U.S. charges top former Venezuelan officials with drug trafficking

Indictments unsealed without fanfare against two former high-ranking police figures. U.S. law-enforcement officials consider Mr. Martín to be a major player in Venezuela’s burgeoning drug-trafficking industry.

U.S. judges quietly unsealed indictments charging two former top Venezuelan police officials with drug trafficking late last month, an action likely to fuel further tensions between Washington and the administration of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Judges in the southern district of Florida unsealed indictments against Pedro Luís Martín, a former head of financial intelligence for Venezuela’s secret police, and Jesús Alfredo Itriago, a former antinarcotics official with Venezuela’s investigative police.

U.S. law-enforcement officials consider Mr. Martín to be a major player in Venezuela’s burgeoning drug-trafficking industry. U.S. officials believe he is a key liaison between drug traffickers and top figures in Venezuela’s military, security services and government who protect the trade.

People familiar with the case say U.S. officials consider Mr. Martín the main financial manager who launders drug-trafficking proceeds for top Venezuelan officials.

“Pedro Luís Martín is huge,” says Joaquín Pérez, a Miami-based defense lawyer who has defended many Venezuelan and Colombian drug dealers. “He’s the power behind the throne, the one who moves the pieces.”

According to court documents, Mr. Martín was indicted in April of this year. People familiar with the case say he has been moving between Venezuela, Panama and Spain, where he recently eluded capture. Mr. Itriago, who was indicted in December 2013, is believed to be living in Venezuela.

The indictments against Mr. Martín and Mr. Itriago offer few details of their alleged crimes. Both men are charged with trafficking a “controlled substance,” which officials say is cocaine. The whereabouts of both men were unknown and they couldn’t be reached to comment.

The indictments were unsealed without fanfare, suggesting that the U.S. doesn’t want to draw attention to Venezuela’s flourishing drug trade in the run-up to the country’s crucial legislative elections in December. Mr. Maduro has repeatedly said accusations of drug trafficking by Venezuelan officials are attempts by the U.S. to destabilize his government.

The U.S. investigations are a response to an explosion in the trafficking of Colombian cocaine through its neighbor, Venezuela. Although Venezuela doesn’t produce the coca leaf from which cocaine is made, U.S. officials believe that some 131 tons of cocaine moved through Venezuela in 2013—about half Colombia’s annual estimated production that year, the last for which data is available.

U.S. officials believe many high-ranking Venezuelan military, police and government officials control the multibillion-dollar trade. They say some participate directly in the trade while others charge Colombian and Venezuelan traffickers protection money for moving the drugs through the country.

In a story earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported that prosecutors in New York and Miami, as well as an elite unit from the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, are building drug cases against leading Venezuelan officials including Diosdado Cabello, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, who is widely considered the country’s second most powerful man.

At the time, Mr. Cabello denied any involvement with drug trafficking.

A number of top Venezuelan officials, including Gen. Hugo Carvajal, a former head of military intelligence, and Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, a former defense minister, have been placed on the U.S. Treasury’s list of drug kingpins. Both Gen. Carvajal and Gen. Rangel Silva have denied any involvement with drugs.

The Wall Street Journal |By JOSÉ DE CÓRDOBA

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