Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has asked Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to block the extradition to the United States of a Venezuelan armed forces captain alleged to be a key figure in Venezuela's Cartel of the Suns.
Capt. Yazenky Antonio Lamas Rondón, 36, who once worked as the pilot for First Lady Cilia Flores, was arrested last month in Colombia under a request by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which has started extradition procedures.
Lamas Rondón is considered a key player in the cartel, and if he cooperates with U.S. authorities may provide extensive details about the operations of the drug trafficking organization and the participation of senior leaders from the chavista movement.
The Venezuelan president is doing everything possible to keep that from happening, sources close to the case told el Nuevo Herald.
The sources said that Maduro told Santos during a meeting in Havana that he would soon be asking for a favor. The meeting was to sign a ceasefire agreement by Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Maduro did not explain the “favor” until the following week, when Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas and an entourage visited Caracas, the sources added.
“That's where they told a Santos envoy what the favor was. They asked that everything possible be done to make sure Lamas Rondón would not be sent to the United States,” said one of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. investigations indicate that Lamas Rondón played a key role in the operations of the Cartel of the Suns, coordinating the departure of airplanes carrying drugs to Haiti, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. The Suns refers to the insignias worn by Venezuelan army generals.
“He managed and coordinated the departure of cartel airplanes loaded with drugs. He did not pilot the planes but coordinated them, giving pilots the codes so they could fly around the country and appear on radars as commercial flights,” another source close to the case told the newspaper last month.
“He was tightly connected to some of the highest ranking officers in the Venezuelan armed forces, and operated directly with some of the key players in the cartel,” the source added.
El Tiempo newspaper in Bogota has reported that the U.S. request for Lamas Rondón's extradition accuses him of involvement in one shipment of 1,600 kilos of cocaine that took off from the Venezuelan state of Apure and headed to Honduras.
But the Venezuelan captain could have been involved “in more than 100” similar flights carrying drugs for the cartel, the newspaper reported.
“Lamas, according to the Colombia District court, is the ‘aeronautical liaison’ with the narcos who use that country as a platform for sending out drug shipments,” El Tiempo added.
“We filed the Red [capture] Notice with Interpol when we were sure he had left Venezuela and we could capture him in any of the 190 countries” in the Interpol system, the newspaper quoted a source close to the investigation as saying. “Doing that before would have alerted him and he never would have left Venezuela.”
Many of the flights allegedly coordinated by Lamas Rondón left from Apure, on the border with Colombia, and headed for Central America and the Caribbean.
That information coincides with the testimony provided by alleged Venezuelan drug trafficker Walid Makled in an interview with Univision in 2010, when he said that the Cartel of the Suns had sent up to five drug flights per day from Apure.
Makled was also arrested in Colombia and faced both U.S. and Venezuelan extradition requests.
Colombia extradited him to Caracas, under the argument that Venezuela had filed the first extradition request and for the more serious charges of murder, compared to the U.S. charges of drug trafficking.
Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM