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The narco-terrorism trial of a Venezuelan spy chief known as “The Chicken” has laid bare the trafficking sideline of the country’s revolutionary Bolivarian regime, which allegedly sought to “flood” America with cocaine.
After a years-long manhunt, Hugo Carvajal, a former general known in Venezuela as El Pollo because of his long neck, entered a not-guilty plea in a Manhattan court last week on charges relating to two decades of state-backed drug trafficking.
Carvajal, who once ran Venezuela’s military intelligence network, had been extradited from Spain the same week. If convicted of involvement in narco-terrorism, drug trafficking and firearms possession, the 63-year-old would face a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years.
US prosecutors allege Carvajal, one of late president Hugo Chávez’s closest confidants, was between 1999 and 2020 a high-ranking member of a state-linked trafficking ring named “the Cartel of the Suns” after the suns on the epaulettes of some members’ military uniforms.
Carvajal’s alleged crimes were part of a conspiracy to “flood” the US with “tons of potentially deadly drugs”, according to Damian Williams, US attorney for the Southern District of New York. In 2006, Carvajal is alleged to have overseen a 5.6-tonne shipment of cocaine to Mexico on a DC-9 jet that can carry more than 100 people.
Carvajal has repeatedly denied the charges and his lawyer, Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, described them as “palpably incredible” and based on “false, uncorroborated statements by desperate drug traffickers and corrupt former Venezuelan officials”.
Washington has long sought to expose links between drug trafficking and the Bolivarian revolution, the populist oil-funded reform programme begun by Chávez in 1999 and continued by Nicolás Maduro after his mentor’s death from cancer in 2013.
That socialist revolution set oil-rich Venezuela on a path from market-friendly economy to dysfunctional kleptocracy. An economic collapse that began during Chávez’s rule accelerated under Maduro, with 7mn people fleeing abroad. Corruption became rampant, and officials were allowed to enrich themselves through the drug trade, according to US law enforcement.
The US indicted Maduro in 2020, accusing him of having “helped manage, and ultimately, lead the Cartel of the Suns” after Chávez’s death, offering a $15mn reward for information that leads to his arrest or conviction.
Former US law enforcement officials who worked on the investigation say Carvajal could attempt to trade information on Venezuelan officials that have been involved in the drug trade in exchange for more lenient sentencing.
“He could dime out the whole thing,” said one former official. “He brings the knowledge of where secret bank accounts are located.”
Another former official alleged that Carvajal was one of the earliest members of the Cartel of the Suns and likely “has a file” on his former associates that he could offer authorities.
Chávez entrusted Carvajal to run his network of spies, eventually becoming the head of the country’s military intelligence services as well as acting consul to the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba.
After Maduro succeeded Chávez in 2013, Carvajal was kept on; his new boss would go on to call him a “friend” and “soldier of the homeland”. But analysts say he never gained Maduro’s trust. He served as a deputy for the government’s party in the National Assembly.
“Maduro didn’t like him from the outset,” said Mariano de Alba, senior advocacy adviser at the International Crisis Group. “He was very close to Chávez but then started to lose relevance.”
Carvajal later broke with Maduro, supporting the US-backed “interim presidency” of Juan Guaidó and a failed barracks uprising in 2019. He then fled to Madrid, where he was first arrested that year. After disappearing while on bail, Carvajal was recaptured in 2021 and eventually extradited.
Analysts say Carvajal — who before extradition had signalled his intent to co-operate with US authorities — may be of limited use with regard to Venezuela’s current officials.
“While he knows where some of the literal and metaphoric bodies are buried in Venezuela, he’s been out of favour for too long to be particularly useful,” said Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
At his first court appearance last week, Carvajal, dressed in a white shirt and khaki trousers, said nothing beyond one word when asked if he could hear his interpreter through the headset. “Perfectly,” he responded.
“He’s facing an enormous amount of time in prison and the forfeiture of assets, including substitute assets,” said Clay Porter, a former US justice department official at the Arktouros law firm in Washington. “Carvajal may try and strike a deal to avoid spending the rest of his life in prison, but based on the alleged conduct the government may not be interested.”
The prosecution comes at an uncomfortable time for administration of US President Joe Biden, which is trying to persuade Maduro to hold free and fair elections next year in exchange for sanctions relief. That effort has run aground, with Maduro banning the opposition’s frontrunner candidate late last month.
Despite the diplomatic complications around the case, a retired law enforcement official said Carvajal could expose the Bolivarian revolution’s reliance on drug money since its inception. “The Venezuelan criminal state, which Carvajal was central to, is now under the spotlight.”