Spain arrests Venezuelan spymaster wanted on US drug charges

International
Hugo Carvajal

FILE – In this Sept. 15, 2019 file photo, former Venezuelan military spy chief, retired Maj. Gen. Hugo Carvajal, walks out of prison in Estremera on the outskirts of Madrid, Spain. Carvajal, who for over a decade was Hugo Chavez’s eyes and ears in the military, was arrested by police in Madrid in a hideout apartment Thursday night, Sept. 9. 2021. The decision followed an earlier ruling, by a high court magistrate, throwing out a U.S. arrest warrant for being politically motivated. In the interim, Carvajal was released and never heard from again except for a brief statement on social media last year where he said he went underground to protest what he saw as political interference in his case. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez, File)

MADRID (AP) — Police in Madrid on Thursday arrested a former Venezuelan spymaster wanted on U.S. narcoterrorism charges, capturing him in a hideout apartment nearly two years after he defied a Spanish extradition order and disappeared.

Gen. Hugo Carvajal, who for over a decade was late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez’s eyes and ears in the Venezuelan military, was arrested in the small apartment in which he had been holed up.

“He lived totally enclosed, never going outside or getting close to the window, always protected by people he trusted,” Spain’s police said in a statement on social media in which they posted a short video the moment heavily-armed officers put handcuffs on Carvajal.

Spain’s leftist government last year approved Carvajal’s extradition to the U.S., where he faces federal charges for allegedly working with guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to “flood” the U.S. with cocaine.

The extradition order followed a back-and-forth legal battle in which Spain’s National Court reversed an earlier ruling by a high court magistrate throwing out the U.S. warrant for being politically motivated. In the interim, Carvajal was released and never heard from again except when he said last year that he was going underground to protest what he viewed as political interference in his case.

He resurfaced on social media earlier this month, posting with little notice what could be a preview of his eventual defense: a statement accusing former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who was for years the U.S.’ main caretaker in the war on drugs, of “fabricating” evidence against him and the Chávez government even as it was cooperating with U.S. prosecutors to arrest Colombian narcos hiding inside Venezuela

“It’s a lie that will eventually collapse,” Carvajal wrote. “I’ve always trusted that the truth will prevail.”

It’s not clear when Carvajal could be sent to the U.S. But his extradition may be slowed down by an asylum request he previously submitted to Spanish authorities.

“I’m prepared for either situation, the good or the bad,” Carvajal’s wife, Angélica Flores, told The Associated Press when contacted by phone with the news. “It’s up to him and others to give statements. This case will continue and we’ll see how it ends.”

Nicknamed “El Pollo” (“The Chicken”), Carvajal has bete noire of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for over a decade.

First indicted in 2011, he narrowly escaped extradition when he was arrested in Aruba in 2014 while serving as Venezuela’s consul general to the Dutch Caribbean island. President Nicolás Maduro’s government successfully applied pressure on Aruba, which sits just miles off Venezuela’s coast, to release Carvajal and when it did he received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Caracas.

But he was never a confidant of Maduro and in the complicated internal politics of Venezuela’s ruling socialist party was relegated to a minor role as a backbench parliamentarian.

In 2019, after opposition leader Juan Guaidó led a street uprising and quickly won the U.S.’ recognition as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, Carvajal then openly rejected the government, urging members of the military to break with Maduro.

While on the run, both from the DEA and Maduro, Carvajal traveled to the Spanish capital from the Dominican Republic under a disguised identity. He was greeted at Madrid’s airport by two Spanish intelligence officials, the AP has previously reported.

From Europe, Carvajal had hoped to leverage contacts and knowledge of the Venezuelan deep state to mount a military-backed rebellion against Maduro.

But to the frustration of many in Venezuela’s opposition who have secretly tried to flip senior members of the military, he was arrested on the U.S. warrant days before a failed barracks rebellion on April 30, 2019.

There was no immediate comment from Maduro’s government.

The case against Carvajal in New York centers on a DC-9 jet from Caracas that landed in southern Mexico in 2006 with 5.6 tons of cocaine packed into 128 suitcases. Carvajal said that judicial probes in Venezuela and Mexico never linked him to the incident and that the alleged plane owner backs his alibi.

But he faces incriminating evidence from phone records, drug ledgers and the testimony of at least 10 witnesses, according to an affidavit from a DEA special agent. Those witnesses include members and associates of the “Cartel of the Suns,” former high-ranking Venezuelan officials, according to the affidavit.

The U.S. indictment also repeats an accusation that Carvajal provided Colombian rebels with weapons and protection inside Venezuela.

The former general has scoffed at the allegations. He says his contacts with the FARC — designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization — were authorized by Chávez and limited to securing the release of a kidnapped Venezuelan businessman and paving the way for peace talks with the Colombian government.

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Goodman reported from Miami.

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