April 1 (UPI) -- President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that the United States will deploy Navy ships near Venezuela as part of enhanced counternarcotics operations in the Western Hemisphere.
Trump said the United States would deploy additional Navy destroyers, combat ships, aircraft helicopters, Coast Guard cutters and Air Force surveillance aircraft with the aim of doubling the United States' capabilities in the region.
"In cooperation with the 22 partner nations, U.S. Southern Command will increase surveillance, disruption and seizures of drug shipments and provide additional support for eradication efforts which are going on right now at a record pace," Trump said.
The announcement came at the start of a briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force on Wednesday, as Trump and other officials said criminal narcotics organizations may seek to capitalize on the global COVID-19 pandemic.
"As governments and nations focus on the coronavirus, there is a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists and other malign actors will try to exploit the situation for their own gain," Trump said. "We must not let that happen."
"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. The Venezuelan people continue to suffer due to Maduro's criminal control of the country," Esper said.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration offered to lift sanctions against Venezuela if Maduro's party and the opposition party led by Juan Guadio agree to create an interim transitional government with the aim of holding a free and fair presidential election in less than a year.
Last week, the Justice Department charged Maduro helping to manage and ultimately leading a smuggling organization known as the Cartel of the Suns, which sought to "flood the United States with cocaine and inflict the drug's harmful and addictive effects on users in this country" and offered a reward of up to $15 million for his arrest.