Top Venezuela official accused in drug case averts U.S. extradition, heads back home

Hugo Carvajal, a top Venezuelan official and former general who was detained in Aruba last week on U.S. drug charges, has successfully fought off extradition to the United States, government officials said.

Venezuela’s government announced that Carvajal had been freed and was flying to Caracas with Deputy Foreign Minister Calixto Ortega.

A former director of Venezuela’s military intelligence, Carvajal was detained in Aruba at the request of U.S. authorities. He was slated to be Venezuela’s consul general to Aruba, which is part of the Netherlands, but his post had not been ratified, putting his diplomatic status in doubt.

According to a U.S. indictment unsealed last week, Carvajal is accused of helping Colombia’s North Valley Cartel, including drug don Wílber “Jabón” Valera, who moved his trafficking empire to Venezuela in 2004 and was killed there in 2008. In exchange for bribes, Carvajal and others provided information about military and police investigations that helped Varela export cocaine to the United States, according to the indictment. The document also alleges that Carvajal was responsible for selling hundreds of kilograms of cocaine to factions of the North Valley Cartel.

His detention was seen as a serious blow to the Venezuelan administration. Many believe that Carvajal, a longtime confidant of late President Hugo Chávez, has information that would be damaging to the government. Venezuela’s military has long been suspected of being involved in the drug trade, and a handful of military officials are on the U.S. Treasury Department’s drug kingpin blacklist.

Carvajal also was suspected of harboring and aiding Colombian guerrillas in Venezuela.

At a hastily called news conference in Aruba’s capital, the island’s justice minister said Carvajal was being let go because Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans decided Carvajal did have immunity, but also declared him “persona non grata” — a term used by governments to remove foreign diplomats.

“The fact is that Mr. Carvajal was granted diplomatic immunity, but he is also considered persona non grata,” Dowers told reporters at the news conference in Oranjestad that was streamed live on the Internet.

This report contains information from the Associated Press.