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.