The Associated Press (AP) released an exclusive report Thursday revealing a secret US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spying program that targeted top Venezuelan officials, including Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, despite the program’s potential illegality under international law.
According to AP, the program, internally referred to as Operation Money Badger, has been ongoing since at least 2013, but was expanded in 2018. The report is based on a 15-page memo from 2018 which was mistakenly included in a cache of documents released as part of a bribery criminal case against several DEA agents. The expansion of the operation was allegedly initiated by the administration of former US President Donald Trump in response to the 2017 re-election of Maduro which was marred with accusations of election interference and deadly protests.
The memo allegedly details the deployment of multiple DEA agents undercover to record top officials that the DEA believed to be creating a “narco state.” A narco state is a state whose economy is entirely or majority dependent on the sale or illegal trafficking of illicit drugs, and whose government is largely driven by the illicit drug industry. It is unclear if the operation is still ongoing.
Neither the US nor Venezuela have directly publicly responded to the report. However, in Maduro’s recent speech in honor of the anniversary of the revolution which put Hugo Chávez into power in 1999, Maduro referred to “conspiracies” and stated, “Let us maintain upright conduct, let us continue to defend the sovereignty and the right of our country to be and exist.”
The relationship between the US and Venezuela has long been a strained one. After Maduro’s controversial re-election, the US alleged that Maduro was subverting democracy, leading to the institution of multiple strict sanctions against top individuals and organizations in Venezuela and multiple US officials calling for Maduro to step down. The UN criticized the sanctions, saying they only “exacerbated pre-existing calamities.” Then in 2020, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) issued an indictment against Maduro for narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking and other crimes. Just two days before the release of AP’s report, the US under the administration of current President Joe Biden, which had previously rolled back some of the Trump-era sanctions, reinstated some sanctions.
This is not the first time the US has been caught spying on leader’s of foreign countries. In 2022, former Danish Defence Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen revealed that the US National Security Agency (NSA) and FE (the Danish intelligence ministry) spied on multiple European officials including former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The NSA was also accused of spying on Merkel in 2013. In 1986, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the US illegally funded and supported an attempted coup by the Contras in Nicaragua, with the court ruling that the US did not have the legal right to conduct covert paramilitary or military operations on foreign soil without consent from the country’s government. This case has come to be been seen as the international guidepost for the claim that covert interference with a sovereign government is not legally permitted.