The US has charged Nicolás Maduro and other Venezuelan officials with participating in an alleged narco-terrorism scheme, in a major escalation of the Trump administration’s campaign to oust the Latin American leader even as the country faces a growing humanitarian crisis.
William Barr, the US attorney-general, said on Thursday that Mr Maduro, 57, and his associates conspired with a dissident faction of former Colombian leftwing guerrilla group, the Farc, to use Venezuela as a safe haven and “flood” the US with cocaine.
The US state department also offered a $15m reward on Thursday for information leading to the arrest or conviction of the Venezuelan leader.
Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, said that the Venezuelan regime had “deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon” to undermine health in the US.
Mr Maduro faces a possible sentence of life in prison if convicted on charges that include participating in a narco-terrorism conspiracy and conspiring to import cocaine into the US. More than a dozen other serving and former Venezuelan officials have also been charged with narco-terrorism, corruption, drug-trafficking and other criminal charges in New York, Washington and Miami.
“The scope and magnitude of the drug trafficking alleged was made possible only because Maduro and others corrupted the institutions of Venezuela and provided political and military protection for the rampant narco-terrorism crimes described in our charges,” Mr Berman said.
The charges come as Venezuela deals with a humanitarian crisis that could be exacerbated by an outbreak of coronavirus. The government said there are fewer than 100 cases and no deaths so far, but health officials in the cash-strapped country warn the numbers may be much higher.
One recent study concluded the country was the worst-prepared in the Americas to deal with a pandemic, behind the likes of Haiti and Honduras. Most clinics lack basic equipment like gloves, soap and surgical masks and gowns — or even clean water.
Mr Maduro has blamed this on US sanctions, but his critics say the health system has been in steep decline even before Washington imposed its first sectoral measures in 2017. They have also said the sanctions do not prevent the government from allowing humanitarian aid into the country.
In a televised address on Thursday night, Mr Maduro described the US charges as “vulgar, miserable and false” and accused US President Donald Trump of acting like “a racist cowboy from the 19th century” — a reference to the Wild West-style “wanted posters” that the US Department of Justice issued on Thursday for Mr Maduro and members of his inner circle.
The Trump administration has repeatedly promised to bring to bear an extraordinary campaign of maximum pressure against Mr Maduro, who has been in power since 2013, in an attempt to force him out of the presidency and bring about new elections.
The US and more than 50 other countries view opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president. Mr Guaidó has been trying to assert his authority during the coronavirus outbreak but has no real power to import food and medicine, take measures to safeguard the economy or hold large rallies amid social distancing efforts.
For now, the US accusations appear to have extinguished any hope that the coronavirus crisis might have persuaded the Venezuelan government and the Guaidó-led opposition to bury their differences and reach a truce, allowing the country to tackle the epidemic.
In recent weeks, such an agreement seemed vaguely possible. Moderate members of the Venezuelan opposition suggested it was necessary and Mr Maduro insisted he was open to dialogue. Some diplomats, including Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, have urged the US to lift sanctions to let Venezuela address the pandemic, but that now appears a remote possibility.
When asked why the charges were being unsealed now, Mr Barr told reporters: “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.”
Moises Rendon, Venezuela expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan think-tank in Washington, said Mr Maduro would likely only consider leaving power if his inner circle including senior military generals abandoned him.
“The pressure is ramping up on Maduro and there’s some divisions in the military, but they are not at the highest level. The bottom line is if he convinces his inner circle to stay then he’s safe for now,” said Mr Rendon.
Human rights organisations caution the drug trafficking narrative may
be overstated. One such group, the Washington Office on Latin America, said in a report this month that US government data showed 90 per cent of US-bound cocaine was trafficked through Western Caribbean and Eastern Pacific routes, not through Venezuela’s Eastern Caribbean seas.
While 210 metric tons of cocaine passed through Venezuela in
2018, the US state department reported that more than six times as much
cocaine — 1,400 metric tons — passed through Guatemala the same year.