U.S. charges Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and top officials for drug trafficking scheme

By Clare Hymes, Melissa Quinn

/ CBS News

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Washington — The Justice Department announced charges against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his top deputies for crimes related to narco-terrorism, money laundering and drug trafficking,marking the most aggressive action taken by the United States against the socialist country.

Attorney General William Barr announced the unsealing of superseding indictments in federal court in New York and South Floridaagainst Maduro and other Venezuelan officials, alleging they orchestrated a "narco-terrorism conspiracy" spanning more than two decades.

"As alleged, the Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality. Maduro and his defendants have betrayed the Venezuelan people and corrupted Venezuela's institutions," Barr said during a "virtual" news conference in Washington, D.C., to reduce the risk of exposure to coronavirus. "While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money and the proceeds of their corruption, and this has to come to an end."

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In addition to Maduro, the head of Venezuela's Constituent Assembly, its former director of military intelligence and a former high-ranking general were charged in New York for their involvement in narco-terrorism. The chief justice of Venezuela's Supreme Court was charged for involvement in money laundering in South Florida, Barr said, and the country's minister of defense was indicted on drug trafficking charges in the District of Columbia.

Federal prosecutors allege Maduro and other Venezuelan leaders worked with FARC, a Colombian guerilla group, as part of efforts to "flood the United States with cocaine."

"Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon," said Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

The decision to pursue criminal charges against top officials further escalates tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela. The Trump administration has engaged in a maximum pressure campaign against Venezuela, seeking to topple Maduro amid the country's ongoing political and economic crisis. Last year, the Trump administration froze all Venezuelan government assets and blocked American companies and individuals from doing business with Maduro's regime.

The U.S. and other countries have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's rightful leader, and Guaidó met with President Trump at the White House in February. He also attended this year's State of the Union address as a guest of Mr. Trump's, during which the president introduced Guaidó as Venezuela's "true and legitimate" and said Maduro was a "tyrant."

Still, Maduro has retained control of Venezuela in the wake of last year's uprising led by Guaidó and clashes between civilians and Maduro's security forces. Maduro took over as president of Venezuela in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez.

The last Latin American leader charged by the U.S. was Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who faced charges of narcotics trafficking and money laundering in 1990. Noriega surrendered after the United States invaded the country and was flown back to Miami, where he was ultimately sentenced to 40 years in prison.

First published on March 26, 2020 / 11:26 AM

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