Feds widen probe of drug smuggling allegations against Venezuelan leaders

The investigation is focusing on National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello and other high-ranking Venezuelan officials.
The investigation is focusing on National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello and other high-ranking Venezuelan officials. AP FILE

Federal authorities are taking aim at the second-most powerful Venezuelan government official in a widening U.S. investigation into allegations that he pocketed millions of dollars from drug profits while providing a safe haven for Colombian traffickers to ship loads of cocaine through the country to the United States.

The investigation, run by a special unit of Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Washington and prosecutors in Miami and New York, is focusing on National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello and other high-ranking Venezuelan officials. They are suspected of not only accepting cash bribes from Colombian drug lords in return for allowing them to use Venezuela as a trans-shipment base, but also of participating in cocaine-smuggling operations, according to U.S. law enforcement sources familiar with the probe.

Federal authorities say that Cabello and other officials in the Venezuelan government and military have turned the country into a “narcostate,” a troubling trend that escalated over the past decade as the U.S. government exerted intense pressure on the epicenter of South America’s drug trade, Colombia. U.S. authorities say cartel kingpins shifted the distribution network of Colombian-produced cocaine to their neighbor, Venezuela, with the assistance of pliable senior officials in the administration of the country’s late president, Hugo Chávez.

Reports of the expanding investigation have been mainly reported in the Venezuelan news media, along with a recent reference to the probe in el Nuevo Herald. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal confirmed the federal investigation in a lengthy story published online.

DEA special agent Rusty Payne, based in Washington, declined to comment Tuesday. The U.S. attorney’s office in Miami also declined.

Cabello, who essentially acts as the president of Venezuela’s congress, has vehemently denied the drug-trafficking allegations — sparking a fiery confrontation with the news media in his country. He has sued nearly two-dozen journalists and executives from three Venezuelan news organizations for publishing stories about the allegations earlier this year and has also obtained a court order banning them from leaving the country.

“They accuse me of being a drug trafficker without a single piece of evidence and now I’m the bad guy,” Cabello said in a recent appearance on state television. “I feel offended, and none of them even said they’re sorry.”

Miguel Enrique Otero, publisher of Venezuela’s leading newspaper, El Nacional, struck back on Tuesday, saying he feels vindicated with the American news coverage confirming the U.S. investigation linking senior Venezuelan officials to drug traffickers.

“It’s a big fight because we are trying to defend democracy, freedom of speech,” Otero said in a radio interview Tuesday in Miami with WLRN, the Herald’s news partner. “And we don’t have many weapons to fight against the absolute power that these people have.”

Hints of the widening probe surfaced almost a year ago when U.S. authorities sought to arrest former Venezuelan military intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal Barrios, in Aruba. Carvajal, suspected of collaborating with Colombian drug traffickers, was detained in Aruba last July but was not turned over to DEA agents for prosecution in Miami and New York after Venezuelan officials pressured the tiny Caribbean island to release him. U.S. investigators, who strategically must rely on targeted Venezuelan officials to leave the country to catch them, expressed outrage over Carvajal’s return to Venezuela.

Traditionally, Venezuelan officials, including Chávez and his successor as president, Nicolás Maduro, have strongly denied the U.S. allegations of the government’s involvement in drug-trafficking as nothing more than a concerted effort to malign the South American country.

According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. authorities have built the case against Cabello and other Venezuelan officials with the assistance of convicted cocaine traffickers in Miami and New York, informants who were once close to those top officials and defectors from the Venezuelan military. As they seek to reduce their sentences, they historically have turned over insider information of payoffs to Venezuelan government and military leaders, including compensation in the form of cash bribes and direct roles in drug deals.

Among them: Cabello’s onetime bodyguard, Venezuelan naval captain Leamsy Salazar. In January, Salazar defected and met in Washington with agents in the DEA’s Special Operations Division, which coordinates major drug-trafficking investigations in hot spots around the world. According to the Journal, Salazar disclosed that he headed Cabello’s security detail and witnessed him supervising the launch of a large shipment of cocaine in Venezuela.

Cabello, in turn, has attacked the messenger, saying Salazar was not his security chief. He called him an “infiltrator” with no proof of his involvement in drug trafficking, according to the Journal.

Cabello, 52, is a former army lieutenant who became close to Chávez when they were in the military academy and played on the same baseball team, the Journal reported. When Chávez launched an unsuccessful coup in 1992, Cabello led the assault on the presidential palace in downtown Caracas. He still exerts tremendous influence over the military.

Cabello has also been minister of public works and housing, which gave him control of the airports and ports, as well as minister of the interior and vice president.

The Journal, citing anonymous sources familiar with the U.S. probe, reported that among other Venezuelan officials suspected of drug trafficking are: Tarek El Aissami, a former interior minister and current governor of Venezuela’s Aragua state; Nestor Reverol, the head of the National Guard; Jose David Cabello, the National Assembly president’s brother, who heads the country’s tax collection agency; and Luis Motta Dominguez, a National Guard general in charge of central Venezuela.

Carvajal, Venezuela’s former military intelligence director, was accused in an indictment unveiled last year of assisting Colombian kingpins by allowing them to export multi-kilo shipments of cocaine by plane or boat from Venezuela through the Caribbean and Mexico to the United States. Carvajal was also accused of protecting traffickers from being captured and providing them with information about Venezuelan military and police investigations.

In return, Colombian kingpin Wilber Varela paid bribes to Carvajal and other high-ranking military and law enforcement officials, according to the indictment.

In addition, at the time of Carvajal’s temporary detention in Aruba, a former Venezuelan judge was arrested at Miami International Airport in connection with the U.S. investigation.

Benny Palmeri-Bacchi was charged in a drug-trafficking case that for the first time linked former officials in Chávez's administration to Colombian cartel bosses. Palmeri-Bacchi pleaded guilty last year in Miami federal court to accepting bribes in return for providing protection for a Colombian trafficker in Varela’s organization, Jaime Alberto Marin-Zamora. He was later extradited to Miami and pleaded guilty in 2011.

The one-time judge was in the middle of a long-secret investigation that also targeted former Venezuelan Interpol director, Rodolfo McTurk. Like Carvajal, McTurk is still in Venezuela and wanted on money laundering and drug trafficking charges in Miami.

WLRN staff reporter Tim Padgett contributed to this story.

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