The Department of Justice on Thursday unveiled narco-terrorism charges against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and other senior government officials, alleging they participated in the country’s illegal drug trafficking system and collaborated with a leftist Colombian guerrilla group to export cocaine to the United States.
The president, along with five other Venezuelan officials, were all slapped with narco-terrorism, drug trafficking, and weapons charges by the Southern District of New York for allegedly facilitating the importation of tons of cocaine into the U.S. with the Cartel of the Suns, Attorney General William Barr said Thursday.
The highly unusual charges mark only the second time the U.S. government has brought criminal charges against a foreign head of state.
Venezuela allowed Colombians tied to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—the People’s Army, known as FARC—to fly cocaine north through the country and ultimately to North America, Barr said at a press conference.
“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,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman said in a statement. “As alleged, Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation.”
At the press conference, Barr also announced a $15 million reward for information leading to Maduro’s arrest and lesser amounts for information leading to his alleged co-conspirators’ arrests.
More than a dozen other officials were charged in four separate indictments, including Diosdado Cabello Rondon, former speaker of the National Assembly, who was once considered the second most powerful man in Venezuela; Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino Loquez; Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, former director of the country’s military intelligence agency; and two leaders of the FARC terror group, one of the largest producers of cocaine worldwide.
Prosecutors allege the Venezuelan officials conspired with the Cartel of the Suns, which was under Maduro’s leadership, to take bribes in exchange for allowing the South American country to be used for narcotics shipments, according to one of the indictments unsealed on Thursday. The financial gains from the shipments were then allegedly used to finance a decades-long civil war in Columbia.
The charges also designate Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism, a distinction that the U.S. has only bestowed on four other countries—North Korea, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. The move, which states the country “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” will allow the U.S. government to implement further sanctions against Venezuela and the Maduro regime.
Thursday’s charges escalate the feud between the U.S. and Maduro over the South American country’s extensive alleged corruption—a deteriorating relationship that began in 1999 when former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez assumed power. The Trump administration has even publicly backed Venezuelan opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, in his efforts to unseat Maduro.
During his State of the Union address last month, President Donald Trump slammed Maduro, calling him “an illegitimate ruler” and “a tyrant who brutalizes his people,” vowing that his power would “be smashed and broken.” Guaidó was a guest of Trump’s at the address.
One of the indictments filed in the Southern District of New York states Maduro allegedly “helped manage and ultimately lead” the criminal organization, even allegedly personally negotiating multi-ton shipments of cocaine while cultivating relationships with other South American countries for drug trades.
Maduro and other cartel members “prioritized using cocaine as a weapon against America and importing as much cocaine as possible into the United States,” the indictment says, adding that the Cartel of the Suns “sought not only to enrich its members and enhance their power but also to flood the United States with cocaine and inflict the drug’s harmful and addictive effects on users in this country.”
The indictments are rare; the U.S. government has only brought charges against a foreign head of state twice. In 1989, Miami federal prosecutors indicted Manuel Noreiga, the former dictator of Panama, on drug trafficking charges. Noreiga, who served as the country’s ruler for six years, was convicted in Miami. He later died in 2017 in Panama.
Maduro condemned the charges on Twitter, accusing the U.S. and its ally Colombia of trying to fill Venezuela “with violence.”