. 

Guaido has staunch support from the Trump administration and other top U.S. officials.

Barr, who announced the charges during a virtual news conference necessitated by travel and social distancing restrictions linked to the coronavirus pandemic, said the timing of the announcement had been somewhat complicated by the virus.

The attorney general, however, said the onset of the global health crisis was probably "a good time to rid the country of this corrupt cabal."

"Hopefully, the Venezuelan people will see what's going on and gain control of their country," Barr said.

Asked about the likelihood of obtaining Maduro's arrest, Barr said, "We do expect to gain control of these defendants."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro charged in drug trafficking inquiry