The United States and more than a dozen Latin American countries agreed Monday to investigate and arrest associates and senior officials of the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro who are suspected of crimes like drug-trafficking, money-laundering and financing terrorism.
Diplomats from nations signed up to the inter-American defence pact known as TIAR (Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance) gathered in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, but they stopped short of endorsing military action.
Both actions are allowed under the Cold War-era Rio Treaty that the US-backed opposition recently invoked for the first time since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in its bid to increase international pressure and force Maduro from power.
Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes said the 16 countries voting for the legally binding resolution agreed to form working groups to share financial intelligence designed to target individuals and entities linked to Maduro's government.
Nations signed up to the treaty include Argentina, Bahamas, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela, as well as Cuba. Only Uruguay opposed the text, while Trinidad and Tobago abstained and Cuba wasn't present.
The goal is to find and freeze assets in countries where government insiders may be hiding the illegal proceeds from corruption or drug-trafficking.
"This is a transcendental step, of great importance, in favour of peace" in Venezuela, Holmes said.
Still, it's unclear whether the added pressure will break the military's support for Maduro.
Many of the countries that signed the 1947 Rio Treaty already recognise opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate leader. He declared himself interim president in January, citing what many saw as Maduro's fraudulent re-election last year.
Several nations have even imposed travel bans and frozen assets, although not in any collective manner.
The same treaty contends that a threat against any single signatory should be considered a danger to all. But all sides have said they seek a peaceful solution, and Holmes said possible defense cooperation wasn't even discussed in the closed-door meeting at a heavily guarded Manhattan hotel.
Venezuela withdrew from the Rio Treaty in 2013, but the members have accepted Guaidó's request to rejoin.
Exiled opposition lawmaker Julio Borges, Guaidó's top foreign policy aide, said countries would take a "step-by-step" approach in their campaign of pressure against Maduro.
Maduro, who considers Guaidó a puppet of the Donald Trump administration, maintains power over Venezuela with backing from the military and nations including Cuba, China and Russia.
Despite having the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela is in a historic crisis after 20 years of socialist rule, with big shortages of food and medicine.
Talks between representatives from the Guaidó and Maduro camps who met on the Caribbean island of Barbados ended in failure last month, according to both sides. The meetings, which were overseen by Norway, had been seen by many as the best chance at resolving Venezuela's crisis.
A senior US State Department official said Monday during a background briefing that it is a "silly conclusion" to think that invoking the Rio Treaty is "a path to war." The official, who was speaking on background, also said that US President Donald Trump will mention Venezuela in his speech at the United Nations on Tuesday.
During the meeting in the Manhattan hotel, Holmes condemned a "systematic" violation of human rights from Maduro's government and said the country suffers the biggest humanitarian crisis in the region, forcing five million of Venezuelans to leave the country.
Prior to the meeting, the Argentine Foreign Ministry shared a declaration from the Lima Group, a multilateral body grouping nations together that seek to end the crisis in Venezuela in a peaceful manner.