The US has charged Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro and several of his key aides with narco-terrorism.
The US Department of Justice accused them of conspiring with Colombian rebels “to flood the United States with cocaine”.
It said: “We estimate that somewhere between 200 and 250 metric tons of cocaine are shipped out of Venezuela by these routes. Those 250 metric tons equates to 30 million lethal doses.”
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced that the State Department would offer cash rewards of up to 55 million dollars for information leading to the arrests or convictions of Mr Maduro and four of his associates.
The rewards, up to 15 million dollars for Mr Maduro and up to 10 million dollars each for the others, are being offered under the department’s Narcotics Rewards Programme, which has paid more than 130 million dollars in awards for information regarding some 75 drug traffickers since it was created in 1986.
Mr Pompeo said: “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 of a functioning head of state is highly unusual and is bound to ratchet up tensions between Washington and Caracas as the spread of the coronavirus threatens to collapse a health system and oil-dependent economy driven deep into the ground by years of corruption and US sanctions.
Analysts said the action could boost US President Donald Trump’s re-election chances in the key swing state of Florida, which he won by a narrow margin in 2016 and where Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans fleeing authoritarian regimes have political muscle.
But it’s unclear how it brings Venezuela any closer to ending a 15-month stand-off between Mr Maduro, who has the support of Russia and China, and the US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido.