BOGOTA – Authorities in Aruba announced Thursday that they arrested a close confidant of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who was sent as that country’s consul to the Caribbean island despite being sanctioned by the U.S. government on charges of drug trafficking.
Hugo Carvajal, the former head of military intelligence under Chavez, was arrested at the request of the U.S. prosecutors and is expected to appear in an Aruban court Friday.
Carvajal was one of a number of high-ranking Venezuelan military officials blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury in 2008 for allegedly providing weapons to Marxist rebels in neighbouring Colombia and helping them smuggle cocaine to fund their insurgency. Despite the charges, he remained close to power circles in Venezuela and in January was appointed consul to Aruba by Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro.
Maduro condemned the arrest, calling Carvajal detention a kidnapping that violates international law and the Vienna Convention granting diplomats immunity from arrest.
“Yesterday we witnessed an ambush against a soldier of the fatherland,” Maduro said in a fiery speech at a military ceremony in the western state of Zulia. “We don’t want problems with anyone in the world, but if Venezuela’s dignity is violated, Venezuela will respond with sufficient strength. We won’t let our honour or that of any Venezuelan be sullied by campaigns orchestrated from the empire.”
Venezuela’s foreign ministry urged the Netherlands, which manages foreign affairs for the otherwise autonomously run Aruba, to immediately free Carvajal, warning that commercial and diplomatic ties could be affected.
There was no immediate comment from the Dutch government.
Officials in Aruba said they were initially confused about whether Carvajal had immunity since he holds a diplomatic passport from Venezuela. However, they went ahead with the detention because he had yet to receive his accreditation.
“Immunity is always linked to a function,” prosecutors’ spokeswoman Ann Angela said in a phone interview. “And he does not have any function here in Aruba. He is not the consul general; therefore he has no immunity.”
U.S. prosecutors now have 60 days to formalize their extradition request, Angela said.
The U.S. State Department said it does not comment on extradition matters.
Chavez was an instructor at the military academy in Caracas when Carvajal was a student there in the early 1980s. Like many other cadets from that era, Carvajal later took up arms with Chavez in a failed 1992 coup uprising that catapulted the young tank commander to fame and set the stage for his future rise to power through the ballot box.
Carvajal appears to have been one of Chavez’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. The U.S. government considers the FARC to be Colombia’s biggest drug-trafficking organization and has indicted all of its top leaders, including some of the commanders who met with Carvajal.
A push by Venezuela to secure Carvajal’s release is unlikely to faze authorities in Aruba, 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 kilometres) 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.
Aruba, unlike many of its Caribbean neighbours, has never been a member of Petrocaribe, a Venezuelan initiative to provide subsidized oil to allied nations.
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman reported this story from Bogota, Colombia, and David McFadden reported from Kingston, Jamaica. AP writer Libardo Cardona in Bogota contributed to this report.