DOJ charges Venezuela’s Maduro with drug trafficking

Attorney General William Barr announced Thursday the indictment of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and other top officials for crimes related to drug trafficking.

Maduro was charged with narco-terrorism for allegedly attempting to weaponize cocaine by “flooding” U.S. communities with the drug. Thirteen other officials, including a vice president, the chief justice and the minister of defense, were also charged by U.S. attorneys in New York, Washington and Florida.

Barr denied that the U.S. was criminally charging a foreign head of state, which would be an unprecedented move.

He compared Maduro’s indictment to the 1988 indictment of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, which eventually led to the 1989 U.S. invasion of that country.

“We do not recognize Maduro as the president of Venezuela. Obviously we indicted Noriega under similar circumstances, we did not recognize Noriega as the president of Panama,” said Barr.

The U.S. officially recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s president, following the controversial 2018 election where Maduro was reelected to a second six-year term.

The Department of Justice alleged Maduro’s political career has been inextricably linked to drug trafficking in association with Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Two top FARC leaders, both of whom reneged the guerrilla force’s 2017 peace agreement with the Colombian government, were also charged.

United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Jeff Berman said the relationship between FARC — once one of the top producers of cocaine in the world — and the Venezuelan military dates back to 1999.

Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, came to power in 1998 promising to install a socialist model in Venezuela.

Berman said the Venezuelan military, sometimes known as the “Cartel of the Suns,” after a symbol on Venezuelan officers’ uniforms, was the point of contact between Maduro and the FARC.

“Around 1999, the cartel invited the FARC to expand its operations across the Colombian border into Venezuela, as part of the cartel’s effort to flood the United States with cocaine,” said Berman.

“As alleged, Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation.  Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon,” added Berman.

David Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, said the ties to FARC would likely be enough to substantiate the narco-terrorism charges.

“An easier argument would be that using FARC, and connections that FARC has to known terrorist organizations, that using their resources is what makes it narco-terrorism,” said Weinstein.

He added that the Venezuelan cocaine trade most likely targeted the United States because cocaine has a higher value in the United States.

“You’re selling it here because you can make a lot more money with it here,” said Weinstein.

The indictments, which came with a wanted poster featuring a $15 million reward for Maduro’s capture, had strong political underpinnings, beyond the evidence of Venezuelan state involvement in the drug trade.

“What’s surprising is obviously the ‘why now’ part,” said Michael McCarthy, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.

“I didn’t hear anything fundamentally new in the indictments,” he added.

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, welcomed the indictments, but warned they weren’t likely to bring regime change in Venezuela.

“Today’s announcement by the Department of Justice is further recognition that Maduro is an international criminal, a dictator, and the kingpin of a brutal regime that continues to inflict immeasurable harm on the Venezuelan people,” Menendez said in a statement.

“However, while Maduro’s depravity is undisputed, these charges alone will not restore democracy in Venezuela nor address the unprecedented humanitarian crisis that has already forced 5 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants to flee their homeland,” he added.

Barr was explicit in saying the decision did have a foreign policy angle, but said the indictments were brought because they were “justified by the law.”

“Obviously foreign policy considerations come into play if it was going to seriously injure our foreign policy, but that’s not the case here,” said Barr.

“Here, I think both as a matter of our legal system and as a matter of our national security and diplomacy, it’s time to call out this regime for what it is and highlight to the world the American people who have been victims of the drug trafficking — it was deliberately put in place to hurt American people,” he added.

But U.S. allies in opposition to Maduro — Guaidó in Venezuela, the Lima Group countries in Latin America and the European Union — could view the move as opportunistic.

“I don’t think that at this point that EU or Lima Group countries are viewing this sort of move, simply to make Madro radioactive, as the way to proceed,” said McCarthy.

“They may agree with Washington that Maduro doesn’t have the right to stand again for election, but they don’t see this as a way out,” he added.

Still, the indictments could have practical implications, even if Maduro and his officials don’t ultimately face trial in the United States.

Weinstein said the money funneled out of the cocaine trade and other corrupt enterprises by Venezuelan officials would now become more difficult to spend in the United States.

“The fact that DOJ has now drawn a bullseye on the back of the Venezuelans, and these are individuals in positions of power, it draws larger scrutiny on real estate transactions and others that are happening in the U.S. where one party is a Venezuelan national,” said Weinstein.

Ariana Fajardo, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, said her office has a specialized unit for tracking corrupt foreign officials who launder their money in the United States.

“As I drive from my home every day to my downtown office, I see literally the fraud and corruption of the Maduro regime. Whether it is million dollar condos, or yachts — very fancy yachts — and jets that fly through the air, private jets. All of these belonging to, whether it’s Venezuelan generals or Venezuelan officials, all of this has become a part of our society in southern Florida,” said Fajardo, who charged Venezuelan Chief Justice Maikel Moreno with international money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

“Well, I have a message to all of these Venezuelan officials: this party is coming to an end,” added Fajardo.

Tags Bob Menendez William Barr

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