With the world being on fire and all, it was easy to miss last week an intriguing piece of news: Hugo Carvajal, the former head of Venezuelan military intelligence, was arrested in Aruba. The U.S. government expected Aruban officials to extradite Carvajal -- wanted in the United States on drug-trafficking charges -- into the custody of American prosecutors.
Then the Venezuelan government launched a full-court press to get its man back. It suspended flights to the Caribbean island and sent two naval vessels suspiciously near Aruba's coast. Caracas insisted they were returning from a naval exercise, but it all smacked of intimidation. So it was perhaps no surprise -- though no less dismaying for U.S. prosecutors -- when Aruba decided to release Carvajal on Sunday, July 27.
His return, hailed as a major victory by the Venezuelan government, was broadcast live on television:
Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan president and heir to Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian revolution, praised the man and extolled the "great" general's human qualities:
The retired general was allowed to return home after the Netherlands, which handles matters of defense and foreign affairs on behalf of its former colony, Aruba, granted Carvajal diplomatic immunity. Although Carvajal was named Venezuela's consul general, he had not been officially accepted in that post, providing the State Department with what it clearly thought was the legal room to request his arrest.
U.S. and Aruban officials now accuse the Venezuelan government of using its military might to strong-arm the island nation.
"We are also disturbed by credible reports that have come to us indicating the Venezuelan government threatened the governments of Aruba, the Netherlands, and others to obtain this result," said Susan Bridenstine, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department. "This is not the way law enforcement matters should be handled."
According to federal indictments against Carvajal that were unsealed in connection with his arrest, the former spy conspired with drug traffickers to ferry cocaine into the United States by the ton. Prosecutors allege that Carvajal was on the payroll of well-known traffickers and that he invested in shipments.
In his capacity as head of military intelligence from 2004 to 2009, Carvajal was also thought to have served as a liaison between Caracas and the FARC rebel group in Colombia, which is deeply involved in that country's drug trade and has been waging a 50-year insurgency against the government. As a confidant of Chávez and a powerful spy in his own right, Carvajal used his power to oversee the drug trade and sanctioned lucrative cocaine shipments.
No wonder the Venezuelan government moved heaven and earth to keep that story from being told in a U.S. court.