Nicolas Maduro (left) has been a thorn in the side of US President Donald Trump (right). (AP/Reuters)
The United States has indicted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and more than a dozen other top Venezuelan officials on charges of “narco-terrorism”.
- The US rarely indicts sitting foreign heads of state
- Mr Maduro has been in office since 2013, and is supported by Russia, China, and Cuba
- Washington accuses the Maduro Administration of flooding the US with cocaine
The State Department offered a reward of up to $US15 million ($24.8 million) for information leading to the arrest and conviction 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 sitting foreign head of state, marks a serious new phase of Washington’s pressure on the Venezuelan leader, who is already under US sanctions.
Attorney General William Barr, announcing the charges, accused Mr Maduro and his associates of conspiring with a dissident faction of the Colombian guerrilla group FARC “to flood the United States with cocaine”.
“While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal … lines their pockets,” Mr Barr said of those indicted.
Venezuela’s information ministry did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment.
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.
Maduro propped up by Russia, China and Cuba
Mr Maduro has continued the anti-US policies of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. (AP: Ariana Cubillos)
He took office in 2013 after the death of his mentor President Hugo Chavez, a staunch US foe.
Other Venezuelan officials whose indictments were announced on Thursday include Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, senior socialist leader Diosdado Cabello and the chief justice of the country’s supreme court, Maikel Jose Moreno Perez, who was charged with money laundering.
@TheJusticeDept tweet: Nicolás Maduro Moros and 14 Current and Former Venezuelan Officials Charged with Narco-Terrorism, Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Criminal Charges.
The US and dozens of other countries have recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate president.
But Mr Maduro has remained in power, backed by the country’s military and by Russia, China and Cuba.
US officials have long accused the president and his associates or running a “narco-state,” saying they have used drug trafficking proceeds to make up for lost revenue from a Venezuelan oil sector heavily sanctioned by Washington.
The indictments were unsealed in New York, Florida and Washington.
‘Maduro ‘corrupted Venezuela’s institutions’: US
Venezuela’s economy has gone through cycles of hyper-inflation during Mr Maduro’s reign. (Reuters: Ueslei Marcelino)
Mr Maduro and his top lieutenants ran a “narco-terrorism partnership with the FARC for the past 20 years,” said Geoffrey Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
“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,” he added.
@TheJusticeDept: AG Barr: The Venezuelan regime, once led by Nicolás Maduro Moros, remains plagued by criminality & corruption.
Mr Berman accused Maduro and his co-defendants of “using their political and military power to promote narco-terrorism for their personal gain.” He said the case took many years to build.
The US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Ariana Fajardo Orshan said she sees signs of Venezuelan officials’ dirty laundered money throughout her area every day, from fancy yachts to million-dollar condos.
“This party is coming to an end,” she said.
Asked whether Washington wants to capture Mr Maduro dead or alive, Attorney General Barr said: “We want him captured so he can face justice in US court”.
But Mr Barr offered no indication of the US might get its hands on the Mr Maduro, who has endured more than a year of international pressure and on-again, off-again street protests as his country’s economy has continued to unravel.