Wigged out: A Venezuelan spymaster’s life on the lam

Photo: Manu Fernández – AP

 

Wigs, a fake moustache, plastic surgery and a new safe house every three months – these are just some of the tools of deception authorities in Spain believe a former Venezuelan spymaster relied on to evade capture on a U.S. warrant for narcoterrorism.

By The Herald – Aritz Parra and Joshua Goodman

Sep 11, 2021

The two-year manhunt for Gen. Hugo Carvajal ended Thursday night when police raided a rundown apartment in a quiet Madrid neighborhood where they found the fugitive in a back room holding a sharp knife in what they described as a last desperate attempt to evade arrest.

Nicknamed “El Pollo” (“The Chicken”), Carvajal has been a thorn in the side of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration since 2014, when he was arrested in Aruba on a U.S. warrant only to go free after President Nicolás Maduro’s government pressured the small Dutch Caribbean island to release him.

He returned to Caracas an anti-imperialist hero but was quickly relegated to a minor role in the ruling socialist party. Then in 2019 he broke with Maduro amid a wave of antigovernment unrest, urging fellow members of the military to switch allegiance to Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader the U.S. had just recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

He resurfaced in Europe months later, greeted at Madrid’s airport by two Spanish intelligence officers after traveling there with a false passport, The Associated Press has previously reported. From there, he had hoped to continue plotting against Maduro.

But he was forced underground a second time after Spain’s National Court in 2019 ruled that he should be extradited to New York to face federal charges that he worked with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to “flood” the U.S. with cocaine.

While on the lam, he was rumored to be in Portugal, then a hideout in the Caribbean. Some Venezuelans – always up for a good conspiracy – believed he was already on U.S. soil spilling secrets about the Venezuelan military’s involvement in drug trafficking, or had returned to Caracas to make amends with the government he had vowed to overthrow. Others speculated he was being protected by Spain’s leftist government, which has strayed from the U.S.? hardline policy seeking to isolate Maduro.

The reality was much simpler: The 61-year-old had never left Madrid. His last hideout was a mere 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the headquarters of the National Police.

“If they actually manage to extradite him this time, it will be a spectacular way to show how justice is winning over diplomacy and intelligence operations,” said Dick Gregorie, who as a federal prosecutor in Miami also indicted Carvajal on drug charges.

Gregorie compared Carvajal to another spymaster he investigated, former Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega. Both men, he said, were capable of cutting deals on all sides while scuttling the pursuit of justice.

“He could’ve been sent here a number of times but for various reasons that are undisclosed he was allowed to go,” said Gregorie, who is now retired. “But he is probably the most knowledgeable defendant with regards to all of the corruption and dirty deeds that went on in Venezuela for a decade.”

Carvajal’s capture appears to have been made possible thanks to intelligence provided by the DEA in June, according to a document published Friday by Spain’s El Mundo newspaper. In the two-page confidential letter, Dustin Harmon, a DEA attache in Madrid, provided police with the name and contact details for a Venezuelan woman he said owned and lived in the apartment where Carvajal was hiding.

Harmon’s letter also alerted Spanish authorities that Carvajal was known to use wigs and other disguises, as well as undergo plastic surgery, to avoid detection. The DEA declined to comment.

Spanish police said a dog was Carvajal’s constant companion in what was otherwise a very lonely, restricted life.

“He changed hideouts every three months, using properties in which he lived cloistered, without going out into the streets, for fear he would be recognized publicly,” police said in a statement.

Read More: The Herald – Wigged out: A Venezuelan spymaster’s life on the lam

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