By ARITZ PARRA, Associated Press
MADRID (AP) — Venezuela’s former military spy chief told a Spanish court on Thursday that he won’t waive extradition to the United States, claiming that the drug smuggling and other charges against him are politically motivated.
Defense lawyers for retired Maj. Gen. Hugo Carvajal claimed in the court that the U.S. sought the man who for nearly a decade controlled the secrets of Venezuela’s armed forces because that information had the potential to “topple” the current Venezuelan government.
Spanish and U.S. officials have in private cast doubts on Carvajal’s claims to hold information that would be currently relevant, as he retired shortly after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro came to power in 2013. In 2014, the former general was arrested in Aruba on another drug warrant, but authorities in the Dutch Caribbean island rejected extraditing him to the U.S. and sent him back to Caracas.
“The only thing they seek is information. They are not seeking to punish a criminal,” attorney María Dolores Argüelles told a panel of three judges in Spain’s National Court in Madrid, which handles extradition cases.
Prosecutors in New York say Carvajal should face trial for “narcoterrorism.” Investigators with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency say the former general used his high office coordinate the smuggling of around 5.6 tons of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico in 2006. He allegedly also used weapons to achieve his goals and aided and protected Colombian guerrillas, according to unsealed U.S. court documents.
Beginning in 2002, Carvajal worked his way up Venezuela’s military intelligence division, becoming one of the closest aides and confidants of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He was demoted months after Maduro came to power.
When Carvajal publicly threw his support behind Maduro’s opponents earlier this year, he fled to Madrid, where Spanish intelligence officials initially welcomed him. But police arrested the former spy chief in mid-April after the U.S. issued a drug warrant.
Accompanied by relatives, the 59-year-old Carvajal stood in the center of the courtroom Thursday and once again denied any wrongdoing.
“I am here because the United States knew I was coming, I advised the Spanish authorities that I was coming,” he told the judges. “I haven’t been hiding from anyone.”
Carvajal said his contacts with the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces —which the U.S. lists as a terrorist organization— were to escort a FARC leader in and out of Colombia for negotiations in Caracas and Cuba. He said those operations involved heavily armed special forces, were ordered by Chávez and carried out with the knowledge of the Colombian government.
“Of course, I was protecting them, because it was my responsibility that nothing would happen to them,” he said, adding that accusation that he worked with the guerrillas to flood the U.S. with cocaine are “mere baseless speculation.”
His lawyer, Argüelles, said “the only goal to prosecute the former general is that he has enough knowledge to provide internal information of what’s going on in the government of Venezuela.”
She said Carvajal’s intel could “topple the Maduro regime.”
Under Maduro’s leadership, Venezuela is suffering an acute political and economic crisis that has created a humanitarian disaster. Shortages of food, fuel and medicines have driven tens of thousands of Venezuelans to flee the country.
In an effort to sidestep Maduro, Washington and more than 50 countries have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim president, charged with steering Venezuela through a new presidential election. Maduro, however, has refused to step down despite mass protests.
The former spymasters’ surprise detention in April had a chilling effect on Venezuela’s opposition and among some U.S. policymakers, who saw Carvajal’s defection as possible encouragement for other members of the Venezuelan military to abandon Maduro. The Venezuelan military have largely remained loyal to the president.
At Thursday’s hearing, a Spanish prosecutor insisted the extradition request was not politically motivated and said Carvajal is “sought by the U.S., not Venezuela.”
Judges are expected to issue a decision in coming days, but appeals could delay any possible extradition for Carvajal for months.