MIAMI — Nicolás Maduro effectively converted Venezuela into a criminal enterprise at the service of drug traffickers and terrorist groups as he and his allies stole billions from the South American country, the Justice Department charged in several indictments against the embattled socialist and his inner circle that were made public Thursday.
One indictment by prosecutors in New York accused Maduro and socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello of conspiring with Colombian rebels and members of the Venezuelan military “to flood the United States with cocaine” and use the drug trade as a “weapon against America.”
As the indictments were unsealed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the State Department would offer cash rewards of up to $55 million for information leading to the arrests or convictions of Maduro and his associates. It offered rewards up to $15 million for Maduro and up to $10 million each for the others.
“The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality,” U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in an online news conference from Washington. “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.”
The indictment of a functioning head of state is highly unusual and is bound to ratchet up tensions between Washington and Caracas as the spread of the coronavirus threatens to collapse Venezuela’s health system and oil-dependent economy driven deep into the ground by years of corruption and U.S. sanctions.
Analysts said the action could boost U.S. President Donald Trump’s re-election chances in the key swing state of Florida, which he won by a narrow margin in 2016 and where Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans fleeing authoritarian regimes have political muscle.
But its unclear how it brings Venezuela any closer to ending a 15-month standoff between Maduro, who has the support of Russia and China, and the U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó. It also could fragment the U.S.-led coalition against Maduro if European and Latin American allies think the Trump administration is overreaching.
“This kind of action does nothing to help a negotiated solution — something that’s already really difficult,” said Roberta Jacobson, who served as the State Department’s top diplomat for Latin America until 2018.
Maduro, a 57-year-old former bus driver, portrays himself as an everyman icon of the Latin American left. He’s long accused the U.S. “empire” of looking for any excuse to take control of the world’s largest oil reserves, likening its plotting to the 1989 invasion of Panama and the removal of Gen. Manuel Noriega to face drug trafficking charges in Florida.