The U.S. Department of Justice charged Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and 14 other current and former government and intelligence officials with an array of charges Thursday, including drug trafficking, narco-terrorism, and corruption.
Per a statement from the DOJ, the indictment accuses Maduro of being involved in the Cartel de Los Soles (translated to “Cartel of the Suns”) since at least 1999, and alleges that he eventually led the organization and used it to enrich himself and its members, and gain power in Venezuela. The cartel’s influence allegedly stretched into the Venezuelan military, intelligence apparatus, legislature, and judiciary, which helped facilitate a large-scale trafficking operation designed “to ‘flood’ the United States with cocaine and inflict the drug’s harmful and addictive effects on users in the United States.”
The cartel is also accused of conspiring with the Colombian rebel group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, known as FARC, which has long been involved in drug trafficking (two FARC leaders were also indicted Thursday). As leader of the Cartel de Los Soles, Maduro allegedly helped negotiate “multi-ton shipments of FARC-produced cocaine,” ordered the cartel to supply FARC with military-grade weapons, and worked with other countries, such as Honduras, to “facilitate large-scale drug trafficking.”
“For more than 20 years, Maduro and a number of high-ranking colleagues allegedly conspired with the FARC, causing tons of cocaine to enter and devastate American communities,” Attorney General William Barr said. “Today’s announcement is focused on rooting out the extensive corruption within the Venezuelan government — a system constructed and controlled to enrich those at the highest levels of the government. The United States will not allow these corrupt Venezuelan officials to use the U.S. banking system to move their illicit proceeds from South America nor further their criminal schemes.”
The U.S. is offering a reward of up to $15 million for information that could lead to the arrest and/or conviction of Maduro. Rewards of $10 million and $5 million are being offered up for information that could aid the capture and/or conviction of the other people indicted.
As The New York Times notes, it’s incredibly rare to indict a head of state, but the decision to charge Maduro is in step with President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign on Maduro and Venezuela. The U.S. has pushed for Maduro to leave office after his widely disputed 2018 re-election. He’s also been heavily criticized for overseeing a devastating economic collapse, fueled primarily by the breakdown of the Venezuelan oil industry that some say has prompted a greater reliance on the drug trade. Amid all this, millions of Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years.
Prior to Thursday’s indictment, Maduro’s former vice president, Tareck El Aissami, had been accused in the U.S. of drug trafficking on multiple occasions, including an indictment last year. Two of Maduro’s nephews are also serving prison sentences in the U.S. on drug charges after they were accused of trying to bring $20 million in drug money back to Venezuela to help their family maintain power.