WASHINGTON • The Trump administration is deploying more US Navy warships and aircraft to the Caribbean to prevent drug cartels and "corrupt actors" like Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to allegedly smuggle more narcotics.
President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that he was doubling US military resources in the region, including destroyers, surveillance planes and personnel, in an anti-drug crackdown to deal with what he called a "growing threat".
The beefed-up operation - quickly dismissed by the Maduro government - will also call for sending Navy ships closer to Venezuela, according to an American official and two sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But it was unclear how close they would get to Venezuelan shores, 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 followed the indictment in the US 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 sanctions on Venezuela if the opposition and members of Mr 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 cartels and others were trying to take advantage of a pandemic that has required massive resources from United States and other countries.
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," he said.
Venezuela's government said in a statement that it "energetically rejects" the US 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 increased naval deployment could ratchet up pressure on Mr Maduro and his allies but is not a prelude to US military action against Venezuela, one source said.
Although Mr Trump has insisted that all options are on the table against Mr Maduro, US officials have made clear that there is little appetite for military force, which could entangle the United States in another foreign conflict.
The US 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.