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FILE - In this March 12, 2020, file photo, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks at a press conference at the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela. The Trump administration will announce Thursday, March 26, 2020, indictments against Maduro and members of his inner circle for effectively converting Venezuela's state into a criminal enterprise at the service of drug traffickers and terrorist groups, according to multiple people familiar with the situation. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix, File) Photo: AP file
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U.S. indicts Venezuelan President Maduro on narcoterrorism charges

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By JOSHUA GOODMAN and SCOTT SMITH

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.

The coordinated unsealing of indictments against 14 officials and government-connected individuals, and rewards of $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 blasted back by accusing the U.S. and Colombia of “giving orders to flood Venezuela with violence.”

His chief prosecutor also announced an investigation against opposition leader Juan Guaidó after one of the individuals indicted on drug charges, retired army Gen. Cliver Alcala, said in a radio interview Thursday that he signed a contract with the opposition leader and his American “advisers” to purchase U.S. assault rifles for a planned coup against Maduro. Guaidó's team said he has never met Alcala, who has been living openly in Colombia since 2018 despite having been previously sanctioned by the U.S. 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, 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 $15 million for Maduro and up to $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, this cabal lines 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 U.S. at least $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 Defense Minister, Gen. 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 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. 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 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. It also could fragment the U.S.-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 everyman icon of the Latin American left. He’s long accused the U.S. "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 Gen. 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 U.S. 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.

U.S. officials see other parallels as well. Noriega transformed Panama into a playground for violent, international drug cartels while the Trump administration has accused Maduro and his military henchmen of harboring drug traffickers, guerrillas from Colombia and even Hezbollah, a designated terrorist group.

They also have accused government officials together with well-connected businessmen of stealing hundreds of billions of dollars from the state coffers, much of it from state oil giant PDVSA, which has seen its production plunge to a seven-decade low.

Still, charging Maduro was no easy task. Sitting foreign leaders normally enjoy immunity from prosecution under U.S. law and international norms.

But the U.S. is among 60 countries that no longer consider Maduro a head of state even if he does hold de facto power. They instead recognize Guaidó, the head of congress, as Venezuela’s rightful leader following the socialist’s re-election in a 2018 race marred by allegations of fraud and an opposition boycott.

The 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 U.S. last year sanctioned PDVSA, barring Americans from doing business with the oil giant.

But to the surprise of many, Chavez’s hand-picked heir has stubbornly clung to power, withstanding months of street protests last year and even a U.S.-backed military revolt all the while millions of Venezuelan migrants flee hyperinflation and widespread food shortages.

With support on the streets for Guaidó fading, the Trump administration raised the ante last fall, withdrawing support for a Norway-sponsored mediation effort and extending sanctions so that even foreign companies faced retaliation for extending Maduro a lifeline.

Separately, Barr, echoing calls from Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, prioritized investigations into Maduro’s inner circle, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal Justice Department deliberations.

The pressure to deliver, the people said, went into overdrive around the time when Guaidó visited Washington in February and Trump praised him as his guest at the State of the Union address as “a very brave man, who carries with him the hopes, dreams and aspirations of all Venezuelans.”

But the coronavirus pandemic delayed the announcement, originally scheduled for March 16, according to the people.

The virus is likely to further distract Washington and threatens to splinter the opposition, some of whom have expressed a willingness to work with Maduro to stem the medical crisis. It could also give new life to Maduro’s call for the U.S. to ease sanctions, an idea that several European allies have also warmed to.

Frank Mora, a former Pentagon official, said the U.S. is right to condemn Maduro and others for repressing his people, stealing from state coffers and turning Venezuela into a criminal state.

But he worries the indictments play more into the emotion of Latino voters in Florida than help address the country’s grinding crisis.

“We’re not going to go in and capture him,” said Mora, who now heads the Latin America studies institute at Florida International University. “This isn’t about regime change or restoring democracy to Venezuela. It’s about electoral politics.”

The political divide that runs deep in Venezuela was reflected Thursday 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 U.S. 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 Grégorio Velásquez said he would back the U.S. 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 Velásquez, 40, as he waited in line to fill up his car amid widespread shortages that have worsened during the pandemic. “Maduro has to leave immediately.”

© Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

24 Comments
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The Guaido thing fizzled so it's time to try something from the Noriega playbook.

4 ( +9 / -5 )

As the indictments were announced, 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 $15 million for Maduro and up to $10 million each for four others.

Well, Uncle Sam needs a " few good men " . Any takers ?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The Guaido thing fizzled so it's time to try something from the Noriega playbook.

Donny’s administration is responsible for this. Why don’t you call him out by name?

