The Trump administration unsealed sweeping indictments against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and members of his inner circle on narcoterrorism charges Thursday, March 26, a dramatic escalation in the U.S. campaign to force the authoritarian socialist from power.
The administration announced a $15 million reward for information leading to Maduro's capture or conviction, an extraordinary bounty on a man still recognized by the Russians, Chinese and others as Venezuela's rightful leader. The move effectively turns the 57-year-old former union leader into an internationally wanted man, giving Venezuelans a new motive to act against him and adding a new level of risk to any travel he might attempt beyond the confines of his power center in Caracas.
Attorney General William Barr announced the indictments of Maduro and other current and former Venezuelan officials on charges including money laundering, drug trafficking and narcoterrorism. Barr and other U.S. officials alleged a detailed conspiracy headed by Maduro that worked with Colombian guerrillas to transform Venezuela into a transshipment point for moving massive amounts of cocaine to the United States.
Barr accused Maduro of "deploying cocaine as a weapon" to undermine the United States.
"Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and well-being of our nation," Barr said during a news conference in Washington.
The charges against Maduro, brought in indictments in New York and Florida, carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 50 years in prison and a maximum of life. The U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, Geoff Berman, seemed to concede that U.S. authorities could not arrest Maduro in Venezuela, but noted that the leader might travel outside his country.
The long-awaited charges, described as "a decade" in the making, recalled the U.S. indictment of Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega in 1988. In that case, President George H.W. Bush eventually ordered U.S. forces to invade and capture Noriega. But Venezuela's far better-equipped military and Russian support for Maduro would complicate any attempt by the U.S. to take him into custody the same way.
The Trump administration last year broke diplomatic relations with Maduro, and recognized National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate president. Barr said officials expect to arrest Maduro, but he would not comment on whether the administration would entertain a military option, as it did in Panama.
"We're going to explore all options for getting custody," Barr said. "Hopefully, the Venezuelan people will see what's going on and will eventually regain control of their country."
Also charged were the head of Venezuela's National Constituent Assembly, a former director of military intelligence, a former high-ranking general, the minister of defense and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Some of the indicted officials - notably Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López and Chief Justice Maikel Moreno - were involved in plotting a military uprising against Maduro last spring, but failed to live up to secret pledges to move against the president.
The indictments are a sharp escalation in tactics against Maduro that officials have gradually ramped up since President Donald Trump entered the White House. A campaign that started with targeted sanctions on individual Venezuelan officials broadened to measures that have locked the government out of the U.S. financial system. A U.S. oil embargo imposed last year has denied Caracas its single largest source of hard currency.
Maduro rejected the U.S. charges Thursday.
"There's a conspiracy from the United States and Colombia and they've given the order of filling Venezuela with violence," he said on Twitter. "As head of state I'm obliged to defend peace and stability for all the motherland, under any circumstances."
Maduro is scrambling to cope with an outbreak of the coronavirus as Venezuela's broken hospitals reel from chronic shortages of medicines, dilapidated equipment and unsanitary conditions. Barr suggested the pandemic had delayed Thursday's announcement, but he said the time was now right because Venezuela's "people are suffering."
"They need an effective government that cares about the people," Barr said. "We think that the best way to support the Venezuelan people during this period is to do all we can to rid the country of this corrupt cabal."
In a January interview with The Washington Post, Maduro scoffed at allegations that his government had established agreements with Colombian guerrillas engaged in narcotrafficking and kidnapping on the Venezuelan-Colombian border.
"It makes me laugh," he said.
Prosecutors allege that Maduro and other Venezuelan officials have operated the Cartel do los Soles, or Cartel of the Suns, since at least 1999, corrupting Venezuela's government institutions so they could flood the U.S. with hundreds of tons of cocaine. They say the cartel worked with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to move cocaine into the U.S., shipping it by air and sea through the Caribbean and Central America. (The FARC, a Marxist guerrilla movement that engaged in a decades-long war against the Colombian government, officially disbanded with the Colombian peace accord of 2016, but more than 2,500 dissident members remain active.)
Prosecutors allege that Maduro led the operation, negotiating shipment quantities, directing the cartel to provide military-grade weapons to the FARC and coordinating with officials in other countries to facilitate the drug trafficking.
Barr said the Maduro government is "awash in corruption and criminality."
"While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money and the proceeds of their corruption," Barr said.
U.S. officials and Venezuelan opposition leaders have sought dialogue with some members of Maduro's inner circle in an attempt to strip away or at least weaken his internal support. By targeting several members of his inner circle, the administration could push them to close ranks around Maduro, complicating efforts to isolate him.
Still, Iván Simonovis, Guaidó's security commissioner, hailed the indictments.
"This is necessary to strangle the oxygen the regime has left," he told The Post. He called the $15 million reward for Maduro's capture and conviction - and $10 million for other officials - a powerful incentive for other officials government to turn against them.
"There is a price for each one of them," he said. "You never know what could happen with that."
Trump administration officials have given strong support to Guaidó, notably in his military uprising last spring. That effort quickly petered out, and is increasingly being viewed as Venezuela's Bay of Pigs - a lost opportunity to oust Maduro that might not come again.
Last year, Maduro's former spy chief, Gen. Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, told The Washington Post that he had provided details on locations and activities of Colombian drug cartels and criminal gangs operating on Venezuelan soil directly to Maduro, but Maduro declined to act.
"I gave him a folder with this and told him, 'Look, this is the situation with the guerrillas,'" said Figuera, who turned against Maduro last year and is now in the United States.
"They never took action," he said. "You could say that Maduro is a friend of the guerrillas."
Analysts see many differences between going after Maduro now and Noriega in the 1980s.
Maduro maintains a firmer grip on the Venezuelan military than Noriega had, and its officers have been less influenced by contact and cooperation with the U.S. military than were Panama's. Venezuela's military is better equipped with more sophisticated Russian weaponry.
Maduro's government also has more international support. The Russians and Cubans, and to a lesser extent, the Chinese, have stood behind him, and Moscow has turned the shipment of Venezuelan oil to circumvent U.S. sanctions into a cash cow.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that Maduro, although broadly unpopular, is still seen by some in Venezuela as the anointed successor of Hugo Chávez, the father of the socialist state, who died of cancer in 2013. Maduro's inner circle maintains control of the Venezuelan socialist movement, known as Chavismo, a still-formidable apparatus.
Analysts warn of the possibility of a dangerous power vacuum that could lead to violence if Maduro were abruptly removed. His government today has only limited control over its borders, which are rife with, and in some parts controlled, by armed gangs, Colombian guerrilla groups and narcotrafficking cartels.
"You can lob a cruise missile and take him out, but you don't take out Chavismo," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society. "You don't really take out the regime unless the military lays down its weapons and says we're going to support the Americans. I don't see that happening."
The Washington Post's Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas contributed to this report.
This article was written by Anthony Faiola and Matt Zapotosky, reporters for The Washington Post.