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Trump: US to deploy anti-drug Navy ships near Venezuela

President Donald Trump speaks at the press briefing room flanked by Attorney General William Barr and Defense Secretary Mark Esper April 1, 2020, in Washington. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

MIAMI (AP) — President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that Navy ships are being moved toward Venezuela as his administration beefs up counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean following a U.S. drug indictment against Nicolás Maduro.

The announcement came at the start of the daily White House press briefing to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, which has left much of the country in lock-down and which the government warns could cause 100,000 to 240,000 deaths.

“The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro and his criminal control over the country, and drug traffickers are seizing on this lawlessness,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said after the president’s announcement.

The deployment is one of the largest
U.S. military operations in the region since the 1989 invasion of Panama
to remove Gen. Manuel Noriega from power and bring him to the U.S. to
face drug charges. It involves assets like Navy warships, AWACS
surveillance aircraft and on-ground special forces seldom seen before in
the region.

The goal is to nearly double the U.S.
counter-narcotics capacity in the Western Hemisphere, with forces
operating both in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific. Esper said the
mission would be supported by 22 partner nations.

“As governments
and nations focus on the coronavirus there is a growing threat that
cartels, criminals, terrorists and other malign actors will try to
exploit the situation for their own gain,” said Trump. “We must not let
that happen.”

The enhanced mission has been months in the making but has taken on greater urgency following last week’s indictment
of Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled socialist leader, and members of his
inner circle and military. They are accused of leading a narcoterrorist
conspiracy responsible for smuggling up to 250 metric tons of cocaine a
year into the U.S., about half of it by sea.

“If I was just
indicted for drug trafficking by the United States, with a $15 million
reward for my capture, having the U.S. Navy conducting anti-drug
operations off my coast would be something I would worry about,” said
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has been among those calling
for a tougher stance against Maduro.

Maduro’s communications
minister, Jorge Rodriguez, called the deployment a “desperate attempt to
distract attention from the tragic humanitarian crisis” in the U.S.
caused by the coronavirus. In an ironic jab, he said that for “the first
time” in decades the U.S. is trying to choke off the supply of cocaine,
which he noted mostly comes from Colombia, a staunch U.S. ally.

has blasted the Trump administration’s offer of a $15 million reward
for his arrest, calling it the work of a “racist cowboy” aimed at
getting U.S. hands on Venezuela’s vast oil reserves, the world’s

Others have faulted a U.S. plan, unveiled Tuesday by
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to create a five-member council without
Maduro or Guaidó to govern the country until elections can be held
within a year. While its the first attempt in months by the U.S. to seek
a negotiated solution to Venezuela’s stalemate, coming on the heels of
the indictments many say it has little hope of succeeding and likely to
drive Maduro farther away from the path of dialogue.

The Trump
administration has long insisted that all options are on the table for
removing Maduro, including military ones. Still, there’s no indication
then, or now, that any sort of U.S. invasion is being planned.

the sending of ships fits into a longstanding call by the U.S. Southern
Command for additional assets to combat growing antinarcotics and other
security threats in the hemisphere.

It could also be an attempt to send a message of protection for Maduro’s U.S.-backed rival, Juan Guaidó.

chief prosecutor ordered Guaidó to provide testimony Thursday as part
of an investigation into an alleged coup attempt. Guaidó, the head of
Venezuela’s congress who is recognized as his country’s legitimate
leader by the U.S. and almost 60 other nations, is unlikely to show up,
raising the possibility he could be arrested. The U.S. has long insisted
it will not tolerate any harm against Guaido.

In January, another
Navy vessel, the USS Detroit, conducted a freedom of navigation
operation off the coast of Venezuela in a show of pressure against

“That presence sends a big statement about U.S.
commitment, it sends a big statement to our friends, it reassures them,
and then to our adversaries that those are capable performers,” Adm.
Craig Faller, the head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, said in
congressional testimony last month.

The report of the planned
deployment comes two days after one of Venezuela’s naval patrol boats
sank after colliding with a Portuguese-flagged cruise ship near the
Venezuelan-controlled island of La Tortuga. Maduro accused the ship of
acting aggressively and said it was possibly carrying “mercenaries”
seeking his ouster.

“You have to be very naive to see this as an isolated incident,” Maduro said Tuesday night on state TV.

Columbia Cruise Services, the operator of the cruise ship, said the
patrol boat fired gunshots and than purposely rammed into the liner at
speed. There were no passengers on board and none of its 32 crew members
were injured, the company said.