The Justice Department unsealed criminal charges against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and other regime heavies on Thursday in connection with alleged narcoterrorism and drug smuggling into the United States.
Attorney General William Barr announced the charges at the Justice Department in Washington with some officials in attendance and others connected via teleconference — precautions taken because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The charges involve 15 defendants, including Maduro and other political and military leaders in Venezuela.
Venezuela is accused of permitting Colombians linked with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — the People’s Army, known by its Spanish initials, FARC — to use its airspace to fly cocaine north through Central America to destinations in North America, Barr said.
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman said the scheme between the Colombians and Venezuelans had been operating for some two decades and represented a deliberate strategy by Maduro’s regime to “flood the United States with cocaine.”
The announcement of the charges followed months of pressure by President Trump’s administration on Maduro’s regime, which the United States considers illegitimate following an election deemed unfair by many world powers.
Washington has supported alternative political leaders in Caracas against Maduro and Trump invited the man he recognizes as Venezuela’s leader, Juan Guaidó, to the State of the Union address this year.
Maduro is unlikely to be arrested and tried in the United States, but Berman noted that the State Department has offered a $15 million reward for his capture.
The Justice Department does have a track record of bringing major drug offenders to face trial, including Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera — the infamous “El Chapo” — who was convicted in Brooklyn last year and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.