Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and other top officials were indicted by the U.S. government on Thursday on allegations of "narco-terrorism," the latest escalation in the Trump administration's pressure campaign against the socialist dictator.
United States Attorney General William Barr gave details of the drug trafficking charges at a Thursday morning news conference where he also revealed a $15 million reward for information that would lead to Maduro's arrest or conviction.
Maduro, who has been in power since 2013, is also charged with weapons offences, for which a mandatory penalty is at least 50 years.
Barr has revealed the charges against Maduro, who is already under U.S. sanctions and was the focus of a U.S. campaign to drive him out of office.
The US accused Maduro and his associates of conspiring with a dissident faction of the left-wing Colombian rebel group FARC to flood the United States with cocaine.
In a statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said while occupying key positions in the Maduro regime, these individuals breached public confidence by facilitating drug shipments from Venezuela, including control of aircraft departing from Venezuela's air base, as well as control of drug routes thru ports in the country.
Other Maduro supporters, including Vice President Diosdado Cabello, also have a $10 million bounty for their arrest by the State Department.
Venezuela's government leaders have long been accused of taking part in foreign drug trafficking to shore up the struggling country's economy. There were also separate complaints against the defense minister and the supreme court judge.
The indictment, an unprecedented U.S. move against a sitting foreign head of state, represents a significant escalation by Washington against the Venezuelan leader at a time when some U.S. officials have said privately that US President Donald Trump is increasingly dissatisfied with the outcomes of his strategy.
"We estimate that cocaine is exported from Venezuela somewhere between 200 and 250 metric tons. Those 250 metric tons equate to 30 million lethal doses," the Department of Justice said in its statement.
In 2019, Maduro's leadership was questioned after a widely condemned election that led to major nationwide protests. The US and a number of other countries have recognized Juan Guaido, the national assembly leader, as the legitimate leader of the country and have called for economic sanctions to try to force Maduro out of office.
The Maduro government is accused of human rights abuses including Venezuelan citizens being tortured, imprisoned and murdered.