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U.S. Charges Nicolás Maduro And Other Venezuelan Officials With Narcotrafficking


The Justice Department unveiled criminal charges today against Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro. Here's Attorney General William Barr making the announcement.


WILLIAM BARR: The indictment of Nicolas Maduro and his co-defendants alleges a conspiracy involving an extremely violent terrorist organization known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, and an effort to flood the United States with cocaine.

SHAPIRO: Of course, Maduro has driven his country into an economic nosedive over the last few years. The U.S. and other Western countries don't actually recognize him as Venezuela's legitimate president.

NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is here with the latest. Hi, Ryan.


SHAPIRO: Tell us more about what Maduro is being charged with.

LUCAS: So there are four counts in this indictment, the most serious of which are narco-terrorism conspiracy and conspiracy to import cocaine. The Justice Department alleges that for the better part of two decades, Maduro helped run and then lead a drug trafficking cartel made up of high-ranking Venezuelan officials. Court papers say that these officials worked with the Colombian rebel group FARC to move tons of cocaine to the United States, making huge sums of money, of course, for themselves along the way.

This indictment against Maduro came out of the Southern District of New York. Here's how the U.S. attorney there, Geoffrey Berman, put it.


GEOFFREY BERMAN: Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and well-being of our nation. Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon.

LUCAS: Now prosecutors allege that Maduro's operation basically turned a part of western Venezuela into a safe haven of sort, a jumping-off point for drug shipments to the U.S. And Berman said the scope and scale of this trafficking was possible only because Maduro and his co-conspirators used Venezuela's state institutions to provide protection for it all.

SHAPIRO: So who else in the Venezuelan government does the U.S. say was involved in this?

LUCAS: So Maduro is certainly the biggest name here as Venezuela's president, but he's not the only one. There are several senior Venezuelan officials or former officials who have also been indicted. That includes the head of the country's constituent assembly, the former director of military intelligence, another former high-ranking military official. The country's defense minister also has been charged with involvement in drug trafficking. And in a separate case, the chief justice of Venezuela's Supreme Court was charged with money laundering.

Now we know that the U.S. has long had an adversarial relationship with the Venezuelan government. That dates back even before Maduro took power in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez. As you said at the top, the U.S. doesn't recognize Maduro as Venezuela's legitimate leader. Still, Attorney General Barr summed up Maduro's regime this way. He said it is, quote, "awash in corruption and criminality."

SHAPIRO: The U.S. has been trying to get Maduro out of power for years, leveling sanctions against his administration, supporting Venezuela's opposition. All of that has been unsuccessful. Do you think this move by the Justice Department is likely to produce any different results?

LUCAS: It's hard to see how this would drastically alter the state of play. Maduro, as you said, is still very much in power despite all of the other things that the U.S. government has done to try to help show him the exit. This indictment certainly adds another element to the Trump administration's pressure on Maduro.

But yes, the question of whether this is largely symbolic or whether any of these folks will ever see the inside of a U.S. courtroom hangs over all of this. Barr said the U.S. does expect to get its hands on these folks eventually. He wouldn't discuss any possible future steps to try to make that happen, but he did point to the $15 million reward that the U.S. announced today for information leading to Maduro's capture.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Ryan Lucas, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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