The Venezuelan government on Thursday slammed the indictments made by the US against President Nicolas Maduro and more than a dozen top officials for alleged drug trafficking, money laundering and terrorism, and called them “unfounded”.

The Justice Department accused Maduro of leading a cocaine-trafficking gang called “The Cartel of the Suns” that shipped hundreds of tons of narcotics into the US over two decades, earning hundreds of millions of dollars.

Earlier in the day, the US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Ariana Fajardo Orshan said in a virtual press conference that she had a message for all top Venezuelan officials: “The party’s over.”

US officials charged that Maduro, Venezuela’s president since 2013 whose country’s economy has been battered by global sanctions, used cocaine as a “weapon” to damage US society.

According to the Attorney General Bill Barr, “For more than 20 years, Maduro and a number of high-ranking colleagues allegedly conspired with the FARC, causing tons of cocaine to enter and devastate American communities”.

During an online press conference, Barr said, “The Maduro regime is awash in corruption and criminality”.

This is the second time in US history that charges have been filed against a foreign head of state, the first being in 1989 when prosecutors in Miami charged Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega with drug trafficking, ultimately arresting him during the American invasion of that country, then bringing him to trial, convicting him and imprisoning him in Florida.

In January, Maduro invited delegates from the European Union (EU), UN and the governments of Argentina, Mexico and Panama to accompany his government’s conciliation talks with the opposition.

In 2019, the United States pressed all nations to “stand with the forces of freedom” in Venezuela that was encouraged by a tougher European line as Russia stood in the minority in backing embattled leader Nicolas Maduro.

Last year, Maduro’s re-election was contested by the opposition and rejected by the US, EU and UN as a sham – but he has until now retained the loyalty of the powerful Maduro.

Maduro had given US diplomats until to leave Venezuela. The United States said it was ignoring the order as it no longer considers Maduro the president – but withdrew non-essential staff and argued that Maduro still bore responsibility for diplomats’ safety.