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Three former high-ranking officials in the late President Hugo Chávez’s administration in Venezuela have been charged in the last 48 hours as part of a long-secret criminal investigation by federal U.S. officials.
It is the first time high-ranking Venezuelan officials in the Chávez administration are linked to a case involving Colombian drug dealers.
Among those arrested are Hugo Carvajal, who was Chávez’s close confidant and head of the country’s military intelligence from 2004 to 2009. Carvajal was arrested in Aruba at the request of U.S. prosecutors and is expected to appear in an Aruban court Friday.
Meanwhile, in Miami, former judge Benny Palmeri-Bacchi was arrested on his way to Disney World for a two-week vacation with his family. According to The Miami Herald, Palmeri-Bacchi pleaded not guilty to providing protection for a convicted Colombian drug trafficker.
The third former official charged in the case is Rodolfo McTurk, a former director of Interpol in Venezuela, who is believed to be still in his country. According to the May 2013 indictment unsealed Thursday, McTurk and Carvajal assisted Colombian kingpins in smuggling cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico and the Caribbean between 2004 and 2008, by bribing high-ranking military and law enforcement officials. The drugs were eventually shipped to the United States, authorities said.
Carvajal appears to have been one of Chávez's main envoys to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, frequently meeting in secret with its top commanders in Venezuelan territory, according to emails found on the computer of a rebel leader killed in a 2008 air raid.
Despite the charges, he remains a part of the Venezuelan power circles and in January was appointed consul to Aruba.
Maduro condemned the arrest, calling Carvajal detention a kidnapping that violates international law and the Vienna Convention granting diplomats immunity from arrest.
"[He] has been ambushed... As head of state I put my hand in the fire for Major General Carvajal and I will defend him with all the possibilities and strength of the Venezuelan state ... We will not allow Venezuela's honor to be stained," Nicolas Maduro said in a televised speech Thursday night.
Former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Roger F. Noriega, told Fox News Latino that Carvajal will finally face justice.
“He [General Carvajal] will end up facing the law in New York, and telling his tales to all,” he said.
A push by Venezuela to secure Carvajal's release is unlikely to faze authorities in Aruba, according to experts said Michael Sharpe, an assistant professor at New York's York College who specializes in international relations and has published on the Dutch Caribbean.
Although Aruba is just 15 miles 24 kilometers off Venezuela's coast, it has more ties to Washington than Caracas.
"Despite Aruba at one time being the location of one of the largest oil refineries in the world refining Venezuelan oil, this is no longer the case. Since the closing of the oil refineries in the 1980s, Aruba's No. 1 source of revenue has been tourism and thus it has far more extensive ties to the U.S. economically than it does to Venezuela," Sharpe said.
Includes reporting by Ninoska Marcano and The Associated Press.