MIAMI (AP) - Nicolás 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 Justice Department charged in several indictments against the embattled socialist and his inner circle that were made public Thursday.
One indictment by prosecutors in New York accused Maduro and socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello of conspiring with Colombian rebels and members of the Venezuelan 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 prosecutors contend dates back to the start of Hugo Chavez’s revolution in 1999 occurred in places as far afield as Aruba, Syria, Mexico, Honduras and Iran, the indictment alleged.
In coordinated actions, prosecutors in Miami charged the head of the Maduro-stacked Supreme Court, Maikel Moreno, with money laundering. Maduro’s other key plank of power - the military - also took a hit as May 2019 charges against Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino were unsealed from Washington.
As the indictments were announced, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the State Department would offer cash rewards of up to $55 million for information leading to the arrests or convictions of Maduro and his associates. It offered rewards up to $15 million for Maduro and up to $10 million each for the others.
“The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality,” U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in an online news conference from Washington. “While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money, and the proceeds of their corruption. And this has to come to an end.”
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 coronavirus threatens to collapse Venezuela’s health system and oil-dependent economy driven deep into the ground by years of corruption and U.S. sanctions.
Analysts said the action could boost U.S. 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 standoff between Maduro, who has the support of Russia and China, and the U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó.