The former head of Venezuela’s military intelligence service has revealed some key details that confirm longstanding links between several officials in the regime of President Nicolás Maduro with organized crime and terrorist groups.
Speaking to The New York Times in a February 21 interview shortly after he endorsed Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela, General Hugo Carvajal Barrios, alias “El Pollo," provided the most important revelations by a former Maduro official to date.
Carvajal, who is under investigation in the United States for drug trafficking links, is distancing himself from Maduro just as the Venezuelan government is undergoing one of its toughest challenges. Maduro has recently refused to let in foreign aid from Colombia and Brazil, and has denied that he will stand down despite growing international pressure and warnings of a potential military strike from Washington.
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Senior Venezuelan officials involved in these revelations include Interior and Justice Minister Néstor Reverol and former Vice President Tareck El Aissami, as well as drug dealer Walid Makled, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the terrorist group Hezbollah, and President Maduro himself.
However, Carvajal did not reveal or elaborate on all the privileged information he may have gained about organized crime efforts entrenched within the Venezuelan state after spending more than a decade at the head of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence.
InSight Crime has reviewed his claims below.
Drug Traffickers Within the Cabinet
“Drug trafficking and corruption were commonplace, managed by top figures such as Néstor Reverol,” said Carvajal, adding that the minister allowed planes carrying drugs to land in Venezuela when he was head of the National Anti-Drug Office (Oficina Nacional Antidrogas – ONA) in 2008.
In December 2015, the United States indicted Reverol on drug trafficking charges. The next day, Maduro named him as minister.
In July 2017, the US further accused Reverol of having drug trafficking links and included him on a list of 13 sanctioned officials. At the time, InSight Crime reported that Reverol was thought to have received bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for helping them ship cocaine to the United States.
Reverol’s involvement in drug trafficking is not new as he (alongwith Carvajal, the man now blaming him) is part of the Cartel of the Suns, a shadowy drug trafficking network run within the ranks of the Venezuelan government and army.
Vice President and Hezbollah 'Ambassador'
Carvajal also accused former Venezuela Vice President Tareck El Aissami of having significant links to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. He said that he accompanied El Aissami on a 2009 trip to Iran, which included a stop in Syria to invite Hezbollah militants to come and work with FARC fighters in Venezuela.
A mere two days after having been named vice president in 2017, the US government sanctioned El Aissami for suspected drugs trafficking links.
At the time, InSight Crime reported that El Aissami allegedly “received payment for the facilitation of drug shipments belonging to Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled.”
He was also linked to coordinating drug shipments for Mexico's Zetas criminal group and providing protection to Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias "El Loco," as well as Venezuelan drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco.
El Aissami, who is currently Venezuela's minister for industries and national production, has also been linked to granting Venezuelan passports to members of terrorist groups in the Middle East.
One-on-One with Walid Makled
Carvajal admitted that he carried out direct transactions with convicted drug trafficker Walid Makled. However, he claimed that he did so "for investigative purposes as head of the General Directorate of Military Intelligence."
In February 2015, Venezuela's most prominent capo was sentenced to 14 years in prison on drug trafficking and money laundering charges. Before and during his capture in Colombia, Makled provided information on the Venezuelan government’s links with international drug trafficking organizations and the FARC rebels. He also said that he had financed one of the late Hugo Chávez's presidential campaigns.
Regarding the presence and criminal activities of the FARC in Venezuela, Carvajal only admitted to having a personal meeting with leaders of the Colombian guerrilla group in order to free a Venezuelan businessman.
Before the FARC’s demobilization, InSight Crime noted that Venezuela was a “vital base of operations” for the FARC as three of its seven blocs had a presence there. For the now-demobilized guerrilla group, the South American nation offered access to some of the region’s main drug trafficking corridors, and also served as a place to “escape pressure from Colombian security forces."
As for the former FARC rebels’ connection with the upper echelons of the Venezuelan government, the so-called "narco nephews" of President Nicolás Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores provided information of that link during their drug trafficking trial in the United States. The most recent showing of the criminal activities of former FARC fighters in Venezuela was a meeting between dissident FARC leaders and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) in Apure state along the border with Colombia.
The former Venezuelan intelligence chief, who has emerged as a whistleblower that could help ignite a political change in Venezuela, turned against businessman Raúl Gorrín to showcase the corruption that has gained strength under the governments of former President Hugo Chávez and President Maduro.
Gorrín is one of the most recent Venezuelans sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for his alleged participation in a corruption network that granted concessions that caused the state $2.4 billion in losses. Former Chávez administration National Treasurer Claudia Díaz Guillén allegedly participated in the scheme along with Alejandro Andrade, who was accused of laundering more than $1 billion and sentenced to 10 years in a US prison.
The Globovisión television station owner is also named in the so-called Operation Money Flight case that uncovered $1.2 billion was embezzled from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and main revenue source, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA). In this case, Maduro could be one of the beneficiaries of those funds.
Additionally, Carvajal assured that Maduro ordered him to blackmail Gorrín, and that he offered him $10 million to ensure the government would not use evidence about the businessman’s alleged criminal activities.
But Carvajal is not just an exceptional witness to organized crime in Venezuela. He is also considered to be part of the Cartel of the Suns and faces at least two trials in the United States for his alleged links with drug traffickers and guerrillas. It remains to be seen how these criminal proceedings will end up after he left the Maduro regime and expressed his willingness to cooperate with a new government in Venezuela.