The Trump administration unsealed criminal charges Thursday against senior officials of the government of Venezuela, including President Nicolás Maduro, accusing them of taking a leading role in the country's illegal drug trafficking.
Maduro "helped manage and ultimately lead" a criminal organization known as the Cartel of the Suns, according to an indictment that was made public Thursday. Under his leadership, the cartel "sought not only to enrich its members and enhance their power, but also to flood the United States with cocaine and inflict the drug's harmful and addictive effects on users in this country," according to the indictment.
The indictment, filed in federal court in New York City, said Maduro and other cartel members "prioritized using cocaine as a weapon against America and importing as much cocaine as possible into the United States."
The charges marked a new low in U.S. relations with Venezuela, which have been deteriorating since 1999, when Hugo Chavez, Maduro's predecessor, became president. He villainized the U.S. and other countries he accused of taking advantage of Venezuela.
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The U.S. and Maduro have long been at odds over the country's extensive corruption. The Trump administration backed a leader of the opposition, Juan Guaidó, instead of Maduro. The U.S. is among more than 50 countries that have refused to recognize Maduro as head of state.
The criminal charges said Maduro personally negotiated multi-ton shipments of cocaine and coordinated relations with Honduras and other countries to facilitate the illegal drug trade.
During a news conference that was streamed online, Attorney General William Barr said the Maduro regime is allowing members of the FARC guerrilla movement, which the U.S. identifies as a terrorist organization, "to use Venezuela as a safe haven from which they can continue to conduct their cocaine trafficking." He said the group flies or ships up to 250 metric tons to the U.S. each year, which amounts to 30 million lethal doses.
Federal prosecutors also unsealed criminal charges against 13 other current and former Venezuelan officials, including the president of the National Constituent Assembly, the chief justice of the supreme court, the defense minister and the former director of the military intelligence agency.
"Maduro is currently in Venezuela, but he may travel outside of Venezuela," said Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, which would give the U.S. the chance to arrest him. The State Department is offering a reward of up to $15 million for information that leads to his arrest and conviction.
Maduro denounced the charges in a tweet. "As the head of the state, I have an obligation to defend the peace and stability of the entire country, whatever circumstances are presented."