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NARCO STATE OF CUBAZUELA : Venezuelan Officers Linked to Colombian Cocaine Traffickers

Hugo Carvajal, left, with President Nicolás Maduro on Monday. An American indictment says Mr. Carvajal protected a drug lord and invested in cocaine shipments.

JULY 28, 2014

CARACAS, Venezuela — The head of Venezuelan military intelligence was on the payroll of a Colombian drug lord, invested his own money in drug shipments and personally coordinated the shipment of thousands of kilograms of cocaine, according to prosecutors in Miami and New York.

And Venezuela’s liaison with Interpol took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from another trafficker, the Miami prosecutors said.

Three federal indictments unsealed last week open a window onto accusations of ties between Venezuelan military and law enforcement officers and Colombian narcotics traffickers, a connection that officials in Washington have long warned about and that has been roundly dismissed by the authorities here.

The cases came to light after the authorities in Aruba last week arrested the former military intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal, at the request of the State Department. Mr. Carvajal was released Sunday and sent back to Venezuela, to the consternation of American officials, who wanted to have him extradited, and the delight of Venezuelan authorities, who had called his arrest a kidnapping.

Experts said the indictments help connect some of the dots between traffickers and the Cartel of the Suns, a loosely defined group of Venezuelan government and military officials suspected of having drug ties.

“It reveals an ever deepening involvement of the Cartel of the Suns in the cocaine trafficking world,”
said Jeremy McDermott, executive director of InSight Crime, a research organization based in Colombia that focuses on narcotics trafficking and other forms of organized crime.

After his arrest, federal courts in Miami and New York unsealed two indictments against Mr. Carvajal, who was a confidant of Venezuela’s longtime president, Hugo Chávez, who died last year.

The Miami indictment, filed in May of last year, said that Mr. Carvajal — nicknamed "Pollo", which means “chicken” in Spanish — had close ties with a Colombian drug kingpin named Wilber Varela.

The indictment added that Mr. Varela moved to Venezuela in 2004. From about that time, according to the court papers, Mr. Varela paid Mr. Carvajal and other high-ranking Venezuelan military and law enforcement officials for protection and to help him move drugs through Venezuela to the United States.

The court papers went on to charge that Mr. Carvajal protected Mr. Varela from arrest, allowed him to traffic in cocaine and fed him information on the activities of Venezuelan law enforcement authorities. After Mr. Varela was killed, in January 2008, the indictment says, members of his organization continued to pay Mr. Carvajal and other top Venezuelan officials.

The indictment also said that Mr. Carvajal worked with other traffickers in similar ways, and went beyond simply aiding their activities to “investing in cocaine loads being exported from Venezuela.”

The New York indictment, filed in 2011, says that in April 2006, Mr. Carvajal “coordinated the transportation of approximately 5,600 kilograms of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico.” 

The drugs were ultimately destined to be sold in the United States.

“What is new is the indication that elements of the Cartel of the Suns have moved beyond simply facilitating drug trafficking by turning a blind eye to the transit of cocaine shipments into either directly collaborating in their transport or, as this would suggest in the case of Carvajal, becoming invested in particular cocaine shipments,”
Mr. McDermott said.

He added that the Cartel of the Suns, so named because of the stars on the uniforms of Venezuelan generals, was not a vertically organized group like some Colombian drug operations, but a much looser set of individuals who may have little or no coordination with one another.

Court papers filed in yet another case, unsealed last week in Miami, show that the United States Drug Enforcement Administration has been focusing for several years on ties between Venezuelan officials and drug traffickers.

A 2012 affidavit by a D.E.A. agent, Cesar Salaya, said that since 2010, agents “have been interviewing drug traffickers who have admitted bribing high-level Venezuelan military and law enforcement officials in order to distribute cocaine and avoid arrest and extradition to the United States.”

The case involves a Colombian trafficker named Alberto Marín, who court documents say was a lieutenant to Mr. Varela.

According to the affidavit, Mr. Salaya said that the case against Rodolfo McTurk, who directed Venezuela’s relations with Interpol, was based, at least in part, on testimony by three drug traffickers. 

The traffickers are not identified in the affidavit, but one of them appears to be Mr. Marín, who pleaded guilty in the United States to drug charges in October 2011, and agreed to cooperate with the authorities.

Mr. Salaya said that one of the traffickers was arrested in Venezuela in February 2009, at the time that Mr. McTurk was the country’s liaison with Interpol.

Mr. Salaya’s affidavit said that Mr. McTurk agreed to release the arrested trafficker in exchange for a $400,000 bribe, followed by monthly payments of $75,000.

For the next six months, the affidavit said, Mr. McTurk would go to the trafficker’s home to collect each new installment. After that, he insisted that the trafficker give him two bulletproof S.U.V.s in lieu of the remaining payments. He was not satisfied with one of the vehicles and traded it with another trafficker for one of a different color, the affidavit said.

The indictment against Mr. McTurk and a Venezuelan lawyer and former judge, Benny Palmeri, charges that the two men conspired with Mr. Marín to ship cocaine to the United States and tried to prevent his extradition.

Mr. Palmeri was arrested this month, when he flew to Florida. Mr. McTurk has not been arrested.

The United States reacted with dismay to Mr. Carvajal’s release. A former general, Mr. Carvajal had been named Venezuela’s consul general in Aruba but the authorities there said he did not have diplomatic immunity because he had not been accredited by Aruba to serve in the post.

Yet on Sunday, officials in the Netherlands, which handles some affairs for its former colony, decided that Mr. Carvajal should be released.

A senior administration official in Washington said that Venezuela had threatened to cut air traffic to Aruba. The small island gets a large portion of its tourists from nearby Venezuela.

Chris Lejuez, a lawyer for Mr. Carvajal in Aruba, said that Mr. Carvajal rejected the drug trafficking allegations.

“He has denied them categorically,”
Mr. Lejuez said. “He told that to the judge.”

María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting.

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