MIAMI -- In a stunning announcement amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Justice Department announced Thursday that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and several other government officials have been charged with turning Venezuela into a narco-state by collaborating with a leftist Colombian guerrilla group that exported tons of cocaine to the United States.
An indictment, unveiled at a "virtual" news conference in Washington, D.C., accuses Maduro and other top officials in his socialist regime of conspiring with the U.S.-designated terrorist group known as the FARC so that Venezuela could be used for narcotics shipments to finance a long-running civil war against the Colombian government.
Charged along with Maduro are Diosdado Cabello, a former speaker of the National Assembly who is considered the second most powerful political figure in Venezuela, and Vladimir Padrino Lopez, the country's minister of defense. All three Venezuelan officials face allegations of narco-terrorism, drug trafficking and weapons violations in a scheme initiated in the mid-2000s that was meant to help the Colombian rebel group while enriching themselves with cocaine-tainted bribes, according to federal authorities.
Maduro's indictment marks the second time that the U.S. government has brought criminal charges against a foreign head of state. The last time was in 1989, when federal prosecutors in Miami indicted Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega on drug-trafficking charges. and U.S. military forces seized him late that year. Noriega was convicted at trial, imprisoned in the Miami area and died in 2017.
In announcing Maduro's indictment, Attorney General William Barr said that the U.S. government will offer a $15 million reward to anyone who provides information on when Maduro leaves Venezuela that assists in his capture.
Barr said at the virtual news conference that Maduro and several other high-ranking officials betrayed the Venezuelan people by offering a "safe haven" in their country for the "extremely violent" Colombian rebel group, so the president and his allies could profit off the drug trade and "flood the United States with cocaine."
The extraordinary criminal case, which was filed in the Southern District of New York, is undoubtedly meant to put even greater pressure on Maduro, who took over the reins of Venezuela's government from the late Hugo Chavez after his death in 2013. While the once-prosperous country began its decline under Chavez, Venezuela's economy has crashed during Maduro's tenure -- leading to the exodus of millions of Venezuelans, including some who resettled in South Florida over the past decade.
The federal targeting of Maduro and several other Venezuelan officials follows last year's U.S. government threat to sanction any company that does business with his oil-rich country. The Trump administration has rejected Maduro as the president of Venezuela and formally recognized the opposition leader, Juan Guaido, as the nation's rightful leader.
At the same time, the Justice Department has already brought several multibillion-dollar corruption cases against senior Venezuelan government officials, including Chavez's former national treasurer, Alejandro Andrade (now imprisoned), executives in the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and politically connected businessmen with luxury homes and bank accounts in the United States. These prosecutions have been under way for years in New York, Miami and Houston and more corruption cases are expected to be filed.
On Thursday, a corruption case was also unsealed in Miami charging Miakel Moreno, the president of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice in Venezuela, with accepting bribes in connection with PDVSA corruption and contract schemes. Moreno, the nation's top judicial figure, is the fifth target of the widening Miami case that has implicated both national oil company officials and contractors.