U.S. Charges Venezuelan Leader With Drug Trafficking, Narco-Terrorism
- The Department of Justice announced criminal charges against Venezuelan leader Maduro and about a dozen others.
- The charges include narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, and others.
- The move marks the second time a foreign head of state has been indicted on drug charges in the U.S. and shows a significant escalation in the U.S. pressure campaign on the Maduro regime.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and 14 others, including senior regime officials, with narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, and other charges in a sweeping indictment unveiled Thursday.
The indictment, which was announced by Attorney General William Barr, accuses Maduro of conspiring with the Columbian rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces, known by their Spanish acronym as FARC.
FARC is a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has long secured its funding by smuggling cocaine.
“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,” Barr said in a press conference Thursday morning
“The scope and magnitude of the drug trafficking alleged was made possible only because Maduro and others corrupted the institutions of Venezuela and provided political and military protection for the rampant narco-terrorism crimes described in our charges,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman of the Southern District of New York, who joined Barr via teleconference to make the announcement.
“As alleged, 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,” Berman continued. “Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon.”
The charges also pertain to Maduro’s alleged leadership of a drug-smuggling cartel called the Cártel de Los Soles, or the Cartel of the Suns, according to a press release from the DOJ.
According to the release, Maduro has served as one of the leaders of the cartel since 1999. In that time, Maduro “negotiated multi-ton shipments of FARC-produced cocaine” and directed the cartel to “provide military-grade weapons to the FARC.”
He also facilitated “large-scale drug trafficking” with Honduras and other countries, and “solicited assistance from FARC leadership in training an unsanctioned militia group” that essentially functioned as an “armed forces unit” for the cartel.
U.S. Ramps Up Efforts
Very notably, the release also said that the State Department was offering rewards of up to $15 million for information that could lead to the capture and arrest of Maduro.
While it remains unlikely that he will be arrested and actually see the inside of a courtroom in the U.S., the charges are still quite significant for several different reasons.
First of all, it is incredibly rare for the U.S. to indict a foreign leader on drug charges. According to the Miami Herald, it is only the second time the U.S. government has filed criminal charges against a foreign head of state.
Second, it marks a very serious escalation on the part of President Donald Trump and his administration in their pressure campaign on Maduro and his regime.
The U.S. and about 60 other countries have refused to recognize Maduro as the rightful leader of Venezuela after he was re-elected as president last year in an election widely considered illegitimate.
That prompted both a large protest movement and opposition leader Juan Guaidó to declare himself the true leader of the country. But Maduro has held onto power while the people of Venezuela continue to suffer.
The U.S. has slowly ramped up the efforts it’s taken against Venezuela, first imposing sanctions on individuals, then expanding those to a full-blown embargo on oil— Venezuela’s biggest resource.
The U.S. has also broadly moved to lock Venezuela out of the American financial system altogether.
Venezuela & the Coronavirus
While the U.S. has taken these steps gradually over the course of the last year, the new charges represent a big jump and raised some questions about timing.
Venezuela’s protests movement, which once seemed to be making headlines everyday, has died down in recent months. Efforts to organize and demonstrate against the Maduro regime have also been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The country has reported 106 confirmed cases, and like other countries, the pandemic has also significantly weakened Venezuela.
But Venezuela is particularly vulnerable. With its economy in shambles and its hospital system collapsed, the country was already facing severe medical supply shortages, dilapidated equipment, and unsanitary conditions in hospitals even before the coronavirus outbreak.
Now, the pandemic threatens an already dangerous situation.
Many reporters questioned Barr’s timing with the new charges amid the pandemic. Barr said the case had been in the works for a long time and the announcement was merely a coincidence.
“We moved on these cases when we were ready to do it,” he said, adding that he felt the move was “good timing” for the people of Venezuela.
“They need an effective government that cares about the people,” he said. “We think that the best way to support the Venezuelan people during this period is to do all we can to rid the country of this corrupt cabal.”
Maduro, for his part, rejected the charges before they were even announced.
“There’s a conspiracy from the United States and Colombia and they’ve given the order of filling Venezuela with violence” he wrote on Twitter. “As head of state I’m obliged to defend peace and stability for all the motherland, under any circumstances.”
See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Washington Post) (The Miami Herald)
U.S. Intel Suggests Pro-Ukraine Group Sabotaged Nord Stream Pipeline
There is no evidence that the culprits behind the attack were acting under the direction of the Ukrainian government.
Europe Braces for Shocking Revelations
A pro-Ukraine group blew up the Nord Stream pipelines last September, intelligence reviewed by U.S. officials suggests.
The New York Times reported the news Tuesday, citing officials who said there was no evidence of involvement by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, any of his top lieutenants, or any government officials.
The strength of the evidence, however, is not clear, and U.S. officials declined to inform The Times on the nature of the intelligence or how it was obtained. They reportedly added that the intelligence indicates neither who the group’s members are nor who funded and directed the operation.
The Times’ sources said they believe the saboteurs were most likely Russian or Ukrainian nationals and that they possibly received specialized government training in the past.
It’s also possible that the group behind the attack was a proxy with covert ties to Kyiv, the report added.
