The Justice Department announced narco-terrorism and other criminal charges against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and senior leaders from his government on Thursday, in a move marking a modern low point in relations between the US and the ailing socialist state.
As part of the sweeping actions announced by the Trump administration, the State Department designated Maduro and top current and former officials from Venezuela’s military, parliament and judiciary under its Narcotics Rewards Program, offering multimillion-dollar bounties.
Criminal charges brought by federal prosecutors in New York’s Southern District, Miami and Washington, DC, allege that the leaders of the Venezuelan regime manage a drug cartel to coordinate with the Colombian rebel group FARC to traffic cocaine to the United States.
US prosecutors say that Maduro and top parliamentary, military and judiciary officials lead the so-called Cartel de los Soles, a group the US has long said was made up of corrupt current and former Venezuelan military members involved in trafficking and other crimes.
In addition to Maduro, those facing charges include:
Diosdado Cabello Rondón, leader of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly; Vladimir Padrino Lopez, defense minister; Maikel Jose Moreno Perez, Venezuelan Supreme Court chief justice; Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, former military intelligence director; Clíver Antonio Alcalá Cordones, former military general; and top FARC leaders Luciano Marín Arango and Seuxis Paucis Hernández Solarte.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, responding to US drug trafficking charges against Maduro and other members of the Venezuelan government, said the Trump administration is “using a new form of coup d’état on the basis of vulgar, miserable and unfounded accusations,” and “is trying to minimize the recognition that Venezuela has achieved in the fight against drug trafficking.”
Arreaza added that the criminal charges against Maduro and others are a sign of “desperation” from Washington, whose attempts to oust the Venezuelan regime have been unsuccessful.
“The deep frustration of the White House is a product of the peace that reigns in Venezuela today, whose authorities have managed to neutralize coups and destabilizing attempts planned and financed from the United States,” the foreign minister said.
Insinuating this could be an international distraction, Arreaza questioned the timing the charges against Maduro were announced.
“The government of Donald Trump does not accept that, using a unique model of its own, the government of Nicolas Maduro is adequately managing the threats of Covid-19 in the face of the resounding failure that US institutions have shown in this matter.”
CNN originally reported that the State Department would also be designating Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism, according to five sources familiar with the situation. However the State Department, which would officially make a terrorism designation, said Thursday it would not be doing that. Instead, the State Department used another law aimed at sanctioning international traffickers and narco-terrorists.
Attorney General William Barr, who announced the charges in a video news conference in Washington, said that despite the global coronavirus pandemic, US officials decided to proceed with the charges because the health emergency underscores the need for Maduro to be removed from leadership of Venezuela.
Thursday’s charges, he said, were “focused on rooting out the extensive corruption within the Venezuelan government.”
In a Twitter post Thursday, Maduro denounced the new charges, writing that Colombia and the US were conspiring to overthrow his government.
“As head of state I am obliged to defend the peace and stability of the entire homeland,” Maduro wrote.
Prosecutors said that Maduro’s role in narco-trafficking dates back to the 1990s. In recent years, while some in the FARC sought to negotiate a peace deal with the Colombian government, others in the organization moved fighters and operations to areas of western Venezuela under the protection of the corrupt Venezuelan regime officials.
The criminal charges come after a period of historic tumult in Venezuela that saw Maduro’s leadership challenged following an election condemned by international authorities and massive street protests. The US and a host of other countries and international bodies have instead recognized the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s leader, and the Trump administration has waged a campaign of aggressive economic punishment that aimed to force Maduro out of power.
The US has accused the Maduro regime of widespread human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and the detention of Venezuelan citizens. Last year, the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights vividly detailed the allegations in a report that described a state failing to deliver basic necessities to its people, including the right to food, medical care and freedom of speech.
The Maduro administration has fiercely rejected accusations of human rights abuses in the past. Last year, it called the UN report “a selective and openly partial vision on the real situation of Human Rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”
Members of the regime have also been accused in the past of facilitating narcotrafficking operations in the country, in part to fuel a crumbling economy marred by rampant government corruption.
Colombian officials told CNN last year that drug smuggling in Venezuela has recently involved the Colombian leftist guerrilla group ELN, which is considered a terrorist organization by the US, working with the Maduro military.
US officials have also said that Venezuela is harboring and working with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and the reemerging Colombian insurgent group FARC, both of which are designated terrorist organizations by the US.
Senior Venezuelan officials charged by US prosecutors in the past with drug trafficking have sought to portray the US as meddling imperialists.
CORRECTION: This headline and story have been updated to remove a claim that the Trump administration was planning to designate Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism. An official from the State Department, which makes the designation, said that was incorrect.
CNN’s Kara Scannell contributed to this report.