The United States Department of Justice announced Thursday that it has charged Venezuela's socialist leader Nicolás Maduro and several key advisers on drug trafficking charges.
The department accused them of conspiring with Colombian rebels "to flood the United States with cocaine."
"We estimate that these routes send between Venezuela and 200 metric tons of cocaine. Those 250 metric tons are equivalent to 30 million lethal doses," he said.
As the allegations were revealed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the State Department would offer cash rewards of up to $ 55 million for information leading to the arrests or convictions of Maduro and four of his associates. The rewards, up to $ 15 million for Maduro and up to $ 10 million each for the others, are offered under the department's Narcotics Rewards Program, which has paid more than $ 130 million in information awards about some 75 drug traffickers since was created in 1986.
"While occupying key positions in the Maduro regime, these individuals violated public confidence by facilitating shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, including control of planes departing from a Venezuelan air base, as well as control of drug routes through the ports in Venezuela, "said Pompeo. he said in a statement.
The accusation of a functioning head of state is highly unusual and is intended to increase tensions between Washington and Caracas, as the spread of the coronavirus threatens to collapse a health system and an oil-dependent economy that sank to the ground because of years of corruption and the United States. penalties
Maduro had no immediate comment on the charges.
Analysts said the move could increase Trump's re-election chances in the key Florida state, which narrowly won in 2016 and where Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans fleeing authoritarian regimes have political strength.
But it is unclear how it brings Venezuela closer to ending a 15-month standoff between Maduro, who has the support of Russia and China, and U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who invoked the constitution last year. passed to declare himself interim president. It could also fragment the U.S.-led coalition against Maduro if European and Latin American allies think the Trump administration is overreaching.
"This type of action does nothing to help a negotiated solution, which is already really difficult," said Roberta Jacobson, who served as the top State Department diplomat for Latin America until 2018.
Maduro, a 57-year-old former bus driver, presents himself as an icon of the Latin American left. For a long time, he accused the US "empire,quot; of seeking any excuse to take control of the world's largest oil reserves, comparing his plot with the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the expulsion of General Manuel Noriega to face drug trafficking charges in Florida. .
Barr and Elliott Abrams, the special envoy of the State Department in Venezuela, are driving the aggressive stance of the United States towards Maduro, as they pressed for the dismissal of Noriega in the late 1980s: Barr as a senior official of the Department of Justice and Abrams as undersecretary of state for Latin America at the time.
American officials also see other parallels. Noriega transformed Panama into a playground for international violent drug cartels, while the Trump administration accused Maduro and his military henchmen of harboring drug traffickers, Colombian rebel fighters, and even Hezbollah.
They have also accused government officials along with well-connected businesspeople of stealing hundreds of billions of dollars from state coffers, much of the state oil giant PDVSA, which has seen output drop to a minimum of seven decades.
It is not an easy task
Still, carrying Maduro was not an easy task. Foreign practicing leaders normally enjoy immunity from prosecution under US law and international standards.
But the United States is among the 60 countries that no longer consider Maduro as a head of state. Instead, they recognize Guaidó, the head of Congress, as Venezuela's legitimate leader after socialist re-election in a 2018 race marred by allegations of fraud and a boycott of the opposition.
The evidence against Maduro was collected over several years by investigators in Miami, New York, Houston, and Washington who brought charges of drug trafficking, foreign bribery, and money laundering against several senior Venezuelan officials, members of the armed forces, and businessmen related to the government.
Much of those probes have focused on PDVSA, which is the source of virtually all of Venezuela's export earnings. Last year, the United States sanctioned PDVSA, prohibiting Americans from doing business with the oil giant.
But to the surprise of many, Hugo Chávez's chosen heir has stubbornly clung to power, resisting months of street protests last year and even an attempt at a U.S.-backed military revolt as millions of Venezuelan migrants flee hyperinflation and shortages widespread food.
With street support for Guaidó's disappearance, the Trump administration raised the ante last fall, withdrawing support for a Norwegian-sponsored mediation effort and extending sanctions so that even foreign companies would face retaliation for extending the line. Maduro's life.
Separately, Barr, echoing calls from the Republican senator from Florida. Marco Rubio prioritized investigations into Maduro's inner circle, according to two people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the Justice Department's internal deliberations.
Pressure to deliver, people said, skyrocketed when Guaido visited Washington, DC, in February and Trump praised him as his guest in the State of the Union address as "a very brave man, who carries with him hopes, dreams and aspirations of all Venezuelans. "
But the spread of the coronavirus pandemic delayed the announcement, which was originally slated for March 16, according to the individuals.
The virus is likely to further distract Washington's attention and threaten to divide the opposition, some of whom have expressed their willingness to work with Maduro to stop the growing media crisis. It could also breathe new life into Maduro's call for the United States to ease sanctions, an idea that several European Union allies have also been excited about.