By Matt Spetalnick and Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government on Thursday indicted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and more than a dozen other top Venezuelan officials on charges of "narco-terrorism," the latest escalation of the Trump administration's pressure campaign aimed at ousting the socialist leader.
The State Department offered a reward of up to $15 million (£12.33 million) for information leading to the arrest of Maduro, whose country has been convulsed by years of a deep economic crisis and political upheaval.
The indictment, a rare U.S. action against a foreign head of state, marks a serious new phase against Maduro at a time when some U.S. officials have privately said President Donald Trump is increasingly frustrated with the results of his Venezuela policy.
Attorney General William Barr, announcing charges that include narco-terrorism conspiracy, corruption and drug trafficking, accused Maduro and his associates of colluding with a dissident faction of the demobilized Colombian guerrilla group, the FARC, "to flood the United States with cocaine."
But Trump administration officials are mindful that their chances are slim of getting Maduro or the other major figures in custody anytime soon, a person familiar with the situation said on condition of anonymity.
"While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money and the proceeds of their corruption," Barr said.
"You are a miserable person, Donald Trump," Maduro said in a state television address during which he dismissed the charges as false and racist. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said the charges were aimed at benefiting Trump's 2020 re-election campaign.
Trump's pressure on Venezuela, an OPEC member, has gone over well among Cuban Americans in South Florida, a key voting bloc in a major presidential swing state.
The U.S. government has previously lodged criminal indictments against members of Maduro's family and inner circle. He and his allies have dismissed such allegations as a smear campaign, and argue the United States is responsible for drug trafficking, given its role as a leading consumer.
Maduro is already under U.S. sanctions and has been the target of a U.S. effort aimed at pushing him from power. He took office in 2013 after the death of his mentor President Hugo Chavez, a staunch foe of the United States.
Other Venezuelan officials whose indictments were announced on Thursday include Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, senior socialist leader Diosdado Cabello, and the chief justice of the country's supreme court, Maikel Moreno, who was charged with money laundering. The U.S. government is offering $10 million for information leading to Cabello's arrest.
The United States and dozens of other countries have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate president, regarding Maduro's 2018 re-election as a sham. But Maduro has remained in power, backed by the country's military and by Russia, China and Cuba.
U.S. officials have long accused Maduro and his associates or running a "narco-state," saying they have used proceeds from drugs transshipped from neighboring Colombia to make up for lost revenue from a Venezuelan oil sector hit by U.S. sanctions.
Trump denied that the charges were an attempt to take advantage of Venezuela at a vulnerable time when it is expected to be hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
"No, no. We don't look at a weak point. This is a serious problem for over 150 nations," Trump said in response to a reporter's question. But he added: "Maduro and Venezuela, we're watching it very closely."
'DEPLOYED COCAINE AS A WEAPON'
The indictments were unsealed in New York, Florida and Washington.
Barr dodged a reporter's question on whether Trump, who has pressed his aides in recent months for a tougher approach on Venezuela, was briefed in advance.
Maduro and his closest allies ran a "narco-terrorism partnership with the FARC for the past 20 years," stated Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who said the Venezuelan president "very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon."
"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," he added.
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Ariana Fajardo Orshan, said she sees signs of Venezuelan officials' laundered money throughout her area every day, from lavish yachts to million-dollar condos.
"This party is coming to an end," she said.
Asked whether the U.S. government was also considering designating Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism, which carries further sanctions, Barr said: "It's really one step at time, so I really have nothing to say about that right now."
Thursday's charges altogether carry a maximum penalty of up to life in prison. Asked whether the U.S. government wants to capture Maduro dead or alive, Barr said: "We want him captured so he can face justice in U.S. court."
But he offered no indication of how U.S. authorities might get their hands on Maduro, who has endured more than a year of international pressure and on-again, off-again street protests.
Maduro's international travel could be restricted, given Washington would be able to request that he be handed over if he visits a country that has an extradition treaty with the United States. U.S. authorities can also freeze any assets he has in the United States, though such holdings are considered unlikely.
The Justice Department said that since 1999, Maduro, along with Cabello and others, acted as leaders of the "Cartel of the Suns." The name, it said, refers to the sun insignias affixed to uniforms of high-ranking Venezuelan military officials.
An indictment accused Padrino of using his control of the n military to facilitate cocaine flights to the United States.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Sarah Lynch; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington and Corina Pons and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Alistair Bell, Rosalba O'Brien and Daniel Wallis)
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