Ex-Venezuelan spy chief pleads not guilty to charges alleging he flooded US with drugs

Jul 20, 2023, 12:06 PM | Updated: 6:54 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — A former Venezuelan spy chief and longtime adviser to the country’s late leader Hugo Chávez pleaded not guilty Thursday in a New York courtroom to decade-old drug trafficking charges, a day after his extradition from Spain.

Retired Maj. Gen. Hugo Carvajal, 63, agreed during an initial appearance in Manhattan federal court to remain behind bars while his lawyers prepare a bail proposal to present to the judge who will handle his case. Prosecutors want him to remain behind bars.

Carvajal, in a white shirt and beige pants, did not speak during the brief court proceeding except to acknowledge that he understood his rights and that he could hear an interpreter.

“Perfectly,” he said through the interpreter in response to whether he could hear the man through his earphones.

Carvajal was brought to the United States on Wednesday to face narco-terrorism conspiracy, firearms and drug trafficking charges.

Prosecutors allege he used his high office to coordinate the smuggling of approximately 5,600 kilograms (12,300 pounds) of cocaine aboard a private jet from Venezuela to Mexico in 2006. If convicted of all charges, Carvajal would face a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years and as much as life in prison.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement that Carvajal abused his authority as director of Venezuela’s military intelligence agency from 2004 to 2011 “to import poison to the United States” in the form of “tons of potentially deadly drugs.”

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Anne Milgram said in a news release that he “exploited his position for personal gain.”

Outside court, his attorney Zachary Margulis, had plenty to say about his client, who advised Chavez for more than a decade before rejecting Chavez’s handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, and siding instead with his U.S. backed opponents.

Margulis portrayed the U.S. prosecution as unlike any other, saying he’d not been informed of any evidence such as text messages, emails, wiretapped conversations, prison-call recordings, surveillance video or physical evidence linked to his client.

And he said it was unusual in a drug trafficking case that “there is no evidence of unexplained wealth.”

“He is categorically innocent of those charges,” he said. “General Carvajal looks forward to fighting these outrageous charges in court before an unbiased American jury.”

Margulis, standing outside the courthouse beside defense attorney Tess Cohen, said prosecutors had built their case “entirely on false, uncorroborated statements by desperate drug traffickers and corrupt former Venezuelan officials with personal and professional grudges against General Carvajal.”

Carvajal’s extradition to the U.S. was long delayed, most recently through appeals. First arrested in Spain in 2019, he disappeared for two years while on bail after learning that the Spanish National Court was about to rule on his extradition. He was recaptured in September 2021.

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Ex-Venezuelan spy chief pleads not guilty to charges alleging he flooded US with drugs