Like any good spy, Hugo Carvajal had a bag full of tricks. Every three months, he moved to a new safe house. When the time came to move to the next one, or he wanted a breath of fresh air, the bald 61-year-old allegedly wore wigs and a fake mustache, and to be extra sure, he even underwent plastic surgery to alter his appearance.
For two years, it worked. Not even a $10 million reward offered by the U.S. State Department was able to bring in the former head of Venezuela’s top intelligence agency, who is wanted on drug trafficking and narcoterrorism charges.
But then, on September 9, his number was up. Carvajal was captured inside a house in Madrid after Spanish police, accompanied by agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, rammed through a fortified door and found him in a back room wielding a knife in a final act of desperation.
Now, Carvajal appears destined to be extradited to the U.S., where he will be forced to decide to either cooperate with the DEA in its ongoing investigation of high-level Venezuelan officials or potentially spend the rest of his life in prison.
The outcome of the case could have a chilling effect on Venezuela, where other regime officials are likely watching closely to see what kind of deal Carvajal might strike as they consider whether to remain loyal to President Nicolás Maduro or to jump ship.
In addition to the drug trafficking charges filed in 2011, Carvajal also faces narcoterrorism charges presented in March 2020 against him and a cadre of top Venezuelan officials, including Maduro, called the Cartel of the Suns, a reference to the sun patch on military uniforms. The group conspired “to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation,” according to prosecutors.
“It'll send signals to other regime officials whether or not they could gain anything from sticking their necks out on behalf of the transition,” said Michael McCarthy, CEO of CaracasWire, a consultancy firm focused on Venezuela, referring to a proposed transition of power that would lead to a new government.
“Obviously, Maduro would prefer that Carvajal stay in hiding or just fall off the map,” he added.
Carvajal rose through the ranks of the Venezuelan army thanks to a friendship with former President Hugo Chávez that began in the early ’80s when the two met at the military academy in the capital Caracas. After Chávez became president in 2002, he appointed Carvajal director of military intelligence.
In 2008, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned Carvajal, accusing him of providing assistance to the guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, including “protecting drug shipments from seizure by Venezuelan anti-narcotics authorities and providing weapons.” But inside Venezuela, Carvajal suffered little from the sanctions.
Unbeknownst to him, however, U.S. prosecutors raised the stakes in 2011 by indicting him under seal on drug trafficking charges. In 2014, a year after Chávez died from cancer and was succeeded by Maduro, Carvajal was appointed as consul to nearby Aruba, a territory of the Netherlands. He was arrested on the island on a U.S. warrant stemming from the indictment. The Dutch government had not yet accepted his diplomatic credentials, but under heavy pressure from Venezuela, they decided to recognize his immunity, leading to his release.
Although Carvajal, who received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Venezuela, was free, it was now clear that he was a wanted man who was safe within Venezuelan borders, but unsure how long that would last.
Come 2019, it suddenly appeared that Maduro could be on his way out, and so could be Carvajal’s protection. Amid a wave of anti-government protests, the head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself president with the support of the U.S. Weeks later, Carvajal turned on Maduro and announced his support for the transitional government.
“Carvajal knew when the Guaidó presidency began that he already had people on his back in the context of the United States seeking his extradition,” said McCarthy.
“I think that Carvajal thought that the only way that he could lower the charges is by going all-in in favor of the transition,” he added.
But despite heavy pressure, Maduro remained in power. Within months of his declaration, Carvajal reappeared in Spain, where he traveled under an assumed name. The U.S. then requested his extradition but was denied by a court that deemed the charges politically motivated. That decision was later overturned.
By then, however, the spymaster had gone underground, successfully evading capture for two years, until the DEA tracked him down again.
Carvajal has vehemently denied all charges, saying in a statement released this May that they are politically motivated lies and that he will continue to fight for justice. His extradition to the U.S. is pending the resolution of an asylum request he previously filed in Spain.