in the mid-2000s ordered his top lieutenants to work with Colombian Marxist guerrillas to flood the U.S. with cocaine in his government’s efforts to combat the Bush administration, according to U.S. documents obtained by The Wall Street Journal that shed new light on the leftist regime’s struggle with Washington.
The documents, prepared by federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, outline for the first time the possible role of Mr. Chávez, an icon of the Latin American left who died from cancer in 2013, in drug trafficking. They assert that several leaders who served Chavez and remain in key posts in Venezuela’s regime today wielded cocaine trafficking as a weapon against their ideological adversary, the U.S.
In 2005, Chávez convened a small group of his top officials to discuss plans to ship cocaine to the U.S. with help from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said a participant in the meeting who, at the time, was a justice on Venezuela’s supreme court, according to the papers. The Bush administration was strongly criticizing his governing style then and had publicly approved of a 2002 coup that failed to oust him.
“During the meeting, Chávez urged the group, in substance and in part, to promote his policy objectives, including to combat the United States by ‘flooding’ the country with cocaine,” said an affidavit in the documents written by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent. The former supreme court justice was identified as
who fled to the U.S. in 2012 and has been a witness on drug cases, said a person familiar with his role in the investigations.
The Venezuelan government of President
who was handpicked by Chávez to succeed him, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The documents were filed in a court in Spain by U.S. officials who are seeking the extradition of
a former general who headed Chávez’s military intelligence directorate, on drug trafficking charges. Mr. Carvajal, who was briefly detained in Aruba in 2014 on a U.S. indictment, was arrested in Madrid in April while traveling there on a false passport, officials say.
First reported by El Mundo, a Madrid newspaper, the documents assert that Chávez and other leaders in the government collaborated with high-ranking military and judicial officials to ease the movement of cocaine from Colombia through Venezuela and on to the U.S. The documents don’t lay out if a specific delivery of cocaine ordered by Mr. Chavez made it to U.S. shores, but the prosecutors allege that Venezuelan officials took actions that greatly enabled drug traffickers.
As part of an alliance with the FARC, the affidavit says Venezuela’s government discussed dividing drug profits while providing the rebels with weapons to fight the Colombian government. The American officials characterized the Venezuelan military officers as a gang called the “Cartel of the Suns”—a reference to the insignia used by Venezuelan generals.
“The objectives of the Cartel of the Suns included not only enriching its members but also using cocaine as a weapon against the United States due to the adverse effects of the drug on individual users and the potential for broader societal harm,” said a superseding indictment against Mr. Carvajal, one of the documents sent to the Spanish court.
Former Venezuelan intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal stands during his extradition hearing to the U.S. in Madrid, Spain, on Sept. 12. Mr. Carvajal was arrested in Madrid in April while traveling there on a false passport, officials say.
A longtime Venezuelan prosecutor now in exile in Colombia said in an interview that Venezuela began to emerge as a platform for U.S.-bound cocaine after Chávez broke off relations with the DEA, an assertion made in the American documents filed in Spain. The Colombian cocaine was shipped out from Venezuela via its airports and ports, said Zair Mundaray, the prosecutor. He said politics was a motivating factor for the Venezuelan leadership.
“Chávez was very orthodox from the perspective that everything was on the table in the fight against the enemy,” said Mr. Mundaray, once the No. 2 in the Venezuelan attorney general’s office.
A former senior U.S. official who was shown the documents filed in Spain said it was the first time he had seen American authorities alleging that Chávez’s sponsorship of drug trafficking constituted a formal strategy to debilitate the U.S. “That said, it makes sense for a regime that has long seen itself in an asymmetric war with us,” said the former official.
The affidavit says that coordination between the guerrillas and the Venezuelan government to traffic cocaine was discussed in meetings with Mr. Carvajal that included
a close Chávez ally now considered to be the Maduro regime’s second most powerful man, and
Tareck El Aissami,
also a current top official. At one meeting, Mr. Cabello described sea and land drug trafficking routes through Venezuela, the documents showed. At another, Mr. Carvajal said coordination with the “comrades,” meaning the FARC, was going well.
Mr. Carvajal and Mr. Cabello in 2013 sent off speed boats loaded with what appeared to be cocaine from a beach in western Venezuela, according to another witness in the papers identified as
by a person familiar with the investigation. Mr. Salazar, then part of Mr. Cabello’s security detail, defected to the U.S. in 2015.
Mr. Cabello and Mr. El Aissami, who have both been blacklisted by the U.S. for alleged drug trafficking, have publicly said they are innocent. They didn’t return requests for comment.
The documents outline how one drug shipment involving 5.6 tons of cocaine was carefully planned but ended in disaster in 2006 when a DC-9 ferrying the drugs en route to the U.S. was forced to land in Campeche, Mexico, because of mechanical problems. Police arrested the pilots and seized the cocaine.
At a 2008 meeting at a ranch in which Chávez was meeting with FARC guerrilla commander
the president called Mr. Carvajal by phone and told him to provide weapons to the guerrillas, according to Mr. Salazar, the former bodyguard.
At the meeting, Chávez also told Mr. Marin that funds provided by Petróleos de Venezuela, the country’s state oil company, would pay for uniforms, computers and boats needed by the guerrillas. Mr. Salazar said he also overheard Chávez on the call with Mr. Carvajal say that some of the weapons to be provided to the guerrillas had been used previously be the Venezuelan army while others had been acquired from Russia. Requests for comment at the oil company weren’t returned.
Last month, Mr. Marin, a top negotiator of the peace agreement signed between the guerrillas and the Colombian government in 2016, publicly announced he was again taking up arms against the Colombian government. Shortly before Mr. Marin’s announcement, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had publicly declared that he and another guerrilla commander were “leaders of peace” who would be welcomed in Venezuela.
Write to Juan Forero at Juan.Forero@wsj.com and José de Córdoba at firstname.lastname@example.org
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