WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Trump administration said on Wednesday (April 1) it was deploying more US Navy ships to the Caribbean to prevent drug cartels and "corrupt actors" like Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to smuggle more narcotics.
President Donald Trump said he was doubling US military resources in the region, including vessels, aircraft and personnel, in a drug interdiction effort to deal with what he called a "growing threat."
The beefed-up operation – quickly dismissed by the Maduro government – will also entail sending Navy ships closer to Venezuela, according to a US official and two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But it was unclear how close they would get to the Venezuelan coast, the sources said.
Mr Trump, joined by Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, made the announcement at the start of the White House's daily briefing on efforts to battle the pandemic.
It follows the indictment last week of Mr Maduro and more than a dozen current and former officials on charges of narco-terrorism conspiracy, drug trafficking and corruption.
Mr Maduro has remained in power despite a wide-ranging US-led campaign of sanctions and diplomacy, something US officials have privately said is a source of frustration for Mr Trump.
On Tuesday, however, the Trump administration offered to begin lifting Venezuela sanctions if the opposition and members of Maduro's Socialist Party form an interim government without him, marking a shift in a US policy.
Mr Trump said Wednesday's move was needed because there is a "growing threat" that cartels and criminals will try to take advantage of the pandemic.
"We must not let the drug cartels exploit the pandemic to threaten American lives," he said.
Mr Esper also pointed a finger at Mr Maduro’s government.
"Corrupt actors, like the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela, rely on the profits derived from the sale of narcotics to maintain their oppressive hold on power," Mr Esper said. "The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro's criminal control over the country."
Venezuela’s government said in a statement it "energetically rejects" the administration’s announcement, calling it an effort to distract from incompetent US handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
Mr Maduro has dismissed last week’s criminal charges as false and racist.
The naval deployment could ratchet up pressure on Mr Maduro and his allies but is not a prelude to US military action against Venezuela, one person familiar with the matter said.
Although Mr Trump has insisted that all options are on the table against Mr Muduro, US officials have made clear there is little appetite for military force, which could entangle the United States in another foreign conflict.
Federal prosecutors last week accused Mr Maduro and his alleged accomplices of shipping tons of cocaine into the United States each year, using the drugs as a "weapon." Mr Maduro dismissed the charges as false and racist.
US officials have long accused Mr Maduro and his associates or running a "narco-state," saying they have used proceeds from drugs transshipped from neighbouring Colombia to make up for lost revenue from a Venezuelan oil sector hit by US sanctions.
The United States and dozens of other countries have recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate president, regarding Mr Maduro's 2018 re-election as a sham.
But Mr Maduro has remained in power, backed by the country's military and by Russia, China and Cuba.