CARACAS—The Netherlands' release of a former top Venezuelan official wanted by the U.S. for alleged drug trafficking came after Venezuela raised economic and military pressure on two Dutch islands in the Caribbean, a top Aruban official said Monday.
Aruba's chief prosecutor Peter Blanken said that Venezuelan navy ships neared Aruba and Curaçao over the weekend as Dutch officials were debating what to do with Hugo Carvajal —Venezuela's former chief of military intelligence who was jailed in Aruba last week on a U.S. warrant.
"The threat was there," Mr. Blanken said. "We don't know what their intentions were, but I think a lot of people in Aruba were scared that something would happen."
Mr. Blanken said Venezuela's government also had threatened to sever Venezuela's vital commercial air links to Aruba and Curaçao. Venezuela's state oil company also threatened to withdraw from a contract to manage Curaçao's refinery, Mr. Blanken said, which would have put at risk some 8,000 jobs.
Aruban officials on Wednesday detained Mr. Carvajal, known as "el Pollo," or "the Chicken," but then released him on Sunday night after the Dutch government ruled that he was protected by diplomatic immunity. The decision overruled Aruban officials who had decided that the Venezuelan had no immunity because he hadn't been confirmed as consul by the Dutch government.
Much to the dismay of U.S. officials, Mr. Carvajal flew to Caracas on Sunday night to a hero's welcome from President Nicolás Maduro.
Annemijn van den Broek, a spokeswoman for the Dutch Foreign Ministry, said the decision to release Mr. Carvajal was made solely on legal grounds. She confirmed Venezuelan ships had come close to the islands, but said the Dutch Ministry of Defense had been told by the Venezuelans that the ships were returning from a naval exercise.
"I understand that the people on the island had a sense of urgency, but we have confirmation that this had nothing to do with the case," she said.
Ms. Van den Broek declined to comment on any threats of economic sanctions by Venezuela, but said the Venezuelan government made it clear they "were not amused by the situation."
A Venezuelan Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment. Mr. Maduro on Sunday night said that his government was "ready to do whatever it took" to get Mr. Carvajal freed.
"We are disturbed by credible reports that have come to us indicating the Venezuelan government threatened the governments of Aruba, the Netherlands and others to obtain this result," said Susan Bridenstine, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman. "This is not the way law enforcement matters should be handled."
She said the Dutch decided to release Mr. Carvajal "on the basis of claims of immunity that are beyond established international norms."
Manhattan federal prosecutors, who unsealed an indictment against Mr. Carvajal late Thursday, were blindsided by his release, said a person familiar with the matter. Prosecutors wouldn't have filed a provisional arrest warrant without believing there was a high likelihood of successfully extraditing Mr. Carvajal, the person said.
Officials in the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office feel the Dutch caved in to pressure from Venezuela, the person said. The officials fear the release could hurt the office's relationship with its network of confidential sources, who could be reluctant to share further information if it doesn't lead to results, the person said.
Andy Lee, director of Aruba's foreign affairs department, said Mr. Carvajal was deemed "persona non grata" and won't be permitted back to Aruba, a decision he said was passed down from Foreign Ministry officials in The Hague.
Mr. Carvajal's return to Venezuela was shown live on state television. The 54-year-old military man was warmly greeted at the airport with hugs and pats on the back from top Venezuelan officials.
He was then quickly shuttled in a vehicle to a theater in Caracas, where Mr. Maduro was giving a live address to loyalists and received a standing ovation as he was paraded up on stage.
Mr. Carvajal, who ran military intelligence for the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was a longtime confidante of the late leader. He took part in Mr. Chávez's unsuccessful 1992 military coup, and spent two years in prison with Mr. Chávez before being set free by a general amnesty in 1994.
Mr. Carvajal's role as one of the Chávez government's key liaisons to guerrillas from Colombia's Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, emerged after computers belonging to a slain guerrilla leader were captured by Colombian security forces in 2008.
Largely due to the information contained in the computers, Mr. Carvajal, along with two other top Venezuelan military officers, was put on the "Kingpin" blacklist issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury that same year.
U.S. officials say Mr. Carvajal used his power to protect drug traffickers. In a Miami indictment unsealed Thursday just after his arrest in Aruba, the U.S. accused the Venezuelan official of taking bribes from late Colombian kingpin Wilber Varela, who was killed in 2008. In return for the money, Mr. Carvajal allegedly allowed Mr. Varela to freely use Venezuelan territory and waters for smuggling drugs to the U.S. by way of third countries like Mexico.
The U.S. alleged that Mr. Carvajal had relations with other kingpins. In numerous interviews given to Venezuelan, Colombian and U.S. media, Walid Makled, a top Venezuelan drug dealer, said that Mr. Carvajal and other top Venezuelan military officials were in his payroll.
Mr. Makled, who at the height of his power controlled Puerto Cabello, one of Venezuela's most important ports, and, according to U.S. officials, shipped 10 tons of cocaine to the U.S. a month, was arrested in Colombia in 2010 and extradited to Venezuela in 2011.
On Sunday, Mr. Maduro alleged that the evidence used to make the drug-trafficking charges against Carvajal was fabricated by Álvaro Uribe, the conservative former president of neighboring Colombia, who often butted heads with the late Mr. Chávez, and who was responsible for the military raid that led to the capture of the incriminating computers. Mr. Maduro promised that in coming days he would refute the allegations point by point.
Mr. Uribe couldn't be reached for comment.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Sunday, July 27, 2014
CARACAS, Venezuela—American probes into cocaine-smuggling to the U.S. has led to the first indictments of Venezuelan officials who worked at the top echelons of power, including a former general and a senior law-enforcement official.
