Venezuela's ex-spy chief arrested in Madrid on US warrant

Hugo Carvajal, who had advised Hugo Chavez, recently became the biggest military figure to declare loyalty to Guaido.

    Hugo Carvajal speaks during an interview at the National Assembly administrative offices, in Caracas, Venezuela [File: Fernando Llano/AP Photo]
    Hugo Carvajal speaks during an interview at the National Assembly administrative offices, in Caracas, Venezuela [File: Fernando Llano/AP Photo]

    Venezuela's longtime spy chief was arrested on Friday in Madrid by Spanish police acting on a United States warrant for allegedly trafficking tonnes of cocaine.

    Hugo Carvajal, who, for more than a decade, advised late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and headed the country's security apparatus, recently became the most influential military figure to declare his loyalty to opposition leader Juan Guaido.

    The opposition saw Carvajal's criticism of Venezuela's current government as a possible stimulus to prod other military figures to defect, but the country's armed forces have remained largely loyal to current President Nicolas Maduro.

    Friday's arrest is a result of a 2014 indictment by the Southern District of New York in which the US Attorney's Office accuses Carvajal of having "coordinated the transportation of approximately 5,600 kilograms of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico" in 2006. 

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    A spokeswoman with Spain's National Court, which handles extradition cases, said that Carvajal would testify on Saturday before Judge Alejandro Abascal in Madrid. He can either accept the extradition to the US or fight it before the court, explained the official, who wasn't authorised to be identified by name in media reports.

    'Cartel of the Suns'

    Carvajal, who climbed the ranks in Venezuela since he befriended Chavez in the early 1980s, is no stranger to US law enforcement agencies.

    In previous indictments, authorities also named Carvajal as part of several high-ranking Venezuelan military and law enforcement officials who provided a haven to major drug traffickers from neighbouring Colombia.

    The group came to be known in Venezuela as the Cartel of the Suns because top officers in the country wear sun insignias on their uniforms.

    Carvajal also allegedly provided weapons to the FARC, Colombia's armed fighters, according to the US Treasury Department, and helped fund the group's activities by facilitating shipments of large amounts of US-bound cocaine through Venezuela.

    In 2014, he became the highest-ranking Venezuelan official ever arrested on a US drug warrant. But authorities in the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba, where Carvajal was serving as Venezuela's consul, refused to extradite him.

    Carvajal, known in his country by the nickname "El Pollo" (the Chicken) eventually returned to Caracas, where Maduro received him as a hero, but very quickly switched to a low-key presence in the country's turbulent politics. In 2017, he broke with the Venezuelan government over Maduro's plans to create a constitutional assembly that would gut what was left of the opposition-controlled Congress. 

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    In mid-February, when Carvajal announced his support for Guaido in a video distributed on social media, the former spy chief said Venezuela's military was in as ramshackle a state as the nation as a whole.

    "We can't allow an army, in the hands of a few generals subjugated to Cuban instructions, to become the biggest collaborator of a dictatorial government that has plagued people with misery," he said at the time, asking fellow military to join him.

    As recently as two days ago, Carvajal remained hopeful that other former peers would follow his steps.

    "I have no doubt," he wrote in his Twitter feed, that "Maduro will leave by a decision of the Armed National Force."

    But despite attempts by Guaido and other opposition figures to encourage those defections, the Venezuelan military remains largely behind Maduro.

    The US embassy in Madrid refused to comment on the arrest of Carvajal, deferring to Spanish authorities. The National Police of Spain confirmed the arrest but there was no official comment on it from the Spanish government.

    SOURCE: AP news agency