Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Picture: AFP/YURI CORTEZ
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Picture: AFP/YURI CORTEZ

Washington/Caracas/New York — The US has indicted Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and 14 key associates for drug trafficking as the Trump administration ramps up pressure on an adversary it has sought to push aside.

The US is also offering a $15m reward for information leading to Maduro’s arrest or conviction, while the state department is offering $10m for some of his associates, which include former vice-president Diosdado Cabello. Separate charges were filed against the country’s defence minister and head of the supreme court.

“The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality,” attorney-general William Barr said at a news conference in Washington on Thursday. “While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines its pockets with drug money and the proceeds of corruption.”

Barr said that the charges allege a conspiracy involving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a terrorist group he said was determined to “flood the US with cocaine”. Barr said that Maduro’s regime gives the FARC authority to fly drug-filled planes over Venezuelan airspace and safely manufacture cocaine on its territory.

“We estimate that somewhere between 200 and 250 tonnes of cocaine are shipped out of Venezuela by these routes,” Barr said, adding that the shipments were equivalent to 30-million lethal doses of drugs.

The charges against Maduro — which also include weapons and narco-terrorism offences — carry a minimum sentence of 50 years.

US President Donald Trump and top US officials have long sought to oust Maduro’s regime but have so far failed to replace him with the opposition leader they support, national assembly resident Juan Guaidó.

About $2bn worth of cocaine, about a quarter of what’s produced in Colombia in a year, passed through Venezuela before making its way to other countries last year, according to Jeremy McDermott, co-founder of Insight Crime, a research group that studies organised crime.

There’s evidence that the criminal groups that transport these drugs have infiltrated Venezuelan government security forces, forming a network known as the “Cartel of the Suns” to facilitate the passage of illicit drugs into and out the country, according to a 2019 report by the UN International Narcotics Control Board.

The indictments against Maduro, a sitting head of state who isn’t recognised by the US and dozens of other nations, would be the first since the US issued charges against former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. He was eventually captured and sentenced to prison after then-president George HW Bush sent troops to the country to bring him to justice.

Barr said of Maduro and his indicted aides, “We do expect to eventually gain custody of these defendants.” 


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