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Spain at Odds With US on Venezuela’s Former Spy Chief

FILE - Retired Maj. Gen. Hugo Carvajal speaks during an extradition hearing at the National Court in Madrid, Spain, Sept. 12, 2019.

For weeks, Spain has rejected repeated U.S. requests for the extradition of former Venezuelan spy chief Hugo Carvajal, wanted in the United States on drug trafficking and narco-terrorism charges.

Now, the reasons for Madrid's refusal are emerging: he is cooperating in Spain's efforts to mediate Venezuela's drawn out political crisis. Spanish court documents say Carvajal was operating under "directions and orders from the Presidency of Venezuela," and analysts say Spain's protection of him may be influenced by his importance as an intelligence asset to the Spanish Foreign Intelligence Service, CNI.

The weight of the charges levied by the United States is hefty. The indictment, sent to Voice of America by the Department of Justice, alleges that Carvajal “worked with terrorists and other drug traffickers to dispatch thousands of kilograms of cocaine” to the United States. U.S. Justice department officials say that to accomplish this, he worked with the leadership of the militant Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, during his near decade-long tenure as head of Venezuela’s powerful military counterintelligence service, DGCIM.

Carvajal and his alleged shady dealings have long been on the U.S. radar. In 2008, the United States Department of the Treasury accused Carvajal of assisting the FARC in protecting Colombia’s Arauca Department, a region known as a center of cocaine production, and providing the FARC with official Venezuelan government identification.

FARC used profits from its drug trafficking networks to fund its decades-long insurgency against the Colombian government. The United States designated the FARC as a terrorist group in 1997.

The Department of Justice further alleged that Carvajal was a member of the Cartel De Los Soles. According to the indictment, the cartel is a group of high-ranking Venuezelan officials who not only cooperate with the drug traffickers, but also provide heavily armed security, military grade weapons, and intelligence to protect some of these drug shipments.

FILE - Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, right, speaks next to retired General Hugo Carvajal as they attend the Socialist party congress in Caracas, July 27, 2014.
FILE - Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, right, speaks next to retired General Hugo Carvajal as they attend the Socialist party congress in Caracas, July 27, 2014.

After serving under the Nicolas Maduro and Hugo Chavez Venezuelan governments for nearly two decades, Carvajal defected in February. In a direct rebuke to Maduro, he filmed a video expressing support for Juan Guaido as interim president before fleeing the country in dramatic fashion.

Carvajal secured a boat for a night trip to the Dominican Republic, evading the Venezuelan military before boarding a direct flight to Madrid. According to testimony, Spanish intelligence agents escorted Carvajal from the plane and into a four wheel drive vehicle, bypassing immigration and customs inspections. The escort ended at a luxury apartment, rented by his son, where Carvajal resided until his arrest on an Interpol warrant some weeks later.

Carvajal’s VIP treatment by Spanish intelligence officials indicates that he is benefiting from his previous cooperation with the Spanish government, say analysts. Court records do not specify how long Carvajal has been in service to the CNI, but his relationship precedes his arrival in Spain. The records show that he collaborated in botched uprisings and negotiations to try and ease current Venezuelan president Maduro out of power.

The Spanish continue to see Carvajal as valuable despite his break with the Maduro government. As a member of the Cartel de los Soles, Carvajal was privy to highly sensitive information on the Venezuelan government’s involvement with drug trafficking. Carvajal claims to have specific information on the group’s money laundering operations, including those of the group’s top officials. What he knows could prove important, as the US Department of Justice believes officials as high in the government as Vice President Tareck El Aissami are involved.

Carvajal’s claim on information, however, may be just that. It is unclear how involved he was with the group’s activities after his tenure as intelligence chief ended, and the information could be too dated to prove useful.

Carvajal has escaped U.S. warrants before. In 2011, the Netherlands refused to turn over Carvajal to American authorities after apprehending him in Aruba. The Netherlands freed Carvajal after accepting Venezuela's claim that the general enjoyed diplomatic immunity as their consul-general appointee for the island.

Spain, and the European Union, appear ready to again frustrate any further U.S. efforts to extradite Carvajal. The Spanish government maintains a strong interest in its former colony, with 200,000 dual nationals residing there. Madrid is in the lead role for the EU in mediating the current crisis in Venezuela, and these efforts are taking precedence over U.S. efforts to prosecute former members of the Maduro government.