The United States indicted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and several top aides on Thursday for "narco-terrorism" and offered a $15 million reward for information leading to his capture.
The Justice Department accused Maduro of leading a cocaine-trafficking gang called "The Cartel of the Suns" that shipped hundreds of tons of narcotics into the US over two decades, earning hundreds of millions of dollars.
Investigators say the cartel worked hand-in-hand with the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which the United States has labeled a "terrorist organization."
US officials charged that Maduro, Venezuela's president since 2013 whose country's economy has been battered by global sanctions, used cocaine as a "weapon" to damage US society.
"For more than 20 years, Maduro and a number of high-ranking colleagues allegedly conspired with the FARC, causing tons of cocaine to enter and devastate American communities," said Attorney General Bill Barr.
"It's time to call out this regime for what it is," he added. "The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality."
- Cartel of the Suns' -
Maduro was one of 16 Venezuelans, nearly all current and former officials, and two FARC leaders charged for a range of trafficking and money laundering-related crimes in indictments unveiled in New York, Washington, Miami and other locations.
The Justice Department said it was targeting broad corruption at the top of a government it blames for the South American country's desperate poverty.
"You are loathsome, Donald Trump!" Maduro said in a televised speech from the presidential palace in Caracas late Thursday, flanked by several officials Washington has indicted.
The Venezuelan leader slammed the "spurious, false" accusations, and said they were part of a conspiracy organized by the United States and Colombia to force him out of power.
The indictment marked a rare criminal charge brought against a foreign head of state, but Barr underscored that the United States no longer recognizes Maduro as Venezuela's legitimate leader.
More than 50 countries including the United States switched allegiance to opposition leader Juan Guaido when he declared himself acting president after a 2018 election widely seen as fraudulent.
Maduro faces up to life in jail if he can be tried and is convicted. But it was not clear how Washington plans to get him before a judge.
"Our problem is not just a political problem: We face a cartel, the Maduro Cartel," Guaido said in a statement.
"I trust that the charges ... are well supported and will help liberate the country" from criminal networks, he added.
- Cocaine as a weapon -
The Justice Department alleges that Maduro and regime figures supported a breakaway group of the FARC along the Colombian-Venezuelan border that has been involved in drug trafficking since 1999.
It said that four others indicted in New York -- a former National Assembly speaker, defense minister, military intelligence head and general -- acted alongside Maduro as "leaders and managers" of the Cartel of the Suns.
Maduro allegedly negotiated and coordinated shipments of FARC-produced cocaine of up to 250 tonnes a year, and directed the cartel to provide weapons to the FARC, the Justice Department charged.
"Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation," said New York federal district attorney Geoffrey Berman.
"Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon."
Julio Borges, Guaido's foreign affairs commissioner, echoed the accusations, offering the simple equation that "Maduro equals drug trafficking, Maduro equals organized crime."
The indictments included updated charges against Vice President Tareck Aissami, whom Washington has already designated a drug trafficker.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno was charged in Miami with money laundering related to bribes he allegedly took "to illegally fix dozens of civil and criminal cases in Venezuela," the Justice Department said.