The rise and fall of former Venezuelan spymaster ‘El Pollo’

MADRID (AP) — The two intelligence agents scoured the sun-kissed faces of holidaymakers at Madrid’s airport until they spotted the 5½-foot bald man. Traveling under a disguised identity, Hugo Chávez’s long-time spy chief and one of the U.S.’s most wanted drug fugitives had just landed in Spain that Monday morning in March.

Nicknamed “El Pollo” (“The Chicken”), retired Maj. Gen. Hugo Carvajal had traveled from the Dominican Republic after breaking ranks with Venezuela’s socialist administration and supporting Juan Guaidó, the U.S.-backed opposition leader. From the Spanish capital he hoped to leverage contacts and knowledge of the Venezuelan deep state to mount a military-backed rebellion against President Nicolás Maduro.

Five months later, the former spymaster is in deep trouble.

To the frustration of many in the opposition who have secretly tried to flip senior members of Venezuela’s military, Carvajal was arrested days before a failed barracks rebellion on April 30. On Thursday, judges in Madrid will consider whether to extradite him to the U.S. to face federal charges of cocaine trafficking.

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Carvajal’s fate is being closely followed by others in the Venezuelan security forces looking to defect. If somebody like the former spy, accused of collaborating with terrorist groups and smuggling several tons shipments of drugs into the U.S., could find redemption, there would be hope for others as well.

The U.S. has promised senior Venezuelan officials they will be rewarded and see sanctions lifted if they turn decisively against Maduro. The Trump administration’s special envoy on Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, even suggested Spain could be a safe retirement destination for Maduro’s allies.

But a major wrinkle is that U.S. prosecutors, operating independently from Washington’s political calculations, have spent years building cases against some of the very same would-be turncoats.

The account of Carvajal’s low-key, cordial reception in Spain was provided to The Associated Press by four officials in Spain and the U.S., as well as a half dozen relatives and associates of Carvajal. They agreed to speak only if granted anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Carvajal insists he is a victim of political persecution despite what U.S. law enforcement describes as an abundance of evidence against him.

In answers to written questions sent to him in a Spanish jail, he speculated that the “narcoterrorism” charges are payback for his proximity to Chávez, the late Venezuelan leader and prominent foe of the U.S. government. With Maduro under pressure, Carvajal says, he wants to share information on state-backed drug trafficking, corruption and terror-related activities that have allegedly proliferated in Venezuela in recent years.

“I’m not looking for any kind of amnesty from anybody, not from the U.S. nor from Venezuela,” Carvajal wrote. “I’m looking for justice.”

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Prosecutors in New York and Miami have a different idea of what justice would mean for Carvajal.

They accuse the former general of being a prominent member of the “Cartel of the Suns,” an alleged drug-smuggling ring involving Venezuela’s military. The group’s name comes from the “sun” insignia that adorn generals’ uniforms in Venezuela.

Carvajal, 59, who narrowly escaped extradition when he was arrested in Aruba in 2014 while serving as Maduro’s consul general to the Dutch Caribbean island, could this time spend the rest of his life behind bars if he is tried and convicted in the U.S.

The case centers on a DC-9 jet from Caracas that landed in southern Mexico in 2006 with 5.6 tons of cocaine packed into 128 suitcases. Carvajal said that judicial probes in Venezuela and Mexico never linked him to the incident and that the alleged plane owner backs his alibi.

But he faces incriminating evidence from phone records, drug ledgers and the testimony of at least 10 witnesses, according to an affidavit from a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent. Those witnesses include members and associates of the “Cartel of the Suns,” former high-ranking Venezuelan officials, according to the affidavit.

The DEA agent also says a former judge attended a 2005 meeting at the Miraflores presidential palace with Chávez, Carvajal and two loyalists who are now key to Maduro’s political survival: socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello and former Vice President Tarek El Aissami. The meeting was meant to be the first of monthly sessions that Chávez allegedly used “to promote his policy objectives, including to combat the United States by flooding the country with cocaine,” reads the affidavit accompanying Carvajal’s extradition request.

In his written answers from prison, the former general scoffed at the allegation. Even if that was Chávez’s intention, he said, “does anyone really think the president publicly plans his misdeeds at a meeting in Miraflores? For God’s sake.”

The U.S. indictment also repeats an accusation that Carvajal provided guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, with weapons and protection inside Venezuela.

The former spy chief says his contacts with the FARC — designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization — were authorized by Chávez and limited to securing the release of a kidnapped Venezuelan businessman and paving the way for peace talks with the Colombian government.

He told AP that accusations against him rely on the “false testimony” of convicts.

“The only intention of the agencies that fabricated this fraud has been to obtain the information they know that I possess,” he wrote.

The DEA declined to comment.

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Are there really any secrets left untold?

Carvajal declined to disclose to AP any purported intelligence on Maduro’s inner circle. He said only that informants have updated him on “criminal” activity by the Maduro government after he retired from the military counter-intelligence agency in 2014.

Any such evidence could more firmly establish alleged links between Venezuelan officials and Colombian rebels as well as Hezbollah and other groups.

