FLORIDA, United States (AP) — Nicols Maduro effectively converted Venezuela into a criminal enterprise at the service of drug traffickers and terrorist groups as he and his allies stole billions from the South American country, the US Justice Department charged in several indictments against the embattled socialist and his inner circle that were made public yesterday.
The coordinated unsealing of indictments against 14 officials and government-connected individuals, and rewards of US$55 million against Maduro and four others, attacked all the key planks of what Attorney General William Barr called the “corrupt Venezuelan regime”, including the Maduro-dominated judiciary and the powerful armed forces.
One indictment by prosecutors in New York accused Maduro and socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, head of the rubber-stamping constitutional assembly, of conspiring with Colombian rebels and members of the military “to flood the United States with cocaine” and use the drug trade as a “weapon against America”.
Criminal acts to advance a drug and weapons conspiracy that dates back to the start of Hugo Chavez’s revolution in 1999 occurred as far afield as Syria, Mexico, Honduras and Iran, the indictment alleged. Barr estimated that the conspiracy helped smuggle as much as 250 metric tons of cocaine a year are out of South America.
Maduro yesterday blasted back by accusing the US and Colombia of “giving orders to flood Venezuela with violence”.
His chief prosecutor also announced an investigation against Opposition Leader Juan Guaid after one of the individuals indicted on drug charges, retired army General Cliver Alcala, said in a radio interview yesterday that he signed a contract with the Opposition leader and his American “advisers” to purchase US assault rifles for a planned coup against Maduro. Guaid’s team said he has never met Alcala, who has been living openly in Colombia since 2018, despite having been previously sanctioned by the US for drug smuggling.
“As head of State, I am obligated to defend peace and the stability of our homeland given any circumstance that arises,” Maduro tweeted.
As the indictments were announced, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the State Department would offer cash rewards for information leading to the arrests or convictions of Maduro and his associates, including rewards of up to US$15 million for Maduro and up to US$10 million each for four others.
“The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality,” Barr said in an online news conference from Washington. “While the Venezuelan people suffer [they line] their pockets with drug money, and the proceeds of their corruption. And this has to come to an end.”
In Miami, prosecutors charged Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno with laundering in the US at least US$3 million in illegal proceeds from case fixing in Venezuela, including one involving a General Motors factory. Much of the money he spent on private aircraft, luxury watches and shopping at Prada, prosecutors allege. Maduro’s Defence Minister General Vladimir Padrino was charged with conspiracy to smuggle narcotics in a May 2019 indictment unsealed in Washington.
The shock indictment of a functioning head of State is highly unusual and is bound to ratchet up tensions between Washington and Caracas as the spread of the novel coronavirus threatens to collapse Venezuela’s health system and oil-dependent economy driven deep into the ground by years of corruption and US sanctions. Maduro has ordered Venezuelans to stay home to try to stave off the spread of the virus that officials say has infected 106 people.
Analysts said the indictments could boost US President Donald Trump’s re-election chances in the key swing state of Florida, which he won by a narrow margin in 2016 and where Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans fleeing authoritarian regimes have political muscle.
But its unclear how it brings Venezuela any closer to ending a 15-month stand-off between Maduro, who has the support of Russia and China, and the US-backed Opposition Leader Juan Guaid. It also could fragment the US-led coalition against Maduro if European and Latin American allies think the Trump Administration is overreaching.
“This kind of action does nothing to help a negotiated solution — something that’s already really difficult,” said Roberta Jacobson, who served as the State Department’s top diplomat for Latin America until 2018.
Maduro, a 57-year-old former bus driver, portrays himself as an every man icon of the Latin American left. He’s long accused the US “empire” of looking for any excuse to take control of the world’s largest oil reserves, likening its plotting to the 1989 invasion of Panama and the removal of strongman General Manuel Noriega to face drug trafficking charges in Florida.
Barr and Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special envoy on Venezuela, are driving the hawkish US stance toward Maduro much as they pushed for Noriega’s ouster in the late 1980s — Barr as a senior Justice Department official and Abrams as assistant secretary of state for Latin America.
According to the US, evidence against Maduro was collected over several years by investigators in Miami, New York, Houston and Washington who have brought drug trafficking, foreign bribery and money-laundering charges against several senior Venezuelan officials, members of the military and government-connected businessmen.
Much of those probes have focused on PDVSA, which is the source of practically all of Venezuela’s export revenue. The US last year sanctioned PDVSA, barring Americans from doing business with the oil giant.
The political divide that runs deep in Venezuela was reflected yesterday on the streets of Petare, a sweeping slum on the edge of Caracas.
A street vendor and staunch Maduro backer, Juvenal Montilla, 60, said the US indictment was just another dangerous step by a “crazy” Trump.
“We’re sick and tired of the United States getting into the business of countries around the world without anyone paying any attention,” Montilla said.
But 40-year-old taxi driver Grgorio Velsquez said he would back the US or anybody who can bring a swift end to years of failed socialist rule.
“There’s no water, no lights, no food. How can we survive like this?” said Velsquez as he waited in line to fill up his car amid widespread shortages that have worsened during the pandemic. “Maduro has to leave immediately,” he said.
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