Feds accuse former high-ranking Chávez officials with protecting drug traffickers

A former Venezuelan judge arrested in South Florida is among three Venezuelans charged in drug-trafficking cases that for the first time link former high-ranking officials in the Chávez administration to Colombian cartel bosses.

07/24/2014 1:38 PM

07/26/2014 6:52 PM

A former Venezuelan judge and his family flew into Miami International Airport with plans for a prepaid, two-week vacation at Disney World.

Benny Palmeri-Bacchi never made it to the Orlando theme park.

He was among three Venezuelans charged in federal drug-trafficking cases that for the first time link former high-ranking officials in the late President Hugo Chávez’s administration to Colombian cartel bosses, prosecutors said Thursday. The ex-officials are accused of accepting bribes in exchange for allowing traffickers to fly cocaine shipments from Venezuela to Mexico and the Caribbean for distribution in the United States.

On Thursday, Palmeri-Bacchi, 46, pleaded not guilty in Miami federal court to providing protection for a convicted Colombian drug trafficker who moved loads of cocaine from Venezuela to the United States.

The one-time judge, accused of impeding the trafficker’s extradition, is at the center of a long-secret criminal investigation targeting a former Venezuelan Interpol director, Rodolfo McTurk, as well as a former military intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal Barrios, who was arrested in Aruba earlier this week.

Whether Carvajal, whose arrest was condemned by the Venezuelan government, ends up in federal court in Miami as did Palmeri-Bacchi remains to be seen. He is Venezuela’s pending consul general to the Caribbean island.

In an indictment unsealed Thursday, Carvajal is accused of assisting Colombian kingpins such as the late Wilber Varela by allowing them to export their cocaine loads from Venezuela, protecting them from being captured, and providing them with information about Venezuelan military and police investigations. In return, Varela paid bribes to the former military intelligence director and other high-ranking military and law enforcement officials.

Carvajal and other unnamed Venezuelan officials are accused of investing in the cartels’ shipments to the United States, the indictment said. In particular, it alleges that Carvajal sold 100 kilos of cocaine to a member of Varela’s faction in the so-called North Valley cartel in Colombia.

Varela, who had moved his cocaine operation from Colombia to Venezuela in 2004 to avoid capture, was killed in 2008 — but the bribery racket between some of Chávez’s top military officials and the cartels continued through 2010, according to the indictment filed under seal in May 2013.

Carvajal is on the U.S. Treasury Department’s blacklist under the “foreign narcotics kingpin sanctions regulations.” He’s one of a handful of Venezuelan military officials on the list.

On Wednesday night, authorities in Aruba detained Carvajal, 54, on allegations of drug trafficking and aiding Colombian guerrillas. Carvajal was held at the request of U.S. authorities who have sought his extradition, the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald have learned.

Prosecutors are expecting that Carvajal will fight his extradition to face drug conspiracy charges in Miami.

Carvajal was a close confidant of late President Chávez, who died in 2013, and led the country’s intelligence apparatus from 2004 to 2009. Earlier this year, President Nicolás Maduro tapped him to be the consul general in Aruba, but reportedly the government of the Netherlands had yet to accept his posting.

On Thursday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said Carvajal had been “ambushed” and “illegally kidnapped” despite his diplomatic status.

In a statement, Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry said it was “activating all of its diplomatic mechanisms to correct this grave violation of international rights” and asked the Netherlands for his immediate release.

“We hope this action does not lead to the deterioration of our current diplomatic, economic, energy and commercial relations,” the Foreign Ministry said.

Palmeri-Bacchi’s defense attorney declined to comment about his client’s case. Attorney Edward Abramson would say only that Palmeri-Bacchi “walked into a bear trap” when he was arrested at Miami International Airport last Friday.

The ex-judge’s wife, brother and others gathered for his arraignment Thursday, but also declined to say anything outside the courtroom. The wife wept openly as the others comforted her.

Palmeri-Bacchi was indicted under seal in December 2013 on charges of conspiring with the former Interpol director, McTurk, who is still in Venezuela, to help move thousands of kilos of cocaine through that country to the United States for a now-convicted Colombian trafficker, Jaime Alberto Marin-Zamora.

Marin-Zamora, a lieutenant in Varela’s North Valley faction, was indicted in 2009 by a Miami federal grand jury. He was extradited the following year, pleaded guilty to a drug-conspiracy charge in 2011 and was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Palmeri-Bacchi, who worked as a judge, prosecutor and attorney in Venezuela, also was charged with money laundering and obstruction of justice conspiracies, along with extortion. He allegedly threatened a man identified as J.C.S. and his family “with force, violence and fear” to obtain money and property from him. J.C.S. was described in the indictment as the owner of a Realty company and real estate school.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Gregorie planned to put on a presentation for the Venezuelan’s bond hearing on Thursday that would have shown that Palmeri-Bacchi allegedly sent threatening emails to J.C.S. with attachments. Those attachments included a video of someone actually being murdered as well as pictures of prisoners being sodomized in a Venezuelan jail.

Magistrate Judge Chris McAliley postponed the bond hearing after the defendant’s attorney temporarily agreed to the prosecutor’s request for detention before trial, based on a risk of flight and danger to the community. No date has been set for the bond hearing.

Prosecutors also are trying to seize $2.5 million from accounts held by Palmeri-Bacchi and McTurk, the ex-Interpol director, at three Miami banks: Wells Fargo, Espirito Santo and Banco Santander International.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Jim Wyss contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia and El Nuevo Herald Staff Writer Antonio Delgado from Miami.

The previous version of this story was accompanied by a photograph that had been digitally altered.

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