The trial of Walid Makled, a drug kingpin who claims that he worked with Venezuela's political and military elite, has started in a closed courtroom in Caracas, fuelling concerns he may be silenced by the authorities.
The trial of Makled (pictured) and at least eight of his associates began on April 9, with no journalists or members of the public allowed into the courtroom. According to El Universal, only six people other than the legal teams were present on the first day, all of them related to the accused.
The defendants stand accused of crimes relating to murder, drug trafficking and money laundering. One of them, Luis Jose Gonzalez, was sentenced on Monday to 11 years and six months in jail after pleading guilty to drug trafficking. He was linked to 380 tons of cocaine seized by the authorities at Makled's family ranch in November 2008.
Miguel Angel Rodriguez, an anti-Chavez lawmaker, protested against the closed-door status of the trial, saying that it had "started on the wrong foot."
Makled was arrested in the Colombian border city of Cucuta in August 2010, having been on the run since the 2008 raid. After months of diplomatic wrangling, with Caracas and Washington both requesting his extradition, he was sent to Venezuela in May last year.
InSight Crime Analysis
Banning the press from Makled's trial will only increase speculation about the kingpin's ties to Venezuela's security forces and political elite. In a television interview before his extradition last year, Makled claimed that at one point he had five congressmen on his payroll, along with at least 40 high-ranking military officers. One of those named is current Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva. Makled also stated that he has several "compromising" videos linking members of Hugo Chavez's government to drug trafficking.
These accusations may have been inspired, in part, by Makled's wish to avoid extradition to Venezuela, where he is unlikely to get a fair trial. However, he is certainly well-placed to offer insight into the growing drug trade through the country. The chance of his claims being investigated is looking increasingly slim, despite the efforts of those like Rodriguez, who has been pressing Congress for a full investigation into Makled's allegations.