WASHINGTON (CN) — U.S. prosecutors charged Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday, saying the socialist leader and several of his key aides conspired with Colombian rebels “to flood the United States with cocaine.”
“We estimate that somewhere between 200 and 250 metric tons of cocaine are shipped out of Venezuela by these routes,” the Department of Justice said, announcing nine indictments in six jurisdictions. “Those 250 metric tons equate to 30 million lethal doses.”
The State Department is offering a $15 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Maduro, a 57-year-old former bus driver who portrays himself as an everyman icon of the Latin American left. The minimum penalty for the narcoterrorism charges is 50 years of imprisonment.
Maduro has made his own conspiracy allegations against what he calls the U.S. “empire.” Pointing to the 1989 invasion of Panama, and the removal of General Manuel Noriega to face drug-trafficking charges in Florida, Maduro says the United States will take any opportunity it can to wrest control of the world’s largest oil reserves.
Analysts have said the rare indictment of a sovereign political leader could boost President Donald Trump’s popularity as the coronavirus pandemic throws uncertainty into the 2020 election. Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans fleeing authoritarian regimes make up a strong political force in the key swing state of Florida, which Trump had won narrowly in 2016.
The U.S. government designated Maduro’s former Vice President Tareck El Aissami Maddah a drug kingpin shortly after Trump’s election, and the Southern District of New York brought charges accusing him of sanctions busting and drug trafficking last year. Maduro’s indictment was filed in the same court, with U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein presiding. Prosecutors also updated El Aissami Maddah’s indictment.
In Venezuela, the spread of the novel virus strain Covid-19 threatens to collapse the country’s health system and oil-dependent economy, already against the ropes from years of corruption and U.S. sanctions. For 15 months, the nation has been in the grips of a political standoff between Maduro, whom Russia and China want to keep in power, and the U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
At a press conference announcing the indictments this morning, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said Maduro enabled the corruption of Venezuela by allowing narcoterrorism to infect institutions of his government and by providing them military protection.
“Around 1999, the cartel invited the FARC to expand its operations across the Colombian border, into Venezuela, as part of the cartel’s effort to flood the United States with cocaine,” said Berman, who leads the New York’s Southern District. “In exchange for their contributions, the FARC leaders received caches of military-grade weapons, including machine guns, ammunition, rocket launchers and explosives — equipment to help fuel their wrong campaign of terrorism.”
Berman singled out the militant gang Cartel of the Suns as one tapped by Maduro’s regime to provide a safe haven for the transportation of coca leaves between Venezuela and Colombia.
Attorney General William Barr noted at the press conference that the border with Venezuela remains one of the primary cocaine-producing areas remaining in Colombia, and that Maduro’s regime helped FARC members positioning themselves there.
The indictment against Maduro also levels allegations against Diosdado Cabello, a former speaker of the Venezuelan National Assembly, and two leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, known as FARC.
Representing the Southern District of Florida, where two indictments were filed, U.S. Attorney Ariana Orshan said public displays of South American corruption and power had become commonplace in Miami.
On her commute to work, Orshan said she often sees private jets and large yachts on display from Venezuelan officials bought with laundered money and other illegal means.
For those individuals, the “party is coming to an end,” Orshan said, creding a separate task force focused on fighting this corruption with already seizing $450 million from these crimes to date.
One of the Florida indictments accuses Maikel Moreno, chief justice of the Venezuela Supreme Court, with international money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
She said Moreno accepted bribes for the dismissal of cases and then had that money laundered to maintain an expensive American lifestyle.
“In Venezuela, civil cases and criminal cases are not decided in a principled way,” Orshan said. “They’re not decided based on evidence or what is right and what is wrong. Instead decisions are based on whether or not you bribe the right person. … The charges against Chief Justice Moreno demonstrate that the last line of defense in Venezuela has crumbled, creating a system without rule of law and without justice.”
Vladimir Padrino Lopez, the minister of defense, was charged separately in Washington today.
Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski said Lopez is accused of conspiring to traffic drugs on aircraft registered in the United States. Lopez failed to prevent these traffickers from flying through Venezuelan air space, instead allowing them to use the space as a transient shipping space — so long as he was paid off.
“This was a brazen pay to play scheme and a corrupt abuse of power,” Benczkowski said.