The US Justice Department announced the indictment of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday for “narco-terrorism” and offered US$15 million for information leading to his capture.
In an extremely rare criminal case brought against a foreign head of state, the department accused Maduro of being the leader of a cocaine trafficking group called The Cartel of the Suns.
Investigators said the organization worked hand-in-hand with the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which the United States has labeled a terrorist organization, to export hundreds of tones of drugs a year.
Maduro, Venezuela's president since 2013, and other top regime officials are alleged to have used cocaine as a weapon to flood the US over the past two decades.
The State Department announced 18 indictments of Maduro and 14 other current and former officials, saying it was targeting broad corruption at the top of a government it blames for Venezuela's desperate poverty.
For more than 20 years, Maduro and a number of high-ranking colleagues allegedly conspired with the FARC, causing tons of cocaine to enter and devastate American communities, said Attorney General Bill Barr.
It's time to call out this regime for what it is, he added. The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality.
Barr underscored that the United States no longer recognizes Maduro as Venezuela's legitimate leader, and referred to him as the former president.
The Justice Department alleges that Maduro and regime figures supported a breakaway group of the FARC along the Colombian-Venezuelan border that has been involved in drug trafficking since 1999.
It said that four others indicted in New York - a former National Assembly speaker, defense minister, military intelligence head and general - were part of the operation. They acted alongside Maduro as leaders and managers of the Cartel of the Suns, the department said in a statement.
The name refers to sun insignias on the uniforms of senior Venezuelan military officials, according to the Justice Department.
Maduro, who was vice president and foreign minister in the Hugo Chavez government before 2013, allegedly negotiated and coordinated shipments of FARC-produced cocaine, directing the cartel to provide weapons to the FARC.
The shipments to the United States ran up to 250 tons a year, according to the indictments.
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, said New York federal district attorney Geoffrey Berman.
The indictments included updated charges against Vice President Tareck Aissami, whom Washington has already designated a drug trafficker, and the country's Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno.
Moreno was charged in Miami with money laundering related to bribes he allegedly took to illegally fix dozens of civil and criminal cases in Venezuela, the Justice Department said.
It alleged that he took a percent of the proceeds for ruling in favor of the government's 2017 seizure and sale of General Motors' US$100 million auto plant to local businessmen.
Maduro and his four lieutenants could face a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life terms, if they can be tried.