Matias Delacroix / AP
Updated at 12:18 ET
The Justice Department closed criminal charges against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and other tongue-in-cheek regimes on Thursday in connection with alleged drug terrorism and drug smuggling to the United States.
Attorney General William Barr announced the charges at the Justice Department in Washington with some officials present and others connected by telephone conference – precautions taken because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The charges involve 15 defendants, including Maduro and other political and military leaders in Venezuela. Barr claimed the regime as a cesspit for corruption, as the strongman and his lieutenants have taken up the smuggling and also allegedly laundered money for drug dealers, he said.
Venezuela is also accused of allowing Colombians linked to the revolutionary armed forces in Colombia – the People’s Army, known by its Spanish initials, FARC – to use its airspace to fly cocaine north through Central America to destinations in North America, Barr said.
New York Southern District Attorney Geoffrey Berman said the schedule between Colombians and Venezuelans had operated for two decades and represented a deliberate strategy by Maduro’s regime to “flood the United States with cocaine.”
The Department of Justice officials defended the decision to indict a foreign head of state and other heads of government because, among other reasons, they said that Maduro and the others had violated US law and placed the issue entirely in the department’s power.
Barr also noted that Washington does not consider Maduro to be Venezuela’s rightful president. And making the announcement during the crown virus crisis was a coincidence at the time, he said.
“We continued with these cases when we were ready to do so,” he said.
Law enforcement officials also said there were strategic reasons for trying to put pressure on Maduro’s regime over the type of smuggling they said he allowed – via an “air bridge” over Venezuela.
Barr said that US and Allied interdiction of maritime contraband has increased in recent months – in cases where, for example, the US Coast Guard stops fast boats or semi-submersible vessels ferrying drugs north in the eastern Pacific or the Caribbean.
That adds to the importance of the “aviation bridge,” Barr said, forcing the US government’s efforts to try to limit it by revealing the Venezuelan regime’s involvement.
“As we increase our interdiction in both oceans, we are concerned that this is evolving as a way to avoid our maritime interdiction – which makes going this specific path important for us right now,” Barr said.
Months of pressure on Venezuela
The announcement of the accusations followed months of pressure from President Trump’s administration on Maduro’s regime, which the United States considers illegal after an election that many world powers deem unfair.
Washington has supported alternative political forces in Caracas against Maduro, and Trump invited the man he recognizes as Venezuela’s leader, Juan Guaidó, to the Union address this year.
Maduro is unlikely to be arrested and tried in the United States, but Berman noted that the Department of Foreign Affairs has offered a $ 15 million reward for his capture.
Legislative officials also said that live prosecution in the US judicial system complicates Maduro or his core’s ability to travel outside Venezuela, and certainly for them to try to travel to the United States.
The Justice Department has experience in bringing major drug offenders to trial, including Mexican drug king Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera – the infamous “El Chapo” – sentenced in Brooklyn last year and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.