In a stunning announcement amid the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and several other government officials have been charged with turning Venezuela into a narco-state by collaborating with a leftist Colombian guerrilla group that exported tons of cocaine to the United States.
An indictment, unveiled at a video news conference in Washington, D.C., accuses Maduro and other current and former officials in his socialist regime of conspiring with the U.S.-designated terrorist group known as the FARC, so that Venezuela could be used as a base for narcotics shipments smuggled on flights and boats through Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. The rebel group financed its long-running civil war against the Colombian government with the drug proceeds.
Charged along with Maduro are Diosdado Cabello, a former president of the National Assembly who is considered the second most powerful political figure in Venezuela; Hugo Carvajal, a former director of military intelligence who is believed to be at large in Spain; and Clíver Antonio Alcalá, a former general in the Venezuelan armed forces, and two senior FARC leaders.
All face allegations of narco-terrorism, drug trafficking and weapons violations in a scheme initiated in the mid-2000s that was meant to help the Colombian rebel group while enriching themselves with cocaine-tainted bribes, according to federal authorities.
Separately, Vladimir Padrino Lopez, Venezuela’s minister of defense, was charged with conspiring to transport cocaine on U.S.-registered aircraft from Venezuela to Central America that was destined for the United States.
Maduro’s indictment marks the second time that the U.S. government has brought criminal charges against a sitting foreign head of state. The last time was in 1989, when federal prosecutors in Miami indicted Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega on drug-trafficking charges, and U.S. military forces seized him late that year. Noriega was convicted at trial, imprisoned in the Miami area and died in 2017.
In announcing Maduro’s indictment, Attorney General William Barr said that the U.S. government will offer a $15 million reward to anyone who provides information on Maduro that leads to his capture and another $10 million reward for any tip leading to the arrest of Cabello, Carvajal and Alcalá.
Barr said at the virtual news conference that Maduro and several other senior officials offered their country as a “safe haven” to an “extremely violent terrorist organization” in Colombia, so the Venezuelan president and his allies could get rich off the drug trade and “flood the United States with cocaine.”
“Maduro and the other defendants have betrayed the Venezuelan people and corrupted Venezuela’s institutions,” Barr said. “While the Venezuela people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money and the proceeds of their corruption. This has to come to an end.”
The four-count indictment alleges that Maduro played a leadership role in a Venezuelan drug-trafficking syndicate known as the Cartel de los Soles. And in that role, the indictment says, he negotiated multi-ton loads of FARC-produced cocaine, directed to the cartel to provide military-grade weapons to the FARC, and coordinated foreign affairs with Honduras to facilitate drug shipments.
The extraordinary criminal case, which was filed in the Southern District of New York, is undoubtedly meant to put even greater pressure on Maduro, who took over the reins of Venezuela’s government from the late Hugo Chávez after his death in 2013. While the once-prosperous country began its decline under Chávez, Venezuela’s economy has crashed during Maduro’s tenure — leading to the exodus of millions of Venezuelans, including some who resettled in South Florida over the past decade.
“For far too long, Maduro’s criminal enterprise has illegally enriched itself through corruption, drug trade, and terrorism,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the Venezuelan president’s most vocal critic in Washington. “Today’s indictment against Nicolás Maduro and senior members of his regime is an unprecedented step to hold accountable many thugs who have turned a once democratic nation into a narco-state.”
The federal targeting of Maduro and several other Venezuelan officials follows last year’s U.S. government threat to sanction any company that does business with his oil-rich country. The Trump administration has rejected Maduro as the president of Venezuela and formally recognized the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as the nation’s rightful leader.
At the same time, the Justice Department has already brought several multibillion-dollar corruption cases against senior Venezuelan government officials, including Chávez’s former national treasurer, Alejandro Andrade (now imprisoned), executives in the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and politically connected businessmen with luxury homes and bank accounts in the United States. These prosecutions have been underway for years in New York, Miami and Houston, and more corruption cases are expected to be filed.
On Thursday, a corruption case was also unsealed in Miami charging Miakel Moreno, the president of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice in Venezuela, with accepting bribes in connection with PDVSA corruption and contract schemes. Moreno, the nation’s top judicial figure, is the fifth target of the widening Miami case that has implicated both national oil company officials and contractors.
As part of Thursday’s live-streamed news conference in Washington, the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, and the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of Florida, Ariana Fajardo Orshan, participated from Manhattan and Miami, respectively, because of concerns about gatherings of more than 10 during the coronavirus outbreak.
Berman said the Venezuelan leader presided over a corrupt regime whose mission was to export drugs to harm both Americans and Venezuelans.
“Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon,” Berman said. “While Maduro and other cartel members held lofty titles in Venezuela’s political and military leadership, the conduct described in the Indictment wasn’t statecraft or service to the Venezuelan people.”
Berman was unable to say how much New York prosecutors and federal agents have seized or frozen in ill-gotten assets from Maduro and the others, saying only that the Venezuela leader pocketed a $5 million bribe from the FARC more than a decade ago when he was serving as foreign minister.
Fajardo focused on the vast money-laundering cases that her office has filed against more than a dozen Venezuelan officials, businessmen and others, saying their ill-gotten gains from embezzlement schemes involving the country’s oil riches have poured into Miami real estate and bank accounts. She said Venezuela corruption has been a major factor in inflating the cost of living, especially the region’s housing market.
“Far too often, these corrupt officials and their co-conspirators have used South Florida banks and real estate to conceal and perpetuate their illegal activity,” said Fajardo, highlighting that federal prosecutors, along Homeland Security Investigations, have seized more than $450 million in bank accounts and other assets.
The most notable Venezuelan political figure charged Thursday is of course Maduro, the president. But the senior official who allegedly orchestrated the country’s drug-trafficking enterprises is Cabello, a prominent politician who was close to Chávez and has exerted tremendous influence over Venezuela’s military.
The Drug Enforcement Administration has been investigating Cabello for years, claiming he is the actual leader of the so-called Cartel de los Soles — Cartel of the Suns — a powerful criminal organization consisting of military officers and officials of the Maduro regime that controls most drug-trafficking operations in Venezuela. (The cartel’s name refers to the sun insignias affixed to the uniforms of top Venezuelan military officials.)
U.S. investigators have been collecting evidence and testimony from former regime and Venezuelan military officials about Cabello’s involvement in the cartel, which began by providing protection to Colombian drug traffickers but ended up shoving them aside to take over the illicit trade in partnership with Colombian guerrillas, the FARC.
In 2016, the FARC signed a peace deal with the Colombian government that led to the demobilization of most of their fighting force and brought then-President Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Prize. But a number of guerrilla holdouts, or FARC dissidents, continue to operate in the country and neighboring Venezuela.
“These FARC dissidents continue to be involved in drug trafficking and armed insurgency,” Barr said at Thursday’s news conference. “They have obtained the support of the Maduro regime, which is allowing them to use Venezuela as a safe haven from which they can continue to conduct their cocaine trafficking and their armed insurgency.”
Cabello’s alleged role in drug trafficking was first mentioned officially by the U.S. government in May 2018, when the Department of Treasury sanctioned him. “Cabello organizes drug shipments being moved from Venezuela through the Dominican Republic, and onwards to Europe,” the Treasury Department said in a press release at the time.
Cabello, who also heads the regime’s National Constituent Assembly, a controversial body used by Maduro as a parallel Congress, collaborated with other senior officials in Maduro’s government. His principal partner: former Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who currently serves as vice president of the economy. (El Aissami, though not charged in the narco-terrorism case unsealed Thursday, has been indicted along with two Venezuelan officials on charges of evading U.S. sanctions imposed against him and Maduro.)
FROM REVOLUTIONARY DREAMS TO A CARTEL
Cabello and El Aissami are both founding members of the Cartel de los Soles that ended up turning Venezuela into a springboard for the Colombian drug shipments to the United States and Europe, U.S. investigators say.
According to cooperating witnesses who spoke to the DEA, both officials participated in a crucial meeting held in 2005 with then-President Chávez, who allegedly ordered his trusted lieutenants to take over the drug trade in Venezuela.
The former head of state argued the regime’s incursion in drug trafficking was necessary to help the leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) take power in the neighboring country and also to hurt the United States. Chávez deemed the U.S. as the main obstacle to his socialist movement in Venezuela, according to DEA documents obtained by el Nuevo Herald.
Besides Cabello and El Aissami, the meeting was also attended by then-head of military intelligence, Carvajal, general Henry Rangel Silva, who later became defense minister, and a high-ranking judge who later became a DEA informant and was identified in the documents as “Witness-1.”
“During the meeting, Chávez urged the group, in substance and in part, to promote its political objectives, including fighting the United States by ‘flooding’ the country with cocaine,” said Witness-1, whose statement is quoted in the DEA documents.
“Chávez ordered Carvajal, Cabello, Rangel Silva, and others to coordinate [the drug shipments] with the FARC, and Chávez assigned Witness-1, among others, to make sure that law enforcement officials did not interfere with these activities,” according to the DEA informant’s statement.
