Former Venezuela intelligence chief extradited to US from Spain on drug-trafficking charges

Delta flight 127 was scheduled to take off last Wednesday at 10:45 a.m. from Madrid’s Adolfo Suárez airport bound for New York, but it was delayed for 53 minutes. Among the passengers was one person who was not bothered by the nearly one-hour delay — quite the contrary. For nearly four years, he had been using every legal means at his disposal to avoid boarding a flight to the United States. That passenger was former General Hugo Armando Carvajal, “El Pollo,” the head of Venezuelan military counterintelligence in Hugo Chávez’s government.

On this occasion, he had no choice. That same morning he had left a Madrid penitentiary, where he had been held since September 2021, escorted by Spanish police officers, who placed him at the disposal of Interpol agents to proceed with his extradition, approved by the Spanish High Court and back by the government. When he landed at John F. Kennedy airport, the police officers who accompanied him handed him over to the New York Prosecutor’s Office. Carvajal faces four charges, all of them punishable by up to life imprisonment, for allegedly attempting to smuggle 5.6 tons of cocaine into the U.S. when he was a high-ranking Venezuelan government official.

According to Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Anne Milgram of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Carvajal spent “a 10-year career in the criminal world” during which he attempted to “flood” the U.S. with drugs. To do so, he allegedly used his position as director of Venezuela’s military counterintelligence agency. The U.S. justice system attributes Carvajal with an alleged “command role” in the so-called Cartel of the Suns, a criminal organization in which drug traffickers and high-ranking officers of the Bolivarian Armed Forces of Venezuela, whose sun-shaped military designations of rank were used to baptize the group, converged.

According to the allegations contained in the New York Attorney General’s Office indictment, Carvajal’s alleged criminal activities began “in 1999, if not before,” when he became, along with other high-ranking members of the Chavista regime, the “ringleader” of the Cartel of the Suns. From that position, he allegedly corrupted other members of the Venezuelan Army, of the intelligence service he headed, politicians and members of the judiciary to “facilitate” the trafficking of large quantities of cocaine to the United States. The U.S. justice system believes there ate indications that to achieve this aim he coordinated with “high-ranking commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which [at that time] controlled cocaine production in large regions of Colombia and Venezuela.”

The indictment notes that Carvajal held several positions of “high responsibility” during those years — among them as director of the Venezuelan Army’s counterintelligence directorate between 2004 and 2011 — and that he “exploited this to benefit the cartel of which he was a part.” As an example, the indictment details the allegation that, in 2006, he coordinated the shipment of 5.6 tons of cocaine from aboard a private plane from Venezuela bound for the United States. The shipment was unsuccessful, because the aircraft landed in Mexico and the drugs were intercepted. The prosecution also accuses the former general of having held a meeting in 2008 with a representative of the FARC, where it was agreed that the Cartel of the Suns would deliver weapons and money to the guerrilla group “in exchange for an increase in cocaine production.”

Carvajal has been charged with four crimes: narcoterrorism offenses (punishable by 20 years to life in prison); cocaine trafficking (10 years to life in prison); possession of weapons of war and “destructive devices” to commit the above crimes (30 years to life in prison), and conspiracy to use such weapons in these crimes (life in prison).

The former general went before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg as he believes he will receive the highest possible sentences for these crimes, in an attempt to prevent Spain from extraditing him to the United States. Carvajal argued that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is a sentence that he considers contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and that, therefore, his extradition should be rejected.

However, the European court concluded last week that there was no certainty that the U.S. justice system would sentence him to life imprisonment and that, in fact, he could be acquitted or plea bargained down to a reduced sentence. This resolution, which endorsed the decision of the Spanish High Court, put an end to Carvajal’s four-year legal battle in Spain and, with it, placed the former Venezuelan intelligence chief on a flight toward a gloomy judicial panorama in New York.

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