Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski Delivers Remarks at Press Conference Announcing Criminal Charges Against Venezuelan Officials

Good morning.  Today, we also are announcing charges against General Vladimir Padrino Lopez, the Venezuelan Minister of Defense for the Maduro regime.  Padrino Lopez, who has been indicted here in the District of Columbia, is accused of conspiring to traffic large amounts of cocaine on board aircraft registered in, and destined for, the United States.

The charges we are announcing today are merely allegations, and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

As the Attorney General and my colleagues from the Southern District of New York and Southern District of Florida have explained, the Maduro regime is propped up by a sham judiciary and a corrupt military. 

That military—led by Padrino Lopez—was responsible for interdicting suspected drug traffickers flying through Venezuelan air space.  But as Minister of Defense, Padrino Lopez instead wielded his power to allow drug traffickers to use Venezuela as a transshipment route for narcotics destined for the United States.

Padrino Lopez allegedly accepted bribes from drug trafficking organizations to allow them free passage to fly through Venezuelan air space.  So long as he was paid off, cocaine-filled aircraft could get by and avoid interdiction.  Far from stopping drug traffickers, the military – for the right price – gave safe passage to drug traffickers, terrorists, and other criminals.

This was a brazen pay-to-play scheme and abuse of power.  And it facilitated the rampant trafficking of drugs through Venezuela to Central America and eventually the United States.

On other occasions, when drug traffickers failed to pay the requisite bribes, Padrino Lopez allegedly ordered or authorized interdiction—either forcing the pilots to land or shooting the planes down.  

Today’s announcement should make clear that the Department of Justice is committed to holding current and former officials of the Maduro regime to account.  Those like Padrino Lopez who used their positions of power to promulgate state-sponsored drug trafficking and narco-terrorism will be prosecuted for their crimes. 

I thank the prosecutors from the Criminal Division’s Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section and the dedicated agents from the DEA who investigated—and will continue to investigate—this case.

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Author: March 26, 2020

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