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Feds claim government cartel in Venezuela conspired with Hezbollah to attack the US

An image, released by the Venezuelan Presidency, shows Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, right, speaking next to Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino during a meeting with members of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces at Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas on May 21, 2020. (Jhonn Zerpa/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Federal prosecutors in New York accused a former Venezuelan lawmaker on Wednesday of participating in narcoterrorism, in an indictment claiming that a cartel headed by top government leaders conspired with the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas to commit attacks against the U.S.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan accused Adel El Zabayar, 56, of “conspiracy” to commit “narcoterrorist” acts, “conspiracy to import cocaine,” and two weapon-related offenses. If found guilty, he could face sentences ranging from 10 years to life in prison.

El Zabayar, of Syrian origin, is currently the president of the Venezuelan Federation of Arab Associations and Entities and was a member of the country’s National Assembly.

According to the indictment, El Zabayar is an active member of the Cartel de los Soles, or Cartel of the Suns, a network of officials of the Nicolás Maduro regime involved in drug trafficking. The cartel allegedly includes Maduro himself and his No. 2, Diosdado Cabello. They were both indicted along with other officials last March under charges of drug trafficking, “narcoterrorism,” corruption, and money laundering.

The federal prosecutors said that at the request of Cabello, El Zabayar obtained anti-tank rocket launchers in 2014 as partial payment for cocaine provided to the Cartel by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, considered to be a terrorist organization.

“We further allege today, for the first time, that the Cartel de los Soles sought to recruit terrorists from Hizballah and Hamas to assist in planning and carrying out attacks on the U.S., and that El Zabayar was instrumental as a go-between,” said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman.

The indictment claims that El Zabayar held several meetings in 2014 with Cabello, who instructed him to travel to Syria and Palestine to obtain weapons and recruit members of Hezbollah and Hamas to train them in Venezuela.

Cabello explained that the purpose was “to create a large terrorist cell capable of attacking United States interests on behalf of the Cartel de los Soles,” the indictment says.

After spending several months in the Middle East, El Zabayar returned to Venezuela. A week after his return, he went to the presidential hangar at the Maiquetía airport in Caracas to receive, along with Cabello, a shipment of weapons from Lebanon, prosecutors said.

Weapons allegedly obtained by El Zabayar included rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK-103 assault rifles and sniper rifles.

The prosecution cites the testimony of an unidentified witness who was present at these meetings but presented no further evidence.

According to the indictment, El Zabayar also acted as a liaison between the Venezuelan government and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In 2013, media reports said El Zabayar joined Hezbollah forces to fight in the Syrian civil war.

El Nuevo Herald could not establish with certainty if El Zabayar is in Venezuela. Still, he reacted on Twitter to the U.S. accusation, at first saying he was surprised, then “daring” the Justice Department to pay his “round-trip ticket to the USA” to respond to the accusation “UNDER THE GUARDIANSHIP OF THE UN.”

In other tweets, he referred to the accusation as “infamies”, “lies” and “comedy”. “An honor that the empire HATES ME AS MUCH as the rest of the comrades,” he added.

The Trump administration has imposed strong sanctions against the Maduro regime and the country’s oil industry. It has also supported the Venezuelan opposition’s attempts to oust Maduro. Since April, the U.S. has increased its military presence in the Caribbean in a counternarcotics operation that also aims to cut the illegal funds flowing to Maduro and his allies.

Reuters also reported that the Department of Justice is considering pressing drug-trafficking charges against Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife.

“Today’s charges against Adel El Zabayar for trading arms for cocaine, and recruiting extremists, further demonstrates the corruption inside the Maduro regime,” said Timothy J. Shea, acting director of Drug Enforcement Administration. “As the layers of the Maduro regime are exposed, so are its immoral, unethical, and dangerous actions.”


© 2020 Miami Herald

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