Attorney General William Barr announced narcoterrorism charges against Venezuelan socialist leader Nicolas Maduro for his role in facilitating the global drug trade in coordination with the Colombia-based terrorist group known as the FARC.
“Maduro and these other defendants betrayed the Venezuelan people,” Barr said on Thursday. “While the Venzuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets. And this has to come to an end.”
The Justice Department said Maduro first managed and now leads his own drug ring, dubbed the Cartel of the Sun, and gives the the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army, known by its Spanish initials of ”FARC,” free rein to operate in Venezuela’s border region with Colombia. Barr said the Maduro regime allows FARC to use its airspace to fly the cocaine north to destinations in the United States and elsewhere in North America.
Barr said the U.S. expects to “eventually” gain custody of Maduro and his co-conspirators and made it clear that “we want these defendants captured so they can face justice in U.S. courts.”
Investigators said Maduro and his co-conspirators were being charged with conspiracy to commit narcoterrorism, conspiracy to import hundreds of tons of cocaine into the United States, and a variety of weapons charges. The department said Maduro expressly indented on flooding the U.S. with cocaine to harm the health and well-being of the nation.
The chief justice of Venezuela was also charged with international money laundering.
In announcing the unsealing of indictments in federal court in South Florida and New York, the Justice Department said “we estimate that somewhere between 200 and 250 metric tons of cocaine are shipped out of Venezuela by these routes” and “those 250 metric tons equates to 30 million lethal doses.”
The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, said the scheme between the Venezuelan regime and Colombian drug traffickers spanned two decades. Berman said the illicit operation was “expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine to undermine the health and well-being of the nation.”
The State Department announced a $15 million reward for information leading to the capture of Maduro and $10 million rewards for the capture of his co-defendants.
The Justice Department held its news conference Thursday via teleconference because of the coronavirus outbreak.
When asked why the announcement was made during a global COVID-19 pandemic, Barr said, “this has been in the works for a long time,” and “this is good timing, because the people of Venezuela are suffering, and they need a government that helps its own people.”
He added, “We think that the best way to support the Venezuelan people during this period is to do all we can to rid the country of this corrupt cabal.”
Asked whether this was the first time the Justice Department has indicted the sitting head of another government, Barr said the U.S. didn’t look at it that way. “We do not recognize Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela,” Barr said. “Obviously, we indicted [Manuel] Noriega under similar circumstances, and we did not recognize Noriega as the legitimate president of Panama.”
Maduro assumed power in Venezuela in 2013 following the death of authoritarian ruler Hugo Chavez. His tenure has been marked by rampant unemployment and poverty in his country, brutal repression, and human rights abuses, with more than 4 million Venezuelans becoming refugees in the largest humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere.
The U.S. and much of the world considered Venezuela’s 2018 presidential election illegitimate, and Venezuela’s National Assembly refused to recognize Maduro’s second presidential inauguration in January 2019. The National Assembly selected Juan Guaido to be its leader, and Guaido announced that he would serve as interim president with the support of the National Assembly, citing the Venezuelan Constitution. The U.S. and nearly 60 countries worldwide recognize Guaido, not Maduro, as the legitimate leader of the country.
During his State of the Union address this year, at which Guaido was in attendance, President Trump said “Maduro is an illegitimate ruler — a tyrant who brutalizes his people” and vowed that “Maduro’s grip on tyranny will be smashed and broken.”
The State Department already has imposed hundreds of sanctions against Venezuelan companies and individuals linked to the ruling Venezuelan regime, and the Trump administration imposed penalties against Venezula’s government, its central bank, and its state-run oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela.
The Treasury Department sanctioned dozens of Venezuelan officials and companies linked to the Venezuelan regime for their role in the drug trade, including drug kingpins with suspected ties to foreign groups like the FARC in Colombia and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Multiple subsidiaries of Russian state-owned Rosneft Oil Company have also been sanctioned for their role in helping Venezuela avoid sanctions by facilitating its oil exports.
During a meeting in Colombia in January, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Guaido as a “great leader” while condemning the Maduro regime.
“Maduro has engaged in activities that have now caused millions of people to have to flee Venezuela. He’s destroyed lives. He’s destroyed families. He’s now added to his terror regime, working alongside terror organizations inside of his own country,” Pompeo said. “He’s now running an operation that looks more like a cartel than anything else that one could describe. This isn’t good for Venezuela, it’s not good for the countries that are around Venezuela. … These people have now had to flee those countries so that they could do the simple thing of taking care of their family because of Maduro’s terrorism.”
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