MADRID (AP) — 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” (The Chicken), Carvajal advised Chávez for more than a decade. He later broke with Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, and threw his support behind his U.S. 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 U.S. 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 snuck off to Spain, fearing arrest.
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.
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.
He allegedly arranged the shipment as one of the leaders of the so-called Cartel of the Suns that was accused of flooding the U.S. 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.
In 2020, 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, Gen. Cliver Alcala, who also had broken with Maduro, last month pleaded guilty to lesser charges of assisting the rebel group.
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.
Recaptured in September 2021, the former general continued delaying extradition on numerous appeals that he ultimately lost. He had also applied for political asylum, which Spain rejected.
Goodman reported from Miami. Associated Press writers Joseph Wilson in Barcelona and Regina Garcia Cano in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.