(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. indicted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and 14 key associates for drug trafficking as the Trump administration ramps up pressure on an adversary it has sought to push aside.
The U.S. is also offering a $15 million reward for information leading to Maduro’s arrest or conviction, while the State Department is offering $10 million for some of his associates, who include former Vice President Diosdado Cabello. Separate charges were filed against the country’s defense minister and head of the supreme court.
“The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality,” Attorney General William Barr said at a news conference in Washington Thursday. “While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money and the proceeds of corruption.”
Barr that the charges allege a conspiracy involving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a terrorist group he said was determined to “flood the U.S. with cocaine.” Barr said that Maduro’s regime gives the FARC, as the group is known, authority to fly drug-filled planes over Venezuelan airspace and safely manufacture cocaine on its territory.
“We estimate that somewhere between 200 and 250 metric tons of cocaine are shipped out of Venezuela by these routes,” Barr said, adding that the shipments were equivalent to 30 million lethal doses of drugs.
The charges against Maduro -- which also include weapons offenses and narcoterrorism -- carry a minimum sentence of at least 50 years.
President Donald Trump and top U.S. officials have long sought to oust Maduro’s regime but have so far failed to replace him with the opposition leader they support, National Assembly President Juan Guaido.
About $2 billion worth of cocaine, about a quarter of what’s produced in Colombia in a year, passes through Venezuela before making its way to other countries last year, according to Jeremy McDermott, co-founder of Insight Crime, a research group that studies organized crime.
There’s evidence that the criminal groups that transport these drugs have infiltrated Venezuelan government security forces, forming a network known as the ‘Cartel of the Suns’ to facilitate the passage of illicit drugs into and out the country, according to a 2019 report by the United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board.
The indictments against Maduro, a sitting head of state who isn’t recognized by the U.S. and dozens of other nations, would be the first since the U.S. issued charges against former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. Noriega was eventually captured and sentenced to prison after then-President George H.W. Bush sent troops to the country to bring him to justice.
“We do expect to eventually gain custody of these defendants,” Barr said of Maduro and his indicted aides.
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