US federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged a former Venezuelan lawmaker with participating, along with President Nicolas Maduro, in a scheme linked to South American and Middle Eastern armed groups to traffic cocaine and military-grade weapons.
Adel El Zabayar, a 56-year-old former member of Venezuela’s National Assembly, was charged with helping to recruit Hezbollah and Hamas operatives to plan attacks against US targets, said Geoffrey Berman, US Attorney for Southern District of New York.
The court papers filed in Manhattan also said El Zabayar worked with the Venezuelan criminal organisation the Cartel de Los Soles, or “Cartel of the Suns” in English, and Colombian militant group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, better known by the acronym FARC.
In a joint statement with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Berman said Zabayar was “part of the unholy alliance of government, military, and FARC members using violence and corruption to further their narco-terrorist aims”.
“The Cártel de Los Soles sought to recruit terrorists from Hezbollah and Hamas to assist in planning and carrying out attacks on the US, and … Zabayar was instrumental as a go-between,” Berman said, adding that the charges against Zabayar “further demonstrates the corruption inside the Maduro regime”.
Federal prosecutors said El Zabayar had travelled to the Middle East in 2014 to obtain weapons and recruit members of Hezbollah and Hamas to train at hidden camps in Venezuela.
The goal was to “create a large terrorist cell capable of attacking United States interests on behalf of the Cartel de Los Soles”, according to the statement.
The indictment also said that El Zabayer had travelled to Syria in August 2013 to fight on the side of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the country’s civil war, and includes a video of El Zabayer apparently firing a rocket launcher.
The charging documents said El Zabayar had imported rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK-103s and sniper rifles from the Middle East to Venezuela.
El Zabayar, who is of Syrian descent, has refuted the claims against him and said on Twitter that the accusations were “another insult from the American government against those who do not kneel before White House dictum”.
A US law enforcement official said El Zabayar was not in American custody, according to NBC news.
In March, US prosecutors indicted Maduro and over a dozen current and former Venezuelan officials on charges of narco-terrorism and drug smuggling. Berman at the time said Maduro “very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon.”
The indictment, a rare US action against a foreign head of state, marks a serious new phase against Maduro at a time when some US officials have privately said President Donald Trump is increasingly frustrated with the results of his Venezuela policy.
The US government has previously lodged criminal indictments against members of Maduro’s family and inner circle. He and his allies have dismissed such allegations as a smear campaign, and argue the United States is responsible for drug trafficking, given its role as a leading consumer.
Maduro is already under US sanctions and has been the target of a US effort aimed at pushing him from power. He took office in 2013 after the death of his mentor former president Hugo Chavez, a staunch foe of the United States.
The US and dozens of other countries have recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president, regarding Maduro’s 2018 re-election as a sham. But Maduro has remained in power, backed by the country’s military and by Russia, China and Cuba.
Maduro has accused Washington and neighbour Colombia of backing several coup and assassination attempts against him, the latest of which was exposed and led to the arrest of a dozen suspected Venezuelan and US mercenaries earlier this month. Eight of the coup team were killed.
US officials have long accused Maduro and his associates of running a “narco-state,” saying they have used proceeds from drugs transshipped from neighbouring Colombia to make up for losses in revenue from the Venezuelan oil sector hit by US sanctions.