- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - The head of Venezuela’s National Guard and a former anti-drug official will soon face U.S. charges accusing the high-ranking military officials of colluding with cocaine traffickers, two officials familiar with the case said Wednesday.

Gens. Nestor Reverol and Edilberto Molina are named in an indictment in federal court in New York City that accuses Reverol of tipping off traffickers to raids and hindering investigations when he served as Venezuela’s drug czar, the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the indictment remains under seal.

Reverol is the former head of Venezuela’s anti-drug agency and ally of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez. Molina also once worked the agency.

Neither has yet responded publicly to the accusations, but Venezuela’s top military official immediately rejected the allegations.

“The smear campaign against the Bolivarian Armed Forces and its leaders must stop,” Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino said in a terse pronouncement on Twitter late Tuesday, echoing similar comments broadcast from the National Guard’s Twitter account expressing solidarity with Reverol.

News of the indictments comes as the U.S has been stepping up pressure on high-ranking members of Venezuela’s socialist government for their role in making the country an important transit zone for narcotics.

Several Venezuelan officials, including a former defense minister and head of military intelligence, have been indicted or sanctioned.

Last month, two nephews of Venezuela’s powerful first lady, Cilia Flores, were arrested in Haiti on charges of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. They were bought to a Manhattan courthouse, where they pleaded not guilty.

News reports say U.S. prosecutors are also targeting the powerful National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who has energetically denied the allegations as slanderous and threatened to sue media outlets that air them.

Reverol took over the National Guard, which is charged with securing the country’s borders, last year and has been a spokesman for Venezuela’s anti-drug efforts. In July, he announced the arrests of two retired Venezuelan military officers sought on drug trafficking charges, one with ties to Mexican and Colombian cartels.

President Nicolas Maduro has long been defiant in the face of U.S. drug charges. At a military parade on Saturday, he accused the Drug Enforcement Administration of running the drug trade along the border with Colombia.

In the hours after the latest allegations surfaced Tuesday, Venezuelan social media swirled with speculation that with a U.S. indictment as his badge of honor, Reverol may soon be in line for promotion to defense minister as part of a pending cabinet shake-up announced in the wake of the government’s defeat in legislative elections this month.

Maduro has promoted officials sanctioned by the U.S. government before. This month, he celebrated the election to congress of retired Gen. Hugo Carvajal after the ex-military intelligence chief narrowly avoided extradition to the U.S. last year when he was arrested in the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba on a sealed U.S. warrant.

The U.S. government estimates that more than 200 tons of cocaine flows through Venezuela every year on its way to Europe and the U.S., much of it believed with the acquiescence of the so-called Cartel of the Suns, a term referring to the emblems on the uniforms of high-ranking Venezuelan military officers.

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Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this story from Bogota, Colombia.

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