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US indicts Venezuela leader Maduro for 'narco-terrorism'

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, in a handout picture released by Venezuela's presidential palace, has been indicted by the United States on "narco-terrorism" charges
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, in a handout picture released by Venezuela's presidential palace, has been indicted by the United States on "narco-terrorism" charges Marcelo GARCIA Venezuelan Presidency/AFP/File
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Washington (AFP)

The US Justice Department announced the indictment of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday for "narco-terrorism" and offered $15 million for information leading to his capture.

In an extremely rare criminal case brought against a foreign head of state, the department accused Maduro of being the leader of a cocaine trafficking group called "The Cartel of the Suns."

Investigators say the organization worked hand-in-hand with the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which the United States has labeled a "terrorist organization," to export hundreds of tonnes of drugs a year.

Maduro, Venezuela's president since 2013, and other top regime officials are alleged to have used cocaine as a "weapon" to flood the US over the past two decades.

The State Department announced 18 indictments of Maduro and 14 other current and former officials, saying it was targeting broad corruption at the top of a government it blames for the South American country's desperate poverty.

"For more than 20 years, Maduro and a number of high-ranking colleagues allegedly conspired with the FARC, causing tons of cocaine to enter and devastate American communities," said Attorney General Bill Barr.

"It's time to call out this regime for what it is," he added. "The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality."

- 'Cartel of the Suns' -

Barr underscored that the United States no longer recognizes Maduro as Venezuela's legitimate leader, and referred to him as the "former president."

The Justice Department alleges that Maduro and regime figures supported a breakaway group of the FARC along the Colombian-Venezuelan border that has been involved in drug trafficking since 1999.

It said that four others indicted in New York -- a former National Assembly speaker, defense minister, military intelligence head and general -- were part of the operation.

They acted alongside Maduro as "leaders and managers" of the Cartel of the Suns, the department said in a statement.

The name refers to sun insignias on the uniforms of senior Venezuelan military officials, according to the Justice Department.

Maduro, who was vice president and foreign minister in the Hugo Chavez government before 2013, allegedly negotiated and coordinated shipments of FARC-produced cocaine, directing the cartel to provide weapons to the FARC.

The shipments to the United States ran up to 250 tonnes a year, according to the indictments.

"Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation," said New York federal district attorney Geoffrey Berman.

"Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon."

- 'Corrupt' judge -

The indictments included updated charges against Vice President Tareck Aissami, whom Washington has already designated a drug trafficker, and the country's Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno.

Moreno was charged in Miami with money laundering related to bribes he allegedly took "to illegally fix dozens of civil and criminal cases in Venezuela," the Justice Department said.

It alleged that he took a percent of the proceeds for ruling in favor of the government's 2017 seizure and sale of General Motors' $100 million auto plant to local businessmen.

According to the charges Moreno laundered $3 million into his US bank accounts between 2012 and 2016, using it to charter private aircraft and for $600,000 in luxury shopping sprees.

Despite that, the Justice department said, Moreno reported in his US visa application that he only had a salary of $12,000 a year.

US Attorney Ariana Fajardo Orshan said southern Florida was a preferred destination for Venezuelans stashing corrupt money abroad, and that authorities had in recent years seized some $450 million in cases lodged against Maduro regime officials.

Two FARC leaders, a former energy minister, former senior national guard and anti-drug officials were indicted over allegations ranging from sanctions violations to drug trafficking.

Maduro and his four lieutenants could face a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of life terms, if they can be tried.

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