The Trump administration unsealed sweeping indictments against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and members of his inner circle on narcoterrorism charges Thursday, a dramatic escalation in the U.S. campaign to force the authoritarian socialist from power.
The administration also announced a $15 million reward for information leading to Maduro’s capture or conviction, an extraordinary bounty on a man still recognized by the Russians, Chinese and others as Venezuela’s rightful leader. The move effectively turns the 57-year-old former union leader into an internationally wanted man, giving Venezuelans new motivation to act against him and adding a new level of risk to any travel he might attempt beyond the confines of his power center in Caracas.
Attorney General William P. Barr announced the indictments of Maduro and other current and former Venezuelan officials on charges including money laundering, drug trafficking and narcoterrorism. Barr and other U.S. officials alleged a detailed conspiracy headed by Maduro that worked with Colombian guerrillas to transform Venezuela into a transshipment point for moving massive amounts of cocaine to the United States.
The action, rumored for years, comes as the U.S.-backed opposition movement to oust Maduro has struggled to maintain momentum. The coronavirus has effectively halted the opposition rallies that have been a signature of the movement.
On Thursday, Barr accused Maduro of “deploying cocaine as a weapon” to undermine the United States.
“Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and well-being of our nation,” Barr said during a news conference in Washington.
The charges against Maduro, brought in indictments in New York and Florida, carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 50 years in prison and a maximum of life. The U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, Geoff Berman, seemed to concede that U.S. authorities could not arrest Maduro in Venezuela, but noted that the leader might travel outside his country.
The charges, described as “a decade” in the making, recalled the U.S. indictment of Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega in 1988. In that case, President George H.W. Bush eventually ordered U.S. forces to invade and capture Noriega. But Venezuela’s far better-equipped military and Russian support for Maduro would complicate any attempt by the U.S. to take him into custody the same way.
The Trump administration broke diplomatic relations with Maduro last year and recognized National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Barr said officials expect to arrest Maduro, but declined to say whether the administration would entertain a military option, as it did in Panama.
“We’re going to explore all options for getting custody,” Barr said. “Hopefully, the Venezuelan people will see what’s going on and will eventually regain control of their country.”
Also charged were the head of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly, a former director of military intelligence, a former high-ranking general, the defense minister and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Some of the indicted officials — notably Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López and Chief Justice Maikel Moreno — were involved in plotting a military uprising against Maduro last spring, but failed to live up to secret pledges to move against the president. The charges suggest the Justice Department was pursuing their alleged links to narcotrafficking even as U.S. officials endorsed and encouraged the efforts of the Venezuelan opposition to solicit their participation in that plot.