Feds charge former high-ranking Chavez aides with protecting drug traffickers
A former Venezuelan judge and his family flew into Miami International Airport with plans for a prepaid, two-week vacation at Disney World.
Benny Palmeri-Bacchi never made it to the Orlando theme park.
He was among three Venezuelans charged in federal drug-trafficking cases that for the first time link former high-ranking officials in the late President Hugo Chávez’s administration to Colombian cartel bosses, prosecutors said Thursday. The ex-officials are accused of accepting bribes in exchange for allowing traffickers to fly cocaine shipments from Venezuela to Mexico and the Caribbean for distribution in the United States.
On Thursday, Palmeri-Bacchi, 46, pleaded not guilty in Miami federal court to providing protection for a convicted Colombian drug trafficker who moved loads of cocaine from Venezuela to the United States.
The one-time judge, accused of impeding the trafficker’s extradition, is at the center of a long-secret criminal investigation targeting a former Venezuelan Interpol director, Rodolfo McTurk, as well as a former military intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal Barrios, who was arrested in Aruba earlier this week.
Whether Carvajal, whose arrest was condemned by the Venezuelan government, ends up in federal court in Miami like Palmeri-Bacchi remains to be seen. He is Venezuela’s pending consul general to the Caribbean island.
In an indictment unsealed Thursday, Carvajal is accused of assisting Colombian kingpins such as the late Wilber Varela by allowing them to export their cocaine loads from Venezuela, protecting them from being captured, and providing them with information about Venezuelan military and police investigations. In return, Varela paid bribes to the former military intelligence director and other high-ranking military and law enforcement officials.
Carvajal and other unnamed Venezuelan officials are accused of investing in the cartels’ shipments to the United States, the indictment said. In particular, it alleges that Carvajal sold 100 kilos of cocaine to a member of Varela’s faction in the so-called North Valley cartel in Colombia.
Varela, who had moved his cocaine operation from Colombia to Venezuela in 2004 to avoid capture, was killed in 2008 — but the bribery racket between some of Chavez’s top military officials and the cartels continued through 2010, according to the indictment filed under seal in May 2013.
Carvajal is on the U.S. Treasury Department’s blacklist under the “foreign narcotics kingpin sanctions regulations.” He’s one of a handful of Venezuelan military officials on the list.
On Wednesday night, authorities in Aruba detained Carvajal, 54, on allegations of drug trafficking and aiding Colombian guerrillas. Carvajal was held at the request of U.S. authorities who have sought his extradition, the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald have learned.
Prosecutors are expecting Carvajal to fight his extradition to face drug conspiracy charges in Miami.
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