27 Mar 2020
U.S. authorities charged Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and senior government officials with drug trafficking and conspiring with terrorists and offered multimillion-dollar rewards for their arrests, escalating the Trump administration’s effort to unseat the leftist regime.
Prosecutors unsealed a series of criminal cases in New York, Florida and Washington on Thursday targeting much of Venezuela’s current leadership, including Diosdado Cabello, the head of the country’s Constituent Assembly, a rubber-stamp body set up by Mr. Maduro after losing the National Assembly to opposition majority; defense minister, Vladimir Padrino; and the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
In a superseding indictment filed in New York that is the product of a decadelong investigation, prosecutors accused Mr. Maduro; his deceased predecessor, Hugo Chávez; and other leaders in their governments of coordinating with a military-linked drug cartel and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the U.S. has identified as a terrorist guerrilla group.
In associated action, the State Department offered a total of $60 million for the arrest and capture of several of the people charged: $15 million for Mr. Maduro, $10 million for each of four other top current and former officials, and $5 million for a senior FARC member.
Under Venezuela’s leadership, the U.S. said, Caracas “prioritized using cocaine as a weapon against America” by flooding the U.S. with tons of the drug during the past two decades, starting when Mr. Chavez became president.
In a televised address, Mr. Maduro’s top diplomat, Jorge Arreaza, rejected the U.S. charges and called them “a new manner of coup d’état on the base of miserable, vulgar and unfounded accusations.”
Mr. Arreaza defended his government’s record of combating drug trafficking and said the U.S. action was politically motivated. “The policy to forcibly change the government in Venezuela is destined to fail,” he said.
Mr. Maduro is unlikely to ever be in U.S. custody to face the charges, but U.S. officials say that detailing the Maduro regime’s activities could undermine his political support both at home and abroad.
Mssrs. Maduro, Cabello and Hugo Carvajal, a former head of military intelligence, eventually ran the Venezuelan military-linked drug cartel known as Cártel de los Soles, using cocaine provided by FARC in exchange for military-grade machine guns, rocket launchers and training, prosecutors said. The “Cartel of the Suns” name originates from the gold-colored emblem Venezuelan generals have on their epaulets that look like suns.
Mr. Maduro’s regime helped the FARC move drugs amounting to some 250 tons a year, including via a Caribbean sea route, the indictment said.
Most FARC members disarmed and formed a political party as part of a 2016 peace deal, though some rejected the pact and operate from Venezuela, say U.S. and Colombian officials. The leaders of the now-defunct group say they taxed cocaine traffickers to fund their war but never trafficked cocaine.
“The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality,” Attorney General William Barr said. “While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money and the proceeds of their corruption.” He spoke at a Thursday news conference held online because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The indictments come at a time when Venezuela and the Maduro government are reeling from the global collapse of oil prices and U.S. economic sanctions that have shriveled the country’s crucial oil shipments.
The country, which has already seen its economy contact by 60% over the last five years, also faces the threat of the global coronavirus pandemic amid a collapsed health-care system. Its population is suffering from widespread malnutrition.
As part of the actions, U.S. prosecutors are also seeking to seize any assets held by the defendants overseas, including in the U.S. Some Venezuela analysts say they have collectively stashed tens of billions of dollars abroad.
While Mr. Maduro remains in control of Venezuela, and enjoys the support of countries such as Russia and China, the U.S. and roughly 60 countries last year recognized the then-president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s legitimate president.
By Aruna Viswanatha, José de Córdoba and Ian Talley, The Wall Street Journal, 26 March 2020
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