Narco-terror charges await Venezuela’s former spymaster. Will he cooperate?

Former Venezuelan military spymaster Hugo Carvajal Barrios faces U.S. prosecution under a unique provision of the 2006 Patriot Act that treats him as an alleged narco-terrorist.

Spanish judges are expected to hear Carvajal’s extradition case as early as Thursday. He was arrested April 12 by Spanish authorities as he entered under a false name after fleeing Venezuela despite holding a legislative seat there.

U.S. prosecutors in New York filed a sealed indictment in 2011 against Carvajal, 59, for alleged drug trafficking. He had already been placed on a Treasury Department sanctions list in 2008.

The new 16-page superseding indictment gives government prosecutors a stronger hand if they seek cooperation against other top Venezuelan leaders, including President Nicolás Maduro.

The superseding indictment was issued three days after Carvajal’s arrest in Spain and accuses him of supplying sophisticated weapons to a Colombian terror group. It also accuses him of being a member of the notorious Venezuelan Cartel de Los Soles, or Cartel of the Suns.

And that’s where the stronger narco-terror charges come into play.

“The best legal option Carvajal has is to negotiate an agreement with the prosecution. That’s why the government is throwing the whole book at him,” said Félix Jiménez, a former chief inspector for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “He currently has two alternatives, cooperate or spend the rest of his days in jail.”

In a statement sent out via Twitter on Aug. 22, Carvajal suggested that was not in his plans.

“I have no need to negotiate my innocence,” he said.

The U.S. Justice Department has employed narco-terror charges mostly against smaller players in the drug trade, often using them as a club to compel cooperation and a plea agreement.

That happened after the DOJ’s Southern District of New York brought charges against Greek national Ioannis Viglakis, charged with narco-terrorism in 2013. He was arrested in Panama and later pleaded guilty to providing material support to Colombian guerrillas, admitting he tried to sell rocket-propelled grenade launchers to an undercover DEA agent.

Neither the DOJ nor the DEA would comment for this story. Carvajal would likely be the highest former government official to stand trial under a narco-terror charge.

The United States in October 1997 designated the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, leftist rebels known by the Spanish acronym FARC, as a terrorist organization. It preceded al-Qaida’s designation by two years. The Cuban-backed FARC had for decades relied on drug sales to fund its efforts to overthrow the Colombian government.

Extradition documents obtained by the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and their parent, McClatchy, show the case against Carvajal, known by his nickname Pollo (Chicken), leans heavily on testimony from at least 10 witnesses, including a DEA special agent named Ravi Baldeo.

In a 15-page affidavit provided to Spanish authorities, Baldeo describes a meeting of top Venezuelan officials in 2005 at the home of then-President Hugo Chávez. There, according to a witness, top officials discussed ways to “flood” the United States with cocaine.

The meeting, the witness testified, was followed weeks later by another at the home of then-Vice President José Vicente Rangel. And there, Carvajal, who at the time headed military intelligence, described his meetings in Venezuela with FARC leaders.

Other participants in the meetings purportedly included two now-former vice presidents, Diosdado Cabello and Tareck El Aissami.

The witness who described the meetings claims to have been tasked by Hugo Chávez with ensuring that Venezuelan law enforcement did not interfere with the effort to export cocaine to the United States. In that capacity, he alleges he took orders from Carvajal, whom he described as helping orchestrate a 5.6-ton shipment seized in Mexico when the aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing in April 2006.

This screenshot shows the Twitter profile of Hugo Carvajal Barrios, a former head of Venezuelan military intelligence facing extradition from Spain to the United States for alleged narco-terrorism.

The affidavit states that between 2005 and 2010, Carvajal regularly worked with the witness to aid FARC members who faced legal troubles in Venezuela. Under orders from Carvajal, the witness said he “helped engineer the dismissal of charges against FARC members related to murder, narcotics, kidnappings, shootings, and extortion.”

Another witness, described as a Venezuelan military official charged with protecting Chávez, told of a call in mid-2008 to Carvajal from Chávez. During the call, the Venezuelan leader, who died in 2013, referred to Carvajal by his nickname Pollo and told him of arms acquired for the FARC that “had been used previously by the Venezuelan military and others had been obtained new from Russia.”

And that’s where the plot thickens.

A third witness, described as a consultant who worked with paramilitary groups, testified to a May 2009 meeting with Carvajal in which the military intelligence chief said that “the Venezuelan military had provided the FARC with surface-to-air missiles.”

Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, successive U.S administrations have worked to limit the spread of these portable shoulder-fired weapons — called MANPADS — for fear they could be used by terrorists to bring down a passenger aircraft.

A secret U.S. government cable from Feb. 14, 2009, provides more details.

Found in the large cache of State Department documents published by the controversial self-described transparency group WikiLeaks, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to pressure Russia over sales of modern MANPADS to Venezuela.

“We see no indication that Venezuela is prepared to implement adequate physical security and stockpile management practices for such systems consistent with international standards,” Clinton warned in the secret memo.

Citing press reports of Venezuelans receiving MANPAD training in Russia, Clinton told embassy officials to request that Russia suspend the shipment to allow for high-level talks because “Venezuela’s ties to the FARC represent a serious proliferation/diversion risk.”

Her secret memo noted that then-Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon had raised this point with Russia about the risks based on information found on FARC computer hard drives seized by the Colombia government in March 2008. Months later, in September, the Treasury Department put Carvajal on a sanctions list because of his alleged FARC ties. Now out of government, Shannon declined to comment.

Carvajal’s prosecution underscores a complicated intersection of politics and penalty. Since capture, he has used social media to criticize Venezuelan leader Maduro, has said he is OK with extradition and has pledged to work with U.S. authorities. The Trump administration has also dangled the prospect of asylum for top officials who turn on Maduro.

But the Justice Department has a long list of accusations against Carvajal and other military and intelligence leaders. The affidavit and superseding indictment suggest the agency is moving ahead with prosecution.

If Carvajal cooperates, said Jiménez, it could “translate to fewer years behind bars.”

_ Ben Wieder in Washington contributed.
Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall ; Antonio Delgado: 305-376-2180, @DelgadoAM