An ex-Venezuelan judge who was arrested this summer on drug charges that for the first time linked former officials in the late President Hugo Chávez's administration to Colombian cartels pleaded guilty in Miami federal court on Wednesday.
The former judge and two other defendants still in Venezuela were 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.
Benny Palmeri-Bacchi, 46, who has been held in custody since July, pleaded guilty to conspiring to obstruct justice and launder drug proceeds, along with extortion. Under his plea agreement, prosecutors dropped the first charge of conspiring to import loads of cocaine.
Palmeri-Bacchi is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 6 before U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro.
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He initially pleaded not guilty after he was arrested at Miami International Airport en route to a family vacation at Disney World in Orlando.
The one-time judge, who admitted that he of impeded a major drug trafficker's extradition to Miami, is at the center of a sensitive criminal investigation targeting a former Venezuelan Interpol director, Rodolfo McTurk, as well as a former military intelligence chief and general, Hugo Carvajal Barrios.
Carvajal was arrested in Aruba in July, but then allowed by Dutch authorities to return to Venezuela because of diplomatic immunity — to the dismay of U.S. authorities. Carvajal, whose arrest was condemned by the Venezuelan government, had been appointed to become Venezuela's consul general to the Caribbean island.
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 the late North Valley cartel kingpin Wilber Varela, 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. Ever since, Marin-Zamora has been cooperating with prosecutors and the Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami.
Palmeri-Bacchi, who worked as a judge, prosecutor and attorney in Venezuela, was also charged with extortion in the Miami case. He threatened a man identified as J.C.S. and his family “with force, violence and fear” to obtain money and property from him, according to an indictment. 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 produced evidence showing that Palmeri-Bacchi 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.
Prosecutors are also seeking 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.
In a separate indictment unsealed in July, Carvajal was accused of assisting Colombian kingpins such as 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. It alleges that Carvajal sold 100 kilos of cocaine to a member of Varela's faction in the 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.
Carvajal was a close confidant of the 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.