Aruba frees Venezuelan wanted on US drug charges

Patricia Clarembaux
A picture released by the Venezuelan Presidential Press Office shows President Nicolas Maduro (R) and retired Major General Hugo Carvajal in Caracas on July 27, 2014
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A picture released by the Venezuelan Presidential Press Office shows President Nicolas Maduro (R) and retired Major General Hugo Carvajal in Caracas on July 27, 2014 (AFP Photo/)

Caracas (AFP) - Aruba on Sunday freed a Venezuelan ex-military intelligence chief wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges, stating that he had diplomatic immunity.

Retired major general Hugo Carvajal, who was arrested Wednesday, flew home and was greeted with a hug by President Nicolas Maduro at a Socialist Party meeting in Caracas.

"We welcome our comrade the major general and thank God, who allowed us to clear up this brewing conflict by diplomatic means," Maduro told party loyalists.

Carvajal, who had been awaiting confirmation as Venezuela's consul in Aruba, has been on a US Treasury blacklist since 2008 for alleged links to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

After Carvajal's arrest, the US Justice Department on Thursday unsealed a May 2013 indictment charging him with protecting drug shipments on behalf of Colombian traffickers.

The indictment also alleged that he was on the payroll of Wilber Varela, a leader of Colombia's North Valley cartel, and others from 2004 to 2010.

Aruba, just 27 kilometers (17 miles) north of the Venezuelan coast, is an autonomous part of the kingdom of the Netherlands.

Aruban officials on Sunday said that Carvajal had diplomatic immunity, but nevertheless declared him persona non grata and said he would be arrested if he returns to any territory of the Netherlands.

- Back in Venezuela -

"It is a very brave decision by Holland to acknowledge diplomatic immunity was violated, and for international law to be restored," Maduro said upon learning of Carvajal's release. "It takes clarity, good will and bravery."

State TV showed Carvajal arriving aboard a private jet at the Simon Bolivar airport near Caracas, where he was welcomed with hugs by First Lady Cilia Flores and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua.

Earlier Jaua said that the Netherlands notified him that Carvajal would be freed based on article 13 of the 1961 Vienna Convention, which applies to consular affairs.

The article allows the head of a consular office to enter a country provisionally to work while he or she is awaiting their official accreditation, Jaua said.

Carvajal, whom Maduro nominated as consul in January, was waiting for the Netherlands to approve his appointment.

"Finally they decided to implement the 1961 Vienna convention," Carvajal's attorney, Chris Lejuez, told broadcaster Telearuba.

"This situation is settled now. We are getting a fair outcome for Venezuela," Venezuela's deputy foreign minister Calixto Ortega told the same network.

Aruba prosecutor Peter Blanken told AFP that when Carvajal was questioned by a judge last week, Aruba authorities consulted the Dutch foreign ministry, which told them Carvajal did not have immunity.

Blanken said the ministry later reversed its decision, saying Carvajal did in fact have immunity. If Aruba had received the correct information on Thursday, Carvajal would not have been held, Blanken said.

Asked why Carvajal was declared persona non grata, his attorney said the Netherlands offered no explanation.

- Carvajal, a Chavez protege -

Carvajal was a long-time trusted supporter of late president Hugo Chavez. A graduate of Venezuela's military academy, he participated in the failed 1992 coup that Chavez, then a mid-ranking officer in the Venezuelan paratroopers, led against president Carlos Andres Perez.

When Chavez took office in 1999, Carvajal headed the office of military intelligence, and later headed the office against organized crime.

The incident is likely to further sour strained US-Venezuelan relations. The two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.