In one of the monthly meetings that followed, Cabello described the land, air and sea routes of drug trafficking through Venezuela, and Carvajal explained that the FARC would supply the cocaine loads in exchange for weapons, according to the DEA documents.
Starting in the mid-2000s, the U.S. Department of State estimated that 250 or more tons of cocaine were exported from Venezuela per year. The maritime shipments left Venezuela’s coastline using go-fast vessels, fishing boats and container ships headed for the Caribbean. Air shipments departed from clandestine dirt or grass airstrips in the Apure State bound for Central America. According to the State Department, about 75 unauthorized flights suspected of drug-trafficking activities entered Honduran airspace in 2010 alone, the cocaine “air bridge” between Venezuela and Honduras.
Barr, the attorney general, said Thursday that the air-bridge cocaine operations have increased five-fold since 2016.
While Chávez may have approved the free transit of drugs in Venezuela as a way to hurt the United States and help the FARC to take power in Colombia, the decision seems to have had a more lasting impact in Venezuela, where drug trafficking dominated the state and corrupted its government, experts say.
A recent report by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington revealed that Chávez’s revolutionary mission was eventually upended by the regime’s move into drug trafficking, with top lieutenants eventually tossing aside their socialist agenda to concentrate on the narcotics trade.
“Chávez’s motive was primarily political, but assuming a direct role in marketing FARC cocaine converted his government into a criminal enterprise,” the report said. “In this period, senior Chavista leaders became more interested in sustaining this lucrative corruption than in governing or managing the economy.”
Ever since, Cabello has been at the center of it all, using his political power to direct criminal enterprises in Venezuela and beyond, according to U.S. officials.
“Cabello has abused these influential positions [within the regime] in furtherance of his illicit and corrupt activities to control and direct government agencies and military officials in Venezuela,” the U.S. Department of Treasury said when it announced the sanctions against him in 2018.
“Cabello has entrenched a network of supporters by deciding who gets promoted within agencies such as the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Public Works,” the Treasury Department said. “Cabello in turn used that sphere of influence to personally profit from extortion, money laundering, and embezzlement.”
RISE TO THE TOP
Cabello played a leading role in Chávez’s political movement from the beginning, as one of the military officers who accompanied him in his 1992 failed coup attempt.
Cabello was expelled from the Venezuelan army after the failed coup attempt, putting an end to his military career. But he found himself in government less than a decade later after the leaders of the coup attempt were pardoned and Chávez won the 1998 presidential election.
Since then, Cabello has occupied a series of key positions inside the Venezuelan government. U.S. officials believe Cabello, who today is one of Venezuela’s richest men, used his influence and position to advance in the drug trade.
Cabello consolidated his power within the Cartel de los Soles following the death of Chávez in 2013.
While the cocaine shipments were supplied by the FARC, Cabello used his official power to get rid of smaller competitors in the drug trade by arresting them and confiscating their stashes, according to U.S. investigators.
While often being referred to as a cartel, the drug-trafficking structure operating under the shadows of the Maduro regime is in reality made up of different networks, at times hostile to each other, that operate under the sponsorship of key Chavista figures, including Cabello and El Aissami.
“The Cartel of the Suns today is a disparate network of traffickers, including both state and non-state actors, but all operating with the blessing and protection of senior figures in the Venezuelan government,” said a 2018 report published by InSight Crime, which studies organized crime throughout Latin America. “Without such political top cover, and paying off the correct people, drug smuggling operations are shut down.”
“Drug trafficking is one of the main lubricants for corruption in Venezuela today,” the report said, “and this troubled Andean nation is becoming one of the world’s major cocaine trafficking hubs.”
A report by the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group for human rights, echoed that view to a degree, but also offered a different assessment of Venezuela’s role in the international narcotics trade.
“Venezuela’s state institutions have deteriorated and the country lacks an impartial, transparent, or even functional justice system. In this environment, armed groups and organized criminal structures, including drug trafficking groups, have thrived,” the March 2020 report said. But U.S. government data suggests that, despite these challenges, Venezuela is not a primary transit country for U.S.-bound cocaine. U.S. policy toward Venezuela should be predicated on a realistic understanding of the transnational drug trade.
“Recent data from the U.S. interagency Consolidated Counterdrug Database (CCDB) indicates that 210 metric tons of cocaine passed through Venezuela in 2018. By comparison, the State Department reports that over six times as much cocaine (1,400 metric tons) passed through Guatemala the same year.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the U.S. would name Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Miami Herald Latin American correspondent Jim Wyss contributed to this report.