The Trump administration unsealed sweeping indictments Thursday against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and members of his inner circle on narcoterrorism charges, a move that dramatically escalates US efforts to force the authoritarian socialist from power.
The United States also offered a $15 million bounty for information leading to Maduro’s capture and conviction.
Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department has charged Maduro, along with a host of other current and former Venezuelan officials, with narcoterrorism, money laundering, and drug trafficking. Barr and other US officials outlined a detailed conspiracy headed by Maduro that effectively worked with Colombian guerrillas to transform Venezuela into a trans-shipment point for moving massive amounts of cocaine into the United States.
The long-awaited decision to file charges against Maduro echoed the US indictment of Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega in 1988 that ultimately led to his capture and incarceration. But Venezuela’s far better-equipped military and Russian support for Maduro would complicate any US attempt to take him into custody the same way.
Barr said officials do expect to arrest Maduro, but he would not comment on whether the administration would entertain a military option, as it did in Panama.
‘‘We’re going to explore all options for getting custody,’’ Barr said. ‘‘Hopefully, the Venezuelan people will see what’s going on and will eventually regain control of their country.’’
Among those charged, Barr said, were Venezuela’s current head of the Constitutional Assembly, its former director of military intelligence, a former high-ranking general, the minister of defense, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Some of the indicted officials — notably Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez — failed to live up to secret pledges to move against Maduro during an abortive military uprising backed by the United States and sprung last April 30.
Barr said the charges showed that Maduro’s regime was ‘‘infected by criminality and corruption.’’
The charges were brought in indictments in New York and Florida. US Attorney Geoff Berman in Manhattan said they were the culmination of more than a decade of work.
‘‘Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon,’’ he said.
The charges against Maduro, in particular, carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 50 years in prison and a maximum of life, Berman said. He seemed to concede that US authorities could not arrest Maduro in Venezuela but noted that the leader may travel outside his country. Berman announced that the State Department is offering a $15 million reward for Maduro’s capture or for additional information that leads to his conviction.
The indictments mark a sharp escalation in tactics that have gradually ramped up under President Trump. What started as targeted, individual sanctions on Venezuelan officials moved to far broader measures that have locked Venezuela out of the US financial system. A US oil embargo imposed on Venezuela last year denied Caracas its single largest source of hard currency.
Even before the charges were announced Thursday, Maduro rejected them.
‘‘There’s a conspiracy from the United States and Colombia and they’ve given the order of filling Venezuela with violence,’’ he said on Twitter. ‘‘As head of state I’m obliged to defend peace and stability for all the motherland, under any circumstances.’’
The unsealing of the indictments comes as Maduro is scrambling to cope with a domestic outbreak of the coronavirus at a time when Venezuela’s broken hospitals are reeling from chronic shortages of medicines, dilapidated equipment, and unsanitary conditions. Barr suggested that the pandemic had delayed Thursday’s announcement, but he said the time was right now because Venezuela’s ‘‘people are suffering.’’
The United States and the Venezuelan opposition had sought dialogue with some members of Maduro’s inner circle in an attempt to strip away or at least weaken his internal support. Yet by targeting a large number of those people with indictments, the administration could inadvertently push them to close ranks around Maduro, complicating the attempt to make him toxic and encourage those around him to abandon support.
The United Nations last year documented the torture, arbitrary arrest, and killing of government opponents and citizens under Maduro. In a January interview with The Washington Post, Maduro dismissed those reports as lies being spread by ‘‘rightist antirevolutionary media outlets.’’
He scoffed at allegations that his government had established agreements with Colombian guerrillas engaged in narcotrafficking and kidnapping on the Venezuelan-Colombian border, or that operatives of the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group were operating in Venezuela.
‘‘It makes me laugh,’’ he said.