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

The US needs to address its thirst for narcotics in order to actually make any difference. We know that the War on Drugs has been a total failure.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

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

Syria and Iran: Russia's partners. Putin and his oligarchs have huge stakes in Venezuela's oil. As does China.

War on Drugs has been a total failure.

It's failed to reduce the drug problem. It has provided lots of jobs for those in enforcement and has increased the profits of weapons makers selling equipment to the government. It's been another way defense corporations have been subsidized by taxpayers.

1 ( +6 / -5 )

Donny’s administration is responsible for this.

Any details on that? What exactly is Trump responsible for? The indictment or the drug smuggling?

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Any details on that? What exactly is Trump responsible for? The indictment or the drug smuggling?

Try re-reading my post because I didn’t say Donny was responsible, I said his administration. Given Donny’s administration’s unprecedented meddling with the Department of Justice, it would be the indictments.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Pres. Maduro looks a lot like Pablo Escobar, doesn't he?

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Oh, Maduro needs to be careful, dudes been put on notice, now he has a Tomahawk with his name written all over it.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

Interesting squirrel, Trump is putting forth to distract from his failure as a leader during this time of crisis.

I don't think it will work this time. Too many people dying due to his incompetent response to the pandemic. It's hard to distract people from that.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Future historians will use 'US indicts' as a marker for countries who's governments did the right things for their populations.

But the American regime needs to do something to distract people as its cover up of its Covid19 problem disintegrates.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Too many people dying due to his incompetent response to the pandemic. It's hard to distract people from that.

Something must be working because 60% of Americans approve of the incompetent response. And in the spirit of better understanding, what exactly is the incompetence that is responsible for too many people dying?

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

While they are at it, they should indict MBS for his alcohol and porn smuggling ring.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Oh, look over there at the shiny object.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Yet ANOTHER excuse for yet ANOTHER stupid wasteful unnecessary war. Treasontrump just wants to distract attention from his FAILURES and ineptitude and his gross moral turpitude.

Haiti invasion - 1994 to reinstall Bertrand Aristide

Iraq missile attack - 1996

Air war against Iraq - December 1998

Iraq War 2003 - 2011

Haiti (again) - 2004 to depose Bertrand Aristide, go figure

Drop the bombs on an empty Syrian airfield because Putin told Trump to do it

Air assaults on Syria - with Putin's permission again

When will this absolute craziness and stupidity gonna STOP???

3 ( +5 / -2 )

@Starpunk

You seem to have missed Grenada, Afghanistan and Panama, which were all illegal wars.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Future historians will use 'US indicts' as a marker for countries who's governments did the right things for their populations.

Venezuela is a failed state with people who can't eat, don't have jobs, and can't even get medical supplies.

And no, it's not America's fault. It's their fault for nationalizing industries and putting government cronies in charge of businesses they had no idea how to run. They couldn't even make toilet paper.

Just goes to show how well socialism works.

-6 ( +0 / -6 )

Our country has been screwed for decades....but of course it’s Trumps’ Fault.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Our country has been screwed for decades....but of course it’s Trumps’ Fault.

You make a fair point. The War on Drugs was around long before Trump ever came about, and has been a massive failure for decades. In fact, it's probably the biggest single failure America has on it's books. It's never managed to decrease drug use whatsoever - they're more prevalent than ever. How many trillions have been spent on this failure?

No, Trump is just carrying on a long line of failure. He didn't create it, he's just also failing at it during his turn at the wheel.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I guess they are competing against the CIA over the drug trade.

Oh, Maduro needs to be careful, dudes been put on notice, now he has a Tomahawk with his name written all over it.

When all other attempts at regime change fail, that is indeed the only remaining option...

3 ( +4 / -1 )

“to flood the United States with cocaine” and use the drug trade as a “weapon against America.”

This was suspected years ago.

Salute to Barr and his team for doing what the worthless AG under Obama should of done years ago.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

One indictment by prosecutors in New York accused Maduro and socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello... 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.”

Oh, poor little Americans. Just going about their daily business without a thought of snorting coke when some nasty Venezuelan/Colombian/Other comes up to them on the street and just forces them to take it whether they want to or not.

If anyone's holding a weapon against America when it comes to drugs, it's Americans themselves.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

If anyone's holding a weapon against America when it comes to drugs, it's Americans themselves.

I think we've learned from the coronavirus situation that you can't generally trust the public to act in their own best interest. Many will choose short-term pleasure over long-term wise decisions.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Has "socialist " maduro become a multi-billionaire yet like Saint Hugo before him? I guess that's the motivation to sell bugle.

The elusive "right kind of socialism " seems to only be good for the few at the top of the pyramid. For the rest, see Churchill's quote on the equal sharing bit...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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