Although a retired Venezuelan general and confidante of President Nicolás Maduro just managed to evade U.S. extradition to face drug smuggling charges, the unsealed indictment in his case reveals that U.S. prosecutors have gathered compelling evidence of widespread criminality at the highest levels of the Maduro government. Dozing U.S. diplomats let Major General Hugo Carvajal slip away this past weekend, but the fact that Caracas pulled out the stops to keep him from facing U.S. justice has exposed a regime with a very guilty conscience.
U.S. diplomats were caught off-guard on Sunday when the Netherlands decided to recognize the dubious claims of "diplomatic immunity" by Carvajal, who was being held in Aruba since his arrest last Wednesday at the request of U.S. law enforcement authorities. In court proceedings last Friday, Aruban authorities dismissed Carvajal’s claims of immunity, arguing that he had never been accredited as Venezuela’s consul general on the island.
After the Dutch government reversed this position after entreaties by the Venezuelan government, Aruba released Carvajal and declared him persona non grata. He returned early Sunday evening to a hero’s welcome in Caracas, received by First Lady Cilia Flores.
After Carvajal’s release on Sunday, Aruban and U.S. authorities told the Miami Herald and the New York Times that the Venezuelan government threatened economic reprisals and rattled sabers to prevent him from ending up in U.S. custody.
For the time being, U.S. prosecutors will have to wait for a public trial to present the damning evidence they are gathering against numerous Venezuelan officials. According to a 2013 U.S. indictment in the U.S. Southern District of Florida that was unsealed after the arrest, Carvajal "and other high-ranking Venezuelan law enforcement and military officials" helped Colombia’s Cartel del Norte del Valle (NVC), which traffics "thousands of kilograms of cocaine from Venezuela to countries such as Mexico," bound for the United States. The indictment alleges that Carvajal actually sold cocaine to an NVC trafficker, allowed the NVC to export drugs and import cash, helped the cartel operatives evade capture, provided information on Venezuelan law enforcement activities, and invested in cocaine shipments.
Carvajal’s alleged support for the Colombian narcoguerrillas known as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) is notorious. The U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted him in 2008 for having "armed, abetted, and funded the FARC." Along with Carvajal, Treasury also implicated Henry Rangel Silva, former Venezuelan minister of defense and current governor of Trujillo state, and Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, former minister of interior and justice and current governor of Guárico state.
Carvajal’s purported diplomatic assignment to Aruba is evidence that the Venezuelan government is systematically abetting his illegal activities. Morever, Maduro’s personal involvement in agitating for Carvajal’s release implicates the presidency in a brazen coverup. According to regime sources, Carvajal’s real value to Maduro is the knife he wields in the bitter power struggle being waged within the ruling party.
The Carvajal affair is the second time that U.S. diplomats failed to obtain the release of a Venezuelan wanted on narcotrafficking charges involving government officials. In 2011, Colombia returned alleged cocaine smuggler Walid Makled to Venezuela rather than honor a U.S. extradition request.
It remains to be seen if U.S. diplomats who have been downplaying Venezuelan corruption for the better part of a decade will finally acknowledge that a narcostate weilds power in Caracas. U.S. diplomacy should seek to expose Venezuela’s dangerous, illegal role in abetting narcotrafficking in Colombia, Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, the United States and beyond. U.S. prosecutors could help in this regard by unsealing any other indictments that they have prepared against Maduro or other Venezuelan officials.
Roger Noriega former senior State Department official and Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.