MIAMI – Nicolás Maduro effectively converted Venezuela into a criminal enterprise at the service of drug traffickers and terrorist groups as he and his allies stole billions from the South American country, the Justice Department charged in several indictments against the embattled socialist and his inner circle that were made public Thursday.
The coordinated unsealing of indictments against 14 officials and government-connected individuals, and rewards of $55 million against Maduro and four others, attacked all the key planks of what Attorney General William Barr called the “corrupt Venezuelan regime,” including the Maduro-dominated judiciary and the powerful armed forces.
One indictment by prosecutors in New York accused Maduro and socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, head of the rubber-stamping constitutional assembly, of conspiring with Colombian rebels and members of the military “to flood the United States with cocaine” and use the drug trade as a “weapon against America.”
Criminal acts to advance a drug and weapons conspiracy that dates back to the start of Hugo Chavez's revolution in 1999 occurred as far afield as Syria, Mexico, Honduras and Iran, the indictment alleged. Barr estimated that the conspiracy helped smuggle as much as 250 metric tons of cocaine a year are out of South America.
Maduro blasted back by accusing the U.S. and Colombia of “giving orders to flood Venezuela with violence.”
His chief prosecutor announced an investigation against opposition leader Juan Guaidó after one of those indicted on drug charges, retired army Gen. Cliver Alcala, said Thursday that he signed a contract with Guaidó and his American “advisers” to purchase U.S. assault rifles for a planned coup against Maduro.
Guaidó's team said he has never met Alcala, who was previously sanctioned by the U.S. for drug smuggling.
As the indictments were announced, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the State Department would offer cash rewards for information leading to the arrests or convictions of Maduro and his associates, including rewards of up to $15 million for Maduro and up to $10 million each for four others.
“The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality,” Barr said in an online news conference from Washington. “While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money, and the proceeds of their corruption. And this has to come to an end.”
Analysts said the indictments could boost President Donald Trump's re-election chances in the key swing state of Florida, which he won by a narrow margin in 2016 and where Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans fleeing authoritarian regimes have political muscle.
Maduro, a 57-year-old former bus driver, portrays himself as an everyman icon of the Latin American left. He's long accused the U.S. “empire” of looking for any excuse to take control of the world's largest oil reserves, likening its plotting to the 1989 invasion of Panama and the removal of strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega to face drug trafficking charges in Florida.
Noriega transformed Panama into a playground for violent, international drug cartels, while the Trump administration has accused Maduro and his military henchmen of harboring drug traffickers, guerrillas from Colombia and even Hezbollah, a designated terrorist group.
They also have accused government officials together with well-connected businessmen of stealing hundreds of billions of dollars from the state coffers, much of it from state oil giant PDVSA, which has seen its production plunge to a seven-decade low.
Sitting foreign leaders normally enjoy immunity from prosecution under U.S. law and international norms. But the U.S. is among 60 countries that no longer consider Maduro a head of state even if he does hold de facto power. They instead recognize Guaidó, the head of congress, as Venezuela's rightful leader following the socialist's re-election in a 2018 race marred by allegations of fraud and an opposition boycott.