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.