The former spy chief recently accused Maduro of facilitating the re-arming of a FARC faction in order to destabilize neighboring Colombia. He has disclosed little to back his claims.

“It’s a serious matter that I will discuss with an officer of the appropriate rank if they give me the opportunity,” he told AP.

Some are skeptical.

A Spanish official who helps shape policy toward Venezuela described Carvajal as a “total bluff” who promised more than he could deliver. The official said that while Spanish officials spoke to Carvajal, they didn’t give him any protection guarantees.

A senior U.S. official said Carvajal, who released a video urging Venezuelan troops to recognize Guaidó as their commander in chief, tried to reach out to the United States with the help of some in Venezuela’s opposition.

But the Trump administration’s hands were tied because of the drug indictments, and Carvajal’s decision to flee to Spain was his alone, the official said. The official also cast doubt on Carvajal’s account of his efforts to promote democracy in Venezuela.

In May, things worked out for another Venezuelan conspirator: Gen. Manuel Cristopher Figuera, head of the SEBIN intelligence police, who U.S. officials said helped to promote a failed military uprising against Maduro. The U.S. lifted sanctions that had been imposed on Figuera for allegedly overseeing human rights violations and persecuting Venezuela’s opposition. He is now in the United States.

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Before Carvajal became an international drug fugitive he was a trusted soldier. As Chávez cemented his “Bolivarian revolution” following his 1998 election victory, he promoted loyalists. They included Carvajal, who had joined an army academy when he was 13 and, at age 31, joined Chávez in a coup attempt.

Chávez tapped Carvajal to head Venezuela’s Military Intelligence Directorate, where he oversaw its transformation into an agency focused on stamping out internal dissent. But he also earned the enmity of the U.S. by supporting Chavez’s decision to sever ties to the DEA, accusing them of spying, and for the alleged murder of an intelligence agent who was secretly working as a double agent for the U.S anti-drug agency.

Carvajal carried a phone with an exclusive line to the president. Sometimes, Chávez asked his driver to get out of the car so he could drive Carvajal around Caracas while the pair talked in private.

In 2013, Chávez died of cancer and Maduro became president. The new leader replaced Carvajal a few months later and appointed him as consul in Aruba, distant from the center of power in Caracas.

On the Dutch Caribbean island, Carvajal made headlines when he was arrested on a U.S. drug warrant. After much maneuvering and diplomatic pressure from Caracas, he was freed and ushered home to a national hero’s welcome.

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Soon after, Carvajal started reconsidering his loyalties.

In 2017, Venezuela was engulfed in turmoil, including mass protests against Maduro as the economy deteriorated. Carvajal, by then a ruling party lawmaker, opposed Maduro’s plans to create a rubber-stamp constitutional assembly rivaling the opposition-controlled congress.

Still, he mostly stayed silent until earlier this year, when Guaidó, head of the congress, laid claim to Venezuela’s presidency and declared Maduro an illegitimate ruler. At the time, Carvajal was the most influential figure from Venezuela’s military establishment to back the gambit, turning to social media to urge the armed forces into action.

Guaidó praised Carvajal, who had planned his escape from his former comrades in the Venezuelan security forces.

He traveled by sea to the Dominican Republic and flew on an Air Europa flight, arriving in Madrid on March 18 on a Venezuelan passport bearing an assumed name, José Mouriño Olsen. The welcoming intelligence officials led him to a black van. Soon, he was reunited with his wife and other relatives.

Days later, Carvajal met at a hotel near the headquarters of Spain’s intelligence agency with the two agents and three other experts on Venezuela.

The meeting was preliminary and barely touched on the Venezuelan situation, someone who was present told AP. But Carvajal promised to furnish valuable information in exchange for legal arrangements allowing him to remain in Spain, said two people familiar with his movements.

Officials at the Spanish intelligence agency declined to comment on the meeting.

Carvajal did not comment on it either. He said he traveled to Spain because he wanted to bring about change in Venezuela, not to seek protection.

But one attendee said Carvajal miscalculated that he would somehow be safe from a U.S. arrest warrant.

For several weeks, he moved around relatively untroubled. Using his disguised identity, he met in another European country with former Venezuelan oil czar Rafael Ramírez, in hiding since breaking with Maduro’s government. Carvajal said he went to “confirm some intelligence matters” at that encounter.

Then, on April 11, a federal prosecutor in New York issued a warrant with specifics about his location. The next day, two Spanish police officers in plainclothes stopped the former general with his wife as they were arriving from a walk to the gated compound of the family’s apartment.

“Prosecutors and the DEA agents simply did what they have been trying to do for years, which is to press me in any way possible to obtain information from me,” the ex-spymaster said, adding that he has no intention of cooperating with U.S. authorities in exchange for a shorter sentence.

With Carvajal’s extradition pending, some Maduro opponents wonder whether it is too late to reverse political damage from his arrest.

“The U.S. has really sent mixed messages,” Ramírez said. “On the one hand the State Department and White House talk about amnesty for generals who switch sides, but then the DEA goes out and arrests someone who was actually working toward regime change. It’s almost as if they want to give Maduro arguments to keep the military loyal.”

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Associated Press writer Aritz Parra reported this story in Madrid and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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