On Thursday, March 26, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it indicted Nicolás Maduro and several of his aids on drug-trafficking and international cocaine trafficking conspiracy charges.
The DOJ accused the group of “conspiring with Colombian rebels to flood the United States with cocaine.” Additionally, the department estimated that the conspired routes carried between 200 and 250 tons of cocaine from Venezuela – an amount that equates to 30 million lethal doses.
Coinciding with the indictment, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that under the Narcotics Rewards Program, the government would offer rewards up to $55 million (up to $15 million for Maduro and up to $10 million for each of the others) for any information. The Narcotics Rewards Program has been operating since 1986 and has paid more than $130 million to informants regarding around 75 drug traffickers.
Pompeo said in a statement, “While holding key positions in the Maduro regime, these individuals violated the public trust by facilitating shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, including control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan air base, as well as control of drug routes through the ports in Venezuela.”
The indictment has been making headlines as these actions against a head of state are very rare and an apparent effort from the Trump administration to pressure Maduro to leave office.
Maduro is currently the leader of Venezuela, but after his disputed re-election in 2018, the U.S. government recognized his opponent, Juan Guaidó, as the official president. However, Maduro has refused to step down and Guaidó has been unable to acquire power, leaving both men claiming to be president.
Attorney General William P. Barr spoke on the matter on Thursday and mentioned that he believes Maduro’s administration is “plagued by criminality and corruption,” and that the DOJ aimed to eliminate “the extensive corruption within the Venezuelan government.” He further said that this was not an unprecedented move as the DOJ was not indicting a head of state, since the U.S. does not recognize Maduro as such.
However, Maduro responded to the indictment with condemnation, accusing Trump of being a “racist cowboy” and accusing the U.S. and Colombia of trying to “fill Venezuela with violence.” He also responded that he is ready to fight by whatever means necessary should the U.S. invade.
The indictment comes after years of U.S. investigators collecting evidence against these Venezuelan offices. Barr began to listen to colleagues, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), and further prioritized these investigations. By March 16, 2020, the indictment was ready to be unsealed and announced, but was delayed until the 26th due to COVID-19.
It remains unclear how the impact of the indictment will play out, but there is speculation of a few directions the repercussions could go.
On one hand, analysts say this could boost Trump’s chances of being re-elected in the fall as his support in Florida, a key swing state, may increase. Trump won Florida in 2016 by a thin margin and it is a state where many Venezuelans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans go when they flee their authoritarian regimes.
On another hand, the action could backfire on the Trump administration. Currently, much of the world supports the U.S. government in its recognition of Guaidó as Venezuela’s president. However, the indictment could fragment the coalition behind Trump if European and Latin American allies think his administration is overreaching. Heads of state normally enjoy immunity from U.S. prosecution, and even if the U.S. does not recognize Maduro as one, he is still the de facto president.
Another unclear matter is whether or not the U.S. will seek to extradite Maduro, who remains in Venezuela. When asked, Barr declined to comment. Barr also declined to say whether he directly notified Trump or if the State Department had spoken to Guaidó about the charges.
One thing is for sure, however; given this is a fresh matter with massive global speculation, there will be more information in the coming weeks.