While it may seem like a direct affront to Venezuela’s government, the United States’ indictments against two former high-level Venezuela police officials for drug trafficking seems like a more tactical than political maneuver on the part of US authorities.
Judges from the Southern District of Florida quietly unsealed the indictments in late September, charging Pedro Luis Martin Olivares (see indictment here — pdf) and Jesus Alfredo Itriago (see indictment here — pdf) with drug trafficking.
Martin Olivares is the former chief of financial intelligence for Venezuela’s secret police, and Itriago is a former anti-drug official within the investigative police force known as the CICPC, reported the Wall Street Journal.
According to the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, US officials and sources familiar with the case believe Martin Olivares is an important intermediary between drug traffickers and top government officials in Venezuela.
“[Martin Olivares] is the power behind the throne, the one who moves the pieces,” Joaquin Perez, a defense lawyer in Miami who has represented South American drug traffickers, told the newspaper.
Neither indictment offers much detail on the nature of their participation in the drug trade. Both Martin Olivares and Itriago were charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine with the knowledge that it would be smuggled into the United States. Prosecutors also charged Martin Olivares with possession of cocaine while aboard a US-registered airplane, with intent to distribute.
US authorities indicted Martin Olivares in April of this year, while Itriago was charged in January 2013. The two men remain at large, fugitives to the US government, but simply former officials to the Venezuela government.
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While it easy to read everything that happens between the United States and Venezuela through a political lens, it does not appear that the US government’s decision to unseal the indictments was politically motivated.
“The fact that they were unsealed without much fanfare would indicate that it is not an intentional ploy to tweak the Venezuelan government,” David Smilde, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told InSight Crime.
Indeed, it comes as little surprise that US authorities are building cases against top Venezuelan officials for drug trafficking. In May, the Wall Street Journal reported that US prosecutors are investigating high-level government officials, including the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, for their links to the cocaine trade.
The US Treasury has blacklisted several influential former and current Venezuelan officials for their alleged involvement in drug trafficking, and in July 2014, US authorities ordered the arrest of Hugo Carvajal, the former director of Venezuela’s military intelligence. (A judge in Aruba released Carvajal days later, saying he was unlawfully detained since he enjoyed diplomatic immunity.)
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Thus, news of the indictments against Martin Olivares and Itriago is unlikely to have a significant impact on US-Venezuela relations, which have been strained for years. In fact, unsealing the indictments may have primarily been a tactical, rather than political, maneuver.
US authorities “have probably decided that having the names made public would facilitate rather than hinder their arrest,” Smilde said.
Notably, unidentified sources told the Wall Street Journal that Martin Olivares has recently spent time abroad in Panama and Spain, where he narrowly avoided arrest. Unsealing the indictments could provide authorities in these countries with greater incentive to capture the international fugitive.
The move could also be an attempt on the part of US authorities to influence where Martin Olivares and Itriago face trial in the event they are arrested outside of Venezuela. In 2010, Colombia extradited Walid Makled — a top drug trafficker who claimed all of his associates were military generals — to Venezuela, spurning the United States. In February of this year, a Venezuelan court sentenced Makled to just 14 years in prison and absolved him of several crimes.
Meanwhile, the fact that both Martin Olivares and Itriago are former police officials suggests that Venezuela’s military does not have a monopoly among the security forces on high-level drug trafficking. Martin Olivares and Carvajal reportedly worked closely together, indicating some members of the military may have interacted with other state agencies on more than just security operations.
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This inter-agency coordination apparently goes beyond just police-military. One US Department of Justice official has previously said there is “extensive evidence” that Cabello is a top member or even the head of a “cartel” made up of military and government officials thought to be involved in drug trafficking.
This high level of official corruption has facilitated Venezuela’s role as a key drug transit nation: an estimated 200 tons of Colombian cocaine are thought to move through the country each year.
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