Venezuela’s Ex-Spy Chief Rejects Maduro, Accusing Leader’s Inner Circle of Corruption
CARACAS, Venezuela — A former intelligence chief in Venezuela who is one of the government’s most prominent figures turned against President Nicolás Maduro on Thursday, calling him a dictator with a corrupt inner circle that has engaged in drug trafficking and courted the militant group Hezbollah.
In interviews with The New York Times, the former intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal, 58, who is a congressman in the governing Socialist Party, urged the military to break with the president ahead of a showdown with the opposition on Saturday over Mr. Maduro’s blockade of aid shipments on the country’s borders.
“It has been more than enough,” Mr. Carvajal said in a statement, which was also released in a video online on Thursday and addressed to Mr. Maduro. “You have killed hundreds of young people in the streets for trying to claim the rights you stole. This without even counting the dead for lack of medicines and security.”
“To the generals,” he added, “how is it that having the power to allow the entry of international humanitarian aid to our country to save lives, you would decide not to? Would you be so inhuman? So hypnotized?”
The strong words come amid a wave of other defections by government officials, including a top air force official, diplomats, military attachés and members of the national guard. This break with the regime, by a man who once guarded its secrets as intelligence chief, adds a dose of unexpected pressure on the president just three days before the confrontation over aid at the border with Colombia.
Mr. Carvajal’s accusations also added a new twist to the unfolding drama: A willingness to provide evidence that could be used against Mr. Maduro’s government should it fall. Mr. Carvajal also provided a valuable weapon to the opposition, which for years has contended that the president’s inner circle has ties to drug runners and militants.
President Trump on Monday warned Venezuelan military officials to abandon Mr. Maduro by the weekend or “lose everything.” This was an escalation of American support for Juan Guaidó, the leader of the opposition, who claims the presidency and has staked his bid on pushing shipments of humanitarian aid into Venezuela, against Mr. Maduro’s wishes. Many of Mr. Guaidó’s supporters said they are preparing to storm a border bridge to force open the blockade on Saturday.
In his interview, Mr. Carvajal — who retired from the intelligence service in 2012, after having served almost 10 years — offered a rare account of the internal workings of a government in which he said drug trafficking and corruption were commonplace, managed by top figures such as Néstor Reverol, the interior minister; Tareck El Aissami, a minister who served as vice president; and Mr. Maduro himself.
Those who were combating drugs “were the ones trafficking it, too,” he said of Venezuelan officials who face indictments or sanctions in the United States.
Mr. Carvajal is among those accused of drug trafficking by American investigators: He escaped extradition on drug charges in Aruba in 2014 and was sanctioned by the Treasury Department for having aided Colombian guerrilla groups smuggle cocaine.
In the interviews, Mr. Carvajal admitted to dealings in both worlds.
But he said that any dealings with drug traffickers, including a Venezuelan kingpin named Walid Makled, came from his role investigating them as an intelligence chief. He said he had met with members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 2001, but only to engage as a government negotiator in the kidnapping of a Venezuelan businessman, a trip which had been approved both by presidents in both Venezuela and Colombia.
Instead, Mr. Carvajal pointed to other top government officials, including Mr. Reverol, the interior minister, who is under a United States indictment for allegedly assisting drug traffickers and calling off investigations while he was director of the National Antidrugs Office, or O.N.A.
Mr. Carvajal recalled an incident in 2012, when he said he had been investigating a luxurious ranch in Venezuela owned by Mr. Makled, the drug trafficker. Mr. Carvajal said his team had intercepted a shipment of about 400 kilograms of cocaine that arrived at the ranch on a small plane.
After the drugs were confiscated, Mr. Carvajal said, he received an unusual call that said the military had determined that the shipment did not contain drugs after all — which he interpreted as an attempt to return the shipment to Mr. Makled.
Mr. Carvajal said he was able to countermand the decision.
He said Mr. El Aissami and Mr. Reverol were “directly responsible,” accusing the men of taking kickbacks for turning a blind eye to drug trafficking.
Mr. Carvajal also accused Mr. Reverol of having allowed drug-laden planes to land during Mr. Reverol’s watch as head of the antidrug agency. He said that in one case in 2012, he called Mr. Reverol to report seeing a suspicious, low-flying aircraft outside Caracas. Mr. Reverol did nothing, Mr. Carvajal said, and the plane continued.
“I was sure it was a super-shipment of drugs,” Mr. Carvajal said.
In 2017, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against Mr. El Aissami, then vice president, calling him a “prominent Venezuelan drug trafficker.”
Mr. Carvajal said that Mr. El Aissami also had courted Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant organization. He said that when he and Mr. El Aissami traveled to Iran in 2009 as part of a delegation representing President Hugo Chávez, Mr. El Aissami, then the interior minister, had asked to make a stop in Syria, where he had friends and relatives.
Mr. Carvajal said that during the stopover, they met a representative of Hezbollah and a Venezuelan diplomat sympathetic to the militants. Mr. El Aissami proposed a plan in which the militants would come to Venezuela to work with FARC fighters, Mr. Carvajal said.
The Hezbollah operative gave three rifles to Mr. El Aissami, who then gave one to Mr. Carvajal, Mr. Carvajal said. During the interview, he showed the rifle and his passport, which contained entry stamps to Iran and Syria during the dates in question.
Mr. Carvajal said he did not know the identity of the Hezbollah operative, but he identified the diplomat as Ghazi Nasr al-Din, a former chargé d’affaires in the Venezuelan Embassy in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
In 2008, Mr. al-Din was sanctioned by the Treasury Department as a “Hezbollah supporter” who “facilitated the travel of Hezbollah members to and from Venezuela.” He is also wanted by the F.B.I. on similar charges.
Mr. Carvajal said he had taken his objections about the plan to invite Hezbollah members to Venezuela to Mr. Maduro, who was then the foreign minister. But Mr. Maduro, who favored antagonizing the United States, seemed positive about the proposal, Mr. Carvajal said.
Mr. Maduro has denied that his government had any links to Hezbollah.
Mr. Carvajal also said he became entangled in a dispute between the president and a Venezuelan billionaire, Raúl Gorrín, that led to dueling attempts at blackmail and bribery by the men.
After Mr. Maduro was elected president following the death of Mr. Chávez in 2013, Mr. Carvajal said, Mr. Maduro became upset about unfavorable coverage he was receiving on the television network Globovisión, then owned by Mr. Gorrín.
Mr. Maduro, according to Mr. Carvajal, expressed interest in using intelligence files collected by Mr. Carvajal to pressure Mr. Gorrín to change the network’s editorial line. The files included information about bribes from Mr. Gorrín to government officials, Mr. Carvajal said.
Some time later, according to Mr. Carvajal, a representative of Mr. Gorrín offered $10 million to call off the investigation. Mr. Carvajal said he did not accept the bribe.
Globovisión soon changed its editorial line to support Mr. Maduro.
Mr. Gorrín could not be reached for comment: He later disappeared and is wanted in the United States on charges of money laundering and offering bribes to top officials, including Venezuela’s former treasurer, for whom he is accused of buying yachts, homes, jets and champion horses.