“Socalj” for Borderland Beat

A former Venezuelan spymaster, close to the country’s late leader Hugo Chávez has been extradited to New York from Spain on Wednesday to face decade-old drug trafficking charges.

Retired Maj. Gen. Hugo Carvajal will enter a not guilty plea at his initial appearance Thursday in Manhattan federal court, his lawyer, Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, told The Associated Press.

Nicknamed “El Pollo”, Carvajal advised Chávez for more than a decade. Carvajal took part in the failed 1992 coup that lifted Maduro’s predecessor and mentor Chavez to political prominence and is considered one of the most powerful figures of the socialist leader’s 1999-2013 rule. He later broke with Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, and threw his support behind his US-backed opponents.

He did so in dramatic fashion: releasing a videotaped speech from an undisclosed location calling on his former cohorts in the military to rebel against their commander in chief a month into mass protests seeking to replace Maduro with lawmaker Juan Guaido, who the US recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader because of his role as head of the democratically elected National Assembly.

In the end, the barracks revolt never materialized, Guaido’s movement faded and Maduro’s grip on power has since only strengthened. Meanwhile, Carvajal fled to Spain, fearing arrest.

Cartel de Los Soles

Prosecutors in New York in 2011 alleged that Carvajal used his high office to coordinate the smuggling of approximately 5,600 kilograms (12,300 pounds) of cocaine aboard a jet from Venezuela to Mexico in 2006.
Late Hugo Chavez with Carvajal.

He allegedly arranged the shipment as one of the leaders of the so-called Cartel of the Suns that was accused of flooding the US with cocaine. The name is a reference to the sun insignias affixed to the uniforms of Venezuelan military officers.

“Carvajal abandoned his responsibility to the people of Venezuela and exploited his position for personal gain,” U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Chief Anne Milgram said in a statement. “DEA and our partners stand united to bring to justice anyone, in any position, who endangers the safety and health of the American people.”

Carvajal also allegedly provided weapons to armed FARC guerrillas in Colombia, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, and helped fund the insurgents by facilitating shipments of large amounts of U.S.-bound cocaine through Venezuela.

On Wednesday, National Assembly President Jorge Rodriguez, a close Maduro ally, called on the U.S. to extradite the 63-year-old former spy chief to Venezuela so he could face multiple criminal charges in his home country as well.

In 2020, US prosecutors added Maduro and several other senior officials and Colombian rebel leaders to the narco-terrorism conspiracy charges, which carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life behind bars. 
One of those co-defendants, General Cliver Alcala, who also had broken with Maduro, last month pleaded guilty to lesser charges of assisting the rebel group.
As head of military counter-intelligence from 2004 to 2011, he was once one of the most powerful men in Venezuela. He was first arrested in 2014 Aruba but released because he held a diplomatic passport.
After turning against Maduro by backing opposition leader Juan Guaidó when the latter declared himself interim president, he fled Venezuela to the Dominican Republic before settling in Spain.
He was arrested by Spanish authorities in 2019 but went into hiding after his extradition to the US was approved.
A back-and-forth legal battle followed Carvajal’s first arrest in Spain in 2019 and delayed the extradition. The process also was halted for nearly two years, after Carvajal vanished while on bail after being tipped off that the Spanish National Court was about to rule on his extradition. He used his background in spy tradecraft to hide from Spanish authorities.
He was recaptured in September 2021, but the former general continued delaying extradition on numerous appeals that he ultimately lost. He had also applied for political asylum, which Spain rejected. He pleaded not guilty in US court this week.