• The San Juan Daily Star

Spanish court agrees to extradite former Venezuela spy chief to US

The former Venezuelan intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal during a hearing last month at the National Court in Madrid.

By Raphael Minder

Spain’s highest criminal court agreed Wednesday to extradite Venezuela’s former intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal, to the United States, where he faces drug trafficking charges, according to a court statement.

The National Court’s decision came after Carvajal was denied asylum in Spain. A court official said he cannot appeal the extradition order and could be sent to the United States at any time.

The ruling came just four days after the extradition to the United States of a key ally of the Venezuelan leader, Nicolás Maduro. Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman known as Maduro’s financial fixer, had been arrested in Cape Verde, an island nation off the coast of West Africa, on U.S. charges of money laundering.

Maduro retaliated for the Saab extradition, calling off talks with the opposition and jailing six executives of the Houston-based company Citgo Petroleum, who have been detained in Venezuela since 2017 and had been under house arrest. The events dealt a blow to the Biden administration’s hopes that it could ease tensions with Venezuela, and that negotiations between Maduro and his opponents would lead to free and fair elections.

Living conditions in Venezuela have deteriorated sharply in recent years, worsened by corruption and a U.S. trade embargo, with poverty, disease and violence now rampant. Human rights investigators say the leftist government has grown increasingly repressive.

Spain has become one of the main safe havens for members of the Venezuelan opposition and defecting members of the Socialist Party who have fled the political and economic turmoil.

Carvajal was arrested in Madrid in September for the second time in less than three years. The police said at the time that he had been living “fully shut-in” at an undisclosed location in Madrid, relying on the help of allies who were not identified.

Carvajal was a prominent figure in the government of Maduro before breaking with him in dramatic fashion. He released a video in February 2019 that accused Maduro of running a corrupt dictatorship whose top officials were engaged in drug trafficking.

Both he and Saab have information that could prove damaging to Maduro and his allies.

Carvajal was first detained on the U.S. extradition request in April 2019 after he fled to Spain. But he was then released from a Spanish prison after a court deemed the extradition request to be too “abstract” to establish his involvement in drug trafficking.

Prosecutors successfully appealed the ruling, but Carvajal went missing, creating a diplomatic headache for Spain and adding another twist in a long cat-and-mouse game.

In a February 2019 interview with The New York Times, Carvajal denied that he was involved in drug trafficking. After his detention in Spain and during his extradition hearing, he and his lawyers claimed that the drug charges had been fabricated, and that the case brought by the United States was politically motivated.

The U.S. Justice Department has said that in April 2006, Carvajal coordinated the transportation of about 6 U.S. tons of cocaine to Mexico from Venezuela, according to charges filed in federal court in New York. If convicted, he would face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life.

Known by the nickname “El Pollo,” or “The Chicken,” Carvajal served for several years as the military intelligence chief under Hugo Chávez, the former leader of Venezuela, and under Maduro. Later, he was a lawmaker in the governing Socialist Party before his abrupt falling-out with Maduro, Chávez’s successor.

Carvajal urged the military to side with Maduro’s main opponent, Juan Guaidó. Guaidó was recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate president by the United States and several other Western governments, but that has not prevented Maduro from holding onto power, even as his country’s economic problems have spiraled in recent years.

Although Carvajal cannot appeal the extradition ruling directly, he could try to remain in Spain by appealing the decision to deny him asylum, said Martín Palladino, a Spanish lawyer who specializes in extradition issues.

Since his arrest last month, Carvajal has also offered to cooperate with an investigation by Spain’s judiciary, claiming to have information that Venezuela helped fund Spain’s leftist Unidas Podemos party, a coalition partner in the government. Earlier this week, a Spanish judge set a hearing for Carvajal on Oct. 27 to testify on the matter.

Unidas Podemos has denied wrongdoing and the party’s spokesman, Pablo Echenique, accused Carvajal of offering to contribute “rubbish from the gutter.”

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