When three of four Nord Stream pipelines were found to be severely damaged last year, the revelation shook markets and sent European gas prices soaring. Nord Stream 1, which was completed in 2011, and Nord Stream 2, which had been laid down but wasn’t yet operational, supplied Germany and by extension the rest of Western Europe with cheap Russian natural gas.
Following the explosions, Poland and Ukraine blamed Russia, and Russia blamed Britain. Other observers speculated that Ukraine might be behind it too.
More Ongoing Investigations
Last month, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claimed in a Substack article that the United States military carried out the attack and that President Biden authorized it himself. However, Hersh’s report cited only one anonymous source in support of its central claim, so it was largely dismissed as not credible.
Western governments expressed caution on Wednesday in response to The Times report.
“There are ongoing national investigations and I think it’s right to wait until those are finalized before we say anything more about who was behind it,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.
Russia, by contrast, pounced on the opportunity to renew its demand for inclusion in a proposed international probe into the pipeline explosion.
The Ukrainian government denied any involvement in the Nord Stream explosions.
On Wednesday, multiple German media outlets reported that investigators have largely reconstructed how the attack happened, pinning the blame on six people who allegedly used a yacht hired by a Ukrainian-owned company in Poland.
German officials reportedly searched a vessel suspected of carrying the explosives in January, but the investigation is ongoing.
The country’s defense minister suggested the explosions may have been a “false flag” attack to smear Ukraine.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Associated Press) (Reuters)
Turkey, Syria Earthquake Death Toll Rises to 41,000 as Survivors Pulled from Rubble
A pair of brothers spent around 200 hours trapped under debris, living off of protein powder and their own urine.
A Humanitarian Crisis Explodes
The number of confirmed dead from the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria last week has surpassed 41,000.
Millions more people have been left stranded without adequate shelter, food, clean water, or medical supplies.
At night, the region has dropped to below-freezing temperatures.
Now health authorities are worried that the lack of sanitation infrastructure, which was damaged by the quakes, will lead to a disease outbreak.
“We haven’t been able to rinse off since the earthquake,” 21-year-old Mohammad Emin, whose home was destroyed, told Reuters.
He was helping out at a clinic serving displaced people in an open-air stadium, but with no showers and only six toilets, the resource shortage was poignant.
“They are offering tetanus shots to residents who request them, and distributing hygiene kits with shampoo, deodorant, pads and wipes,” added Akin Hacioglu, a doctor at the clinic.
The World Health Organization monitors the population for waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid, as well as seasonal influenza and COVID-19.
Rescuers Race Against the Clock
After more than a week of searching, hopes that more living victims will be found amid the collapsed buildings are fading, but rescuers continue to pull out the final few survivors.
Abdulbaki Yeninar, 21, and his brother Muhammed Enes Yeninar, 17, spent about 200 hours under rubble in the city of Kahramanmaras before they were extracted Tuesday. They told reporters they held on by eating protein powder, drinking their own urine, and swallowing gulps of air.
In the same city, teams dug a 16-foot tunnel through debris to rescue a woman, and to the south, a volunteer mining crew joined the efforts to save another.
With no homes to go back to, some survivors have joined the ranks of volunteers themselves.
In the past week, more than 35,000 Turkish search-and-rescue teams worked alongside thousands of international workers in the effort, according to Turkey’s emergency management agency.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called the earthquakes the “disaster of the century” and said in a statement that at least 13,000 people were being treated in hospitals.
The death toll is expected to rise even further in the coming weeks.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Reuters) (Al Jazeera)
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon Resigns
“In my head and in my heart I know that time is now,” she said to reporters
Sturgeon Steps Down
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation on Wednesday.
Sturgeon has been Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister and she is also the first woman to ever hold the position. She has been in politics since 1999, leading the charge for Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom. Sturgeon also guided the country through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sturgeon made sure to mention that her decision was not in response to the latest round of political pressure she is facing after her recent controversies regarding gender reform. Rather, her reasons are rooted in her own personal struggle with whether she can continue to do the job well.
“To be clear, I am not expecting violins here. But I am a human being as well as a politician,” she said during a press conference on Wednesday. “My point is this – giving absolutely everything of yourself to this job is the only way to do it. The country deserves nothing less. But, in truth, that can only be done by anyone for so long.
“For me, it is now in danger of becoming too long,” Sturgeon continued. “A First Minister is never off-duty. Particularly in this day and age, there is virtually no privacy. Even ordinary stuff that most people take for granted like going for a coffee with friends or going for a walk on your own becomes very difficult.”
Sturgeon’s Political Future
Sturgeon’s approval ratings are reportedly the lowest they’ve been since she’s been in office. Regardless, many political figures in Scotland, as well as the U.K., have applauded her and her historic service as First Minister.
There are still several unknowns moving forward. There is still no confirmation on who will take over the position. However, Sturgeon did say that she will serve until someone else is elected.
The push for Scotland’s independence is hanging in limbo as well, and no one knows what it’ll look like without Sturgeon’s leadership. She did mention, however, that she does not intend to leave politics fully and will still fight for the cause as a lawmaker in Parliament.
Sturgeon said the support for Scottish independence needs to be solidified and grow.
“To achieve that we need to reach across the divide in Scottish politics,” she said. “And my judgment now is that this needs a new leader.”