A former Venezuelan lawmaker accused of working with a drug cartel allegedly headed by high-ranking military officials and international terror groups is facing multiple drug trafficking and weapons offenses in another round of criminal charges targeting the regime of embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro.
Adel El Zabayar was charged Wednesday in a New York City federal court with participating in a narco-terrorism conspiracy, a cocaine importation conspiracy, and related weapons offenses involving the use and possession of machine guns and destructive devices in support of the Cartel de los Soles, or Cartel of the Suns, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Hezbollah and Hamas terror groups.
The Justice Department (DOJ) said El Zabayar is a member of the cartel, which is supposedly headed by high-ranking Venezuelan military officials. Federal prosecutors believe Maduro helped manage and lead the cartel in an effort to flood the United States with cocaine.
“Today’s charges against Adel El Zabayar for trading arms for cocaine, and recruiting extremists, further demonstrates the corruption inside the Maduro regime," Timothy Shea, acting administrator for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said in a statement.
The DOJ charged Maduro in March with a slew of charges pertaining to conspiracy to commit narco-terrorism.
The cartel and El Zabayar are accused of corrupting government institutions to facilitate the import of FARC-produced cocaine into the U.S. for more than two decades in arms-for-cocaine negotiations beginning in 1999. The rebel group allegedly relocated some of its operations to Venezuela while negotiating a peace deal with the Colombian government to end decades of guerilla warfare, a federal court complaint said.
Federal prosecutors said the organization also recruited terrorists from Lebanon-based Hezbollah, a Shia Islamic group, and Hamas, which is headquartered in the Gaza Strip, to assist and plan attacks on the U.S.
"Adel El Zabayar was part of the unholy alliance of government, military, and FARC members using violence and corruption to further their narco-terrorist aims," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said.
El Zabayer, a Maduro ally, was reportedly directed by Diosdado Cabello Rondón, the president of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly and a member of the Cártel de Los Soles, to travel to the Middle East to obtain weapons and recruit members of Hezbollah and Hamas to train in clandestine camps in Venezuela.
The purpose of the recruitment was to create a large terror cell capable of attacking the U.S. on behalf of the drug cartel, the DOJ said. Several months later, El Zabayar allegedly received a Lebonese cargo plane full of weapons, including rocket-propelled launchers and military-grade rifles that he obtained while in the Middle East.
In response to the charges, El Zabayar called them an "honor," while accusing the U.S. of using its military bases as drug distribution centers.
"Yet another comedy from the US NARCO-TERRORIST STATE who use military bases in Europe as distribution centers for drugs in Afghanistan and Colombia," he tweeted Wednesday. "Criminals of the world turned into judges. An honor that the empire HATES ME AS MUCH as the rest of the comrades."
In 2013, El Zabayar took leave from his position in the Venezuelan National Assembly to travel to Syria to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad's Hezbollah-backed forces, prosecutors said. He was born in Venezuela but his parents are from Syria.