The Trump administration filed criminal charges Thursday in the Southern District of New York against senior officials of the government of Venezuela, including president Nicolás Maduro, accusing them of taking a leading role in the country's illegal drug trafficking.
The charges marked a new low in U.S. relations with Venezuela, which have been deteriorating since 1999, when Hugo Chavez, Maduro's predecessor, became president. He villainized the U.S. and other countries he accused of taking advantage of Venezuela.
The U.S. and Maduro have long been at odds over the country's extensive corruption. The Trump administration backed a leader of the opposition, Juan Guaidó, instead of Maduro.
Maduro "helped manage and ultimately lead" a criminal organization known as the Cartel of the Suns, according to an indictment unsealed Thursday. Under his leadership, the cartel "sought not only to enrich its members and enhance their power, but also to flood the United States with cocaine and inflict the drug's harmful and addictive effects on users in this country."
The indictment said Maduro and other cartel members, "prioritized using cocaine as a weapon against America and importing as much cocaine as possible into the United States."
The criminal charges said Maduro personally negotiated multi-ton shipments of cocaine and coordinated relations with Honduras and other countries to facilitate the illegal drug trade.
Five other Venezuelans were charged in the indictment, including Diosdado Cabello Rondon, president of Venezuela's National Constituent Assembly, Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, former director of the country's military intelligence agency and leaders of the FARC terror group, which became one of the largest producers of cocaine in the world.
Attorney General William Barr was expected to formally announce the charges at a mid-morning news conference and reveal additional diplomatic sanctions against Venezuela.