Venezuela official seeks immunity in Aruba ruling

Associated Press

ORANJESTAD, Aruba (AP) — A judge in Aruba was expected to rule Friday on whether the highest-ranking Venezuelan official ever arrested on a U.S. warrant will remain behind bars pending an extradition request on drug charges.

Hugo Carvajal, a former head of Venezuelan military intelligence and close confidant of the late president Hugo Chavez, was arrested Wednesday upon arriving at Aruba's airport. U.S. authorities allege he's one of several high-ranking Venezuelan military and law enforcement officials who provided a haven to major drug traffickers from neighboring Colombia and helped them export large quantities of U.S.-bound cocaine through Venezuela.

Carvajal's surprise arrest is casting a spotlight on what's known in Venezuela as the "Cartel of the Suns," a reference to rogue, high-ranking military officers believed to have grown rich from drug-running. Top Venezuelan officers wear sun insignia on their uniforms.

Together with the unsealing Thursday of a drug indictment against two other Venezuelan officials, Carvajal's arrest is likely to ratchet up tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela's socialist government, which frequently accuses Washington of conspiring against it and using the drug war to exert pressure on Latin America.

"Carvajal's only option to avoid going to jail for a long, long time is going to be to cooperate, and that is going to be devastating for a lot of senior Venezuelan officials," said Frank Holder, a Miami-based expert on narcotics trafficking who is chairman for Latin America of FTI Consulting, a business advisory firm.

President Nicolas Maduro has already threatened to retaliate against Aruba, just 15 miles off Venezuela's coast, unless Carvajal is freed. The president likened Carvajal's arrest to an "ambush" and "kidnapping" that violates international law because he had been appointed the country's consul to the Caribbean island. Prosecutors in Aruba say that while Carvajal was carrying a diplomatic passport he isn't entitled to immunity because he was not yet accredited by the Netherlands, which runs foreign affairs for its former colony.

"We won't let our honor or that of any Venezuelan be sullied by campaigns orchestrated from the empire," Maduro said in a speech Thursday night.

On Friday afternoon, judge Yvonne van Wersch emerged from the hearing to announce that she would take several hours to decide whether Carvajal had immunity.

"I want to make my own decision," she said.

Carvajal, who earned Chavez's trust as a military cadet in the early 1980s, has long been a target of U.S. law enforcement.

In 2008, he was blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury along with two other senior military officials for allegedly providing weapons and fake Venezuelan identity papers to Marxist rebels in Colombia so they could travel easily across the border. The U.S. has classified the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as a terrorist organization and has indicted its top leadership on narcotics charges.

While Chavez always denied that officials in his government were aiding the FARC, material retrieved from a computer belonging to a senior rebel commander and seized by Colombian forces in a 2008 air raid seemed to place Carvajal front and center in what appears to have been a fluid relationship between the rebels and Venezuela's military.

In one communication from January 2007, the rebel leader known by his alias Ivan Marquez recounts for fellow commanders how he met with Carvajal and another army general and was promised delivery of 20 "very powerful bazookas."

The indictment against Carvajal doesn't discuss ties to the FARC. Instead, it focuses on payments he and other senior military officials allegedly received from Wilber Varela, one of Colombia's biggest kingpins before his 2008 murder in Venezuela.

Carvajal's attorney Chris Lejuez told The Associated Press on Friday that his client denies all charges against him and will seek diplomatic immunity from extradition. Even if freed, a final ruling on the U.S. extradition request could take several days.

Carvajal was being held in the central town of Santa Cruz in Aruba. Heavily armed officers were posted outside the police station where Friday's hearing will take place, due to security concerns. A reporter noted what appeared to be a sniper on the roof.

Carvajal's arrest follows the unsealing in southern Florida this week of an indictment against two other Venezuelan officials for allegedly working to protect another Colombian drug trafficker.

According to a criminal complaint, police officer Rodolfo McTurk was serving as the director of Interpol in Venezuela when he confronted an unnamed trafficker arrested in February 2009. After negotiations, the trafficker allegedly agreed to pay McTurk $400,000 in cash immediately and $75,000 a month to be released and allowed to continue his activities.

Three traffickers told a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that the operations could not have continued without McTurk's help.

Each month, McTurk allegedly went to the home of the trafficker and received $75,000 in cash, once demanding payment in the form of armor-plated SUVs.

The Colombian trafficker was later arrested again and extradited to the U.S.

McTurk is believed to be residing in Venezuela. But his co-defendant, Benny Palmeri-Bacchi, was arrested last week trying to enter the U.S. with his wife and 5-year-old son for a two-week vacation at Disney World, his attorney, Edward Abramson, told The Associated Press. A former judge and attorney, Palmeri-Bacchi pleaded not guilty at a Thursday hearing. His attorney declined further comment on the allegations against his client.

A spokeswoman for the Miami U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.

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Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman reported this story from Bogota, Colombia, and Dilma Arends Geerman from Oranjestad, Aruba. AP writers Christine Armario in Miami, Hannah Dreier in Caracas and Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico contributed to this report.

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