President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela was indicted in the U.S. on Thursday in a narco-terrorism and cocaine trafficking conspiracy in which prosecutors said he led a violent drug cartel even as he amassed power, the New York Times reports. The indictment of a head of state was highly unusual and served as an escalation of the Trump administration’s campaign to pressure Maduro to leave office after his widely disputed re-election in 2018. Maduro has led Venezuela’s economy into shambles and caused an exodus of millions of people into neighboring countries. Attorney General William Barr announced the charges at a news briefing along with the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the top federal prosecutors in Manhattan and Miami. More than a dozen others were charged, including Venezuelan government and intelligence officials and members of the largest rebel group in Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), which has long drawn its financing from the cocaine trade.
The chief justice of Venezuela was also charged with money laundering and the country’s minister of defense with drug trafficking. The State Department is offering rewards of up to $15 million for information leading to the capture or conviction of Maduro, who remains in Venezuela, said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in Manhattan. One indictment included four counts, accusing the defendants of possessing machine guns and conspiring to possess machine guns in addition to the narco-terrorism and cocaine trafficking conspiracy charges. The charges were announced a month after President Donald Trump, in his state of the union address, called the Venezuelan head of state “an illegitimate ruler, a tyrant who brutalizes his people,” and vowed that “Maduro’s grip on tyranny will be smashed and broken.”