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March 27, 2020, 5:25 a.m. EDT

Defiant Maduro threatens Trump after $15 million bounty by U.S. over drug trafficking charge

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By Associated Press

Miraflores Palace via Reuters
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures while he speaks during a meeting with members of the government in Caracas, Venezuela, February 13, 2019.

MIAMI (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro stood defiant in the face of a $15 million bounty by the U.S. to face drug trafficking charges, calling Donald Trump a “racist cowboy” and warning that he is ready to fight by whatever means necessary should the U.S. and neighboring Colombia dare to invade.

Maduro’s bellicose remarks Thursday night came hours after the U.S. announced sweeping indictments against the socialist leader and several members of his inner circle for allegedly converting Venezuela into a criminal enterprise at the service of drug traffickers and terrorist groups.

One indictment by prosecutors in New York accused Maduro and socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, head of the rubber-stamp constitutional assembly, of conspiring with Colombian rebels and members of the military “to flood the United States with cocaine” and use the drug trade as a “weapon against America.”

Maduro, a former bus driver who fashions himself an everyman icon of the Latin American left, said the charges were politically motivated. He said they ignore U.S. ally Colombia’s role as the main source of the world’s cocaine and his own role in facilitating peace talks between Colombia’s government and that country’’s rebels over the past decade.

“Donald Trump, you are a miserable human being,” Maduro railed during his televised address. “You manage international relations like a New York mafia extortion artist you once were as a real estate boss.”

What was some of Maduro’s most venomous rhetoric ever against Trump also came with a threat of military force: “If one day the imperialists and Colombian oligarchy dare to touch even a single hair, they will face the Bolivarian fury of an entire nation that will wipe them all out.”

Earlier, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor opened an investigation against opposition leader Juan Guaidó for allegedly plotting a coup with retired army Gen. Cliver Alcalá, who after being named in the U.S. indictments said he had stockpiled assault weapons in Colombia for a cross-border incursion. Without offering evidence, Maduro said the Drug Enforcement Administration was behind a plan by Alcalá to assassinate him and other political leaders.

The indictment of a functioning head of state is highly unusual and is bound to ratchet up tensions with Washington as the spread of the coronavirus threatens to collapse Venezuela’s shortage-plagued health system. Maduro has ordered Venezuelans to stay home in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, which officials say has infected 107 people and claimed its first death Thursday.

Criminal acts to advance a drug and weapons conspiracy that dates back to the start of Hugo Chavez’s revolution in 1999 occurred as far afield as Syria, Mexico, Honduras and Iran, the indictment alleges. Attorney General William Barr estimated the conspiracy helped smuggle as much as 250 metric tons of cocaine a year out of South America.

“The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality,” Barr said in an online news conference from Washington. “While the Venezuelan people suffer, this cabal lines their pockets with drug money, and the proceeds of their corruption. And this has to come to an end.”

The coordinated unsealing of indictments against 14 officials and government-connected individuals, along with the announcement of rewards of $55 million against Maduro and four others, attacked all the key planks of what Barr called the “corrupt Venezuelan regime,” including the Maduro-dominated judiciary and the powerful armed forces.

In Miami, prosecutors charged Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno with laundering in the U.S. at least $3 million in illegal proceeds from case fixing in Venezuela, including one involving a General Motors factory. Much of the money he spent on private aircraft, luxury watches and shopping at Prada, prosecutors allege.

Maduro’s defense minister, Gen. Vladimir Padrino, was charged with conspiracy to smuggle narcotics in a May 2019 indictment unsealed in Washington.

“This announcement is a major blow for Maduro who has been running Venezuela like a mafia state, with rampant corruption and widespread atrocities, and absolute impunity,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch. “With this indictment he may now lose his aura of invincibility, of being completely above the law, which is very welcome news.”

But its unclear how it brings Venezuela any closer to ending a 15-month standoff between Maduro, who has the support of Russia and China, and the U.S.-backed Guaidó. It also could fragment the U.S.-led coalition against Maduro if European and Latin American allies think the Trump administration is overreaching. An estimated 5 million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years, fleeing hyperinflation and widespread food and medicine shortages.

“It’s an incredibly dangerous gamble to redouble the offensive against Maduro’s regime when the priority must be to shore up the country’s collapsing health system and prevent an even worse migrant exodus,” said Ivan Briscoe, the Latin America director for the Crisis Group. “These U.S. charges could spell doom for any thaw, expose Guaidó to grave risks, and appear high-handedly indifferent to the immediate suffering of Venezuela’s people.”

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