Hugo Carvajal, a former chief of Venezuelan military intelligence, was detained in Aruba at the American government's behest, officials in the Caribbean island and the U.S. said on Thursday.
Mr. Carvajal, a retired general who was awaiting confirmation as President Nicolás Maduro's consul-general to Aruba, is the highest-ranking Venezuelan official to be arrested on a U.S. warrant. A former Venezuelan judge, Benny Palmeri-Bacchi, was arrested last week in Miami on drug-trafficking and other charges, it emerged on Thursday.
Indictments against Mr. Carvajal, Mr. Palmeri-Bacchi, and the former head of Interpol in Venezuela, Rodolfo McTurk, were unsealed on Thursday in Miami. The indictments accuse all three men of conspiring with Colombian drug traffickers to export cocaine to the U.S.
The arrests stand to deepen already strained ties between the U.S. and Venezuela, which has frequently accused Washington of vilifying Venezuelan officials as drug traffickers and plotting to overthrow its government.
Mr. McTurk's whereabouts were unknown and it couldn't be determined if he had a lawyer.
In a federal court on Thursday, Mr. Palmeri-Bacchi pleaded not guilty to charges of distributing cocaine to the U.S., conspiracy to obstruct justice, money laundering and extortion, Reuters reported. Mr. Palmeri-Bacchi's attorney didn't respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Carvajal was detained Wednesday night by the authorities at the Queen Beatrix International Airport in Oranjestad, Aruba, and was unable to comment. In the past, he has denied U.S. government accusations of wrongdoing.
Mr. Carvajal, who had been a close military aide to the late president, Hugo Chávez, was the most important target for American law enforcement. A team of investigators in the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District in New York has worked for more than a year to build the case against Mr. Carvajal, said an official familiar with the case.
"This is pretty significant," said Myles Frechette, a former American diplomat in Venezuela with extensive experience in Latin America. "Obviously, this was done with lots of planning in advance. I'm sure the U.S. had gone through all the friendly countries in the Caribbean to say, 'If this guy shows, he's wanted for narco-trafficking.' And he fell into the trap."
The Venezuelan government called for his release, saying that Mr. Carvajal's detention was unlawful and warning that tiny Aruba, which is part of the Netherlands and is just 17 miles away, could suffer economic consequences.
Venezuela's foreign ministry said the government "energetically rejects the illegal and arbitrary detention of the Venezuelan diplomatic official." Venezuela also characterized the arrest of Mr. Carvajal by Dutch authorities as a violation of a 1961 international convention governing diplomatic relations.
Mr. Carvajal, whose nickname is "el Pollo," or "the Chicken," carries a diplomatic passport, but doesn't have diplomatic immunity because he hasn't been confirmed as consul general, said Ann Angela, spokeswoman for Aruba's prosecutor general's office. She declined to give details on why the arrest order was carried out now, citing privacy concerns.
The U.S. plans to formally solicit extradition, but the process is expected to take time, a U.S. official said. The State Department has 60 days to make an official request, Ms. Angela said. Mr. Carvajal met with prosecutors on Thursday, and will face a judge on Friday who will determine whether his detention complies with international treaties, Ms. Angela said.
In the Miami indictment unsealed Thursday, Mr. Carvajal is accused of taking bribes from late Colombian kingpin Wilber Varela, who was killed in 2008, and in return allowing Mr. Varela to export cocaine to the U.S. from Venezuela and avoid arrest by Venezuelan authorities.
Mr. Carvajal had long been targeted by American and Colombian investigators for what they called his active role in shipping Colombian cocaine through Venezuela and on to the U.S.
In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department put him on a blacklist that prohibited any American entity from doing business with him, alleging that he had protected drug shipments from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and provided the rebel group with weapons and logistical help. The State Department has classified the FARC as a terrorist group, and many of its leaders are wanted in the U.S.
Part of the purported evidence against Mr. Carvajal, as well as two other high-ranking Venezuelan officials blacklisted by the Treasury Department, had come from messages and memos that Colombia's government said that its commandos found in computer hard drives they recovered from a FARC camp after they bombed it.
In one 2007 missive by the FARC's Luciano Marín, the rebel commander recounted how Mr. Carvajal would be delivering "very powerful bazookas," what intelligence officials believed were rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Venezuelan government officials, as well as the FARC, said that the documents were forged by Colombian intelligence officials. But an Interpol investigation found no evidence of tampering after studying the computer hard drives, and rebel deserters backed up many of the allegations.
Douglas Farah, president of Takoma Park, Md.-based IBI Consultants, which works with governments and private foundations on researching drugs and arms trafficking, said that American investigators may be interested in asking Mr. Carvajal about details of the inner workings of alleged Venezuelan government ties to smuggling organizations.
Mr. Farah said the U.S. missed such an opportunity when in 2010 Colombia arrested Walid Makled, an alleged drug kingpin, and turned him over to Mr. Chávez's government.
In March 2011, before being sent to Venezuela, Mr. Makled, in a televised interview with Univision, said he routinely paid off Venezuelan military officials to move his drugs around the country. "For example, I used to give a weekly fee of 200 million bolívares (about $50,000 at the time), and 100 million was for General Hugo Carvajal," Mr. Makled said.
"What the U.S. is probably hoping," Mr. Farah said of Mr. Carvajal's arrest, "is that this could open a significant window and to unlock the relationships the Venezuelan government has with other groups."
In a separate indictment made public Thursday, the former judge, Mr. Palmeri-Bacchi was accused of conspiring with the former head of Interpol in Venezuela, Rodolfo McTurk. The two were accused of helping one of Mr. Varela's associates, convicted drug trafficker Jaime Alberto Marin-Zamora, of moving tons of cocaine through Venezuela on its way to the U.S.