The announcement of the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s collaboration with Leamsy Salazar is just the latest case to reveal links between senior Venezuelan security and intelligence officials and narco-trafficking.
If Salazar’s testimony before a New York court is verified, and the United States prosecutes Diosdado Cabello, the Chavista number two and president of the National Assembly could be pinpointed as Venezuela’s top drug kingpin.
Cabello’s immunity as a legislator would stand in the way of an eventual arrest, and the lack of success in similar high-profile accusations against Venezuelan officials suggests little grounds for optimism. The United States’ assistant secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, William Brownfield, has admitted that cartels have been freely infiltrating Venezuela for several years.
Nevertheless, a criminal prosecution against Cabello could help tie up loose ends in several other cases dating back to 2008 where US law enforcement has linked senior Chavistas to international drug trafficking.
Corrupt Cop, Dirty Judge
On December 19, 2013, Florida’s South District court filed seven charges against Rodolfo McTurk Mora, Venezuela’s former Interpol chief, and judge Bennie Palmeri Bacchi. US authorities believe both conspired to smuggle cocaine into US soil with the cooperation of Venezuelan general Hugo Carvajal.
In 2005, the Venezuelan justice system charged McTurk with drug trafficking in Bolívar State and ordered his arrest pending trial. However, McTurk was mysteriously released, and in 2010 he was appointed the country’s head of Interpol, remaining a free man to this day. In April 2014, the Official Gazette reported McTurk’s newest post as director of the national racetrack institute’s liquidation board.
Bacchi, currently in custody in Florida, declared himself guilty of extortion, obstruction of justice and money laundering in November. The former judge admitted that he took bribes from Colombian drug lord Jaime Alberto Marín Zamora in return for blocking his extradition from Venezuela to the United States. Bacchi’s sentence is to be delivered on February 6. Watchdog organization Poderopedia claims that he could face up to to 60 years in jail.
Hugo Carvajal: From Diplomat to Fugitive
US authorities detained Bacchi on July 24, 2014 — the same day the government of Aruba arrested former Chavista military intelligence officer Hugo Carvajal. The Venezuelan government had appointed Carvajal as its consul to the Caribbean island, but Aruba’s government refused his diplomatic accreditation. The authorities in the Dutch territory proceeded to arrest him at the behest of the United States, where Carvajal is wanted for drug trafficking and collaboration with Colombian guerrilla group FARC.
After three days of fierce protests by the administration of President Nicolás Maduro, Aruba gave in and recognized Carvajal’s diplomatic immunity, releasing him after declaring him persona non grata in the entire Kingdom of the Netherlands. The army chief returned to Venezuela, where the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) congress welcomed him with open arms.
In September 2008 the US Treasury further accused Carvajal of supporting Colombian rebel group FARC by ignoring arrest orders and providing the guerrilla with guns and Venezuelan identification. Despite this, former President Hugo Chávez put him at the helm of the National Office Against Organized Crime in 2012, and in April 2013 he went on to lead the Military Counterintelligence Office.
Trujillo Governor’s Friends in FARC
General Henry Rangel Silva, current governor of Trujillo state, was among the accused in 2008, with US authorities seizing all his assets and freezing his bank accounts located in the United States.
In 2007, an FBI investigation tied Rangel to the “suitcase scandal,” in which Argentinean law enforcement arrested Venezuelan Guido Antonini Wilson with US$800.000 in undeclared cash at Buenos Aires airport.
According to the New York Times, in 2009, a letter obtained from the computer of FARC guerrilla leader Iván Márquez mentioned general Rangel Silva and former Chavista minister Ramón Rodríguez Chancín as their suppliers of weapons and fake ID.
The late Chávez defended Rangel Silva against the accusations, and in 2012 made him defense minister. Later that year the general ran successfully for Trujillo State governor. “The Venezuelan people and the rest of the world can be sure of one thing: the revolutionaries will continue the legacy of Hugo Chávez,” Rangel said in November.
Rangel Silva also appears in the list of high-ranking Chavista officials sanctioned by the United States government for human rights violations in Venezuela.
Walid Makled, the Big Fish
When Colombian police captured Venezuelan businessman Walid Makled after an Interpol arrest alert in 2010, the suspicions surrounding the alleged corrupt dealings involving the Venezuelan government grew even stronger. Makled claimed that Hugo Carvajal was among the 40 army officers he used to bribe in order to facilitate his illicit cocaine trade operations.
While he was detained in Colombia, Makled stated that he had “conclusive evidence” implicating Venezuelan army officers and government officials. The kingpin also boasted of having financed one of Hugo Chávez presidential campaigns in exchange for a license to operate Venezuela’s main sea port, Puerto Cabello, from which he allegedly shipped 10 tons of cocaine every month.
E-mails belonging to intelligence firm Statfor released by WikiLeaks later revealed that top Venezuelan army officers pressured then-President Hugo Chávez to block Makled’s extradition to the United States to prevent him from implicating the military in narco-trafficking.
In May 2011, the Venezuelan government successfully negotiated Makled’s extradition to Venezuela. During his trial, in April 2012 the businessman revealed he used to pay Bs.300 million (over US$12 million) every month to the judge Eladio Aponte Aponte, who in turn accused government officials of drug trafficking, and criticized the politicization of the judiciary due to Chavista infiltration.
Makled’s case is still open. He’s charged with illicit traffic of narcotics, money laundering, organized crime and contract killing. His hearings have been delayed repeatedly and no one knows for sure when a definitive sentence will be issued.
Translated by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Laurie Blair.