MADRID – 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.
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.
Steeped in spy craft, he changed phones often and relied on others to deliver food. He breathed fresh air only at night, when he would step onto his apartment’s plant-covered balcony in disguise.
Video released by Spain’s National Police on Friday showed special forces breaking into the apartment, where the fugitive’s presence had gone unnoticed even by those sharing the 12-story building.
The U.S. had offered $10 million for Carvajal's arrest, repeatedly advertising the reward as bait in the hopes that someone from Carvajal's inner circle would betray him.
But it's not immediately clear if somebody snitched. His wife Angélica Flores, who lived in Madrid with the couple’s five children and other relatives, provided little insight.
“I’m prepared for either situation, the good or the bad,” she told the AP when contacted by phone with the news. “It’s up to him and others to give statements. This case will continue and we’ll see how it ends.”
The case against Carvajal in New York centers on a DC-9 jet from Caracas that landed in southern Mexico in 2006 with 5.6 tons of cocaine packed into 128 suitcases. He faces incriminating evidence from phone records, drug ledgers and the testimony of at least 10 witnesses, among them former members of the so-called “Cartel of the Suns” comprised of corrupt Venezuelan military officers deep into the narcotics trade, according to an affidavit accompanying the indictment.
The New York indictment also repeats an accusation that Carvajal provided Colombian rebels with automatic weapons and protection inside Venezuela.
“Carvajal is the key link that can explain the business dealings between Colombian guerrillas, Mexican drug cartels and other criminal organizations in the U.S. and Europe,” said Martin Rodil, a Washington-based security consultant for U.S. law enforcement who has worked on multiple Venezuelan investigations. “He was the hinge between all those groups.”
The former general has scoffed at the allegations. He says his contacts with the FARC — designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. — were authorized by Chávez and limited to securing the release of a kidnapped Venezuelan businessman and paving the way for peace talks with the Colombian government. He also maintains that judicial probes in Venezuela and Mexico never linked him to the cocaine-laden plane and that the aircraft's owner backs his alibi.
The extradition order against Carvajal followed a back-and-forth legal battle in which Spain’s National Court reversed an earlier ruling by a high court magistrate throwing out the U.S. warrant for being politically motivated. In the interim, Carvajal was released and fled when he was tipped off he would be rearrested. He wasn't heard from again except when he said last year that he was going underground to protest what he viewed as political interference in his case.
He resurfaced on social media earlier this month, posting what could be a preview of his eventual defense: a statement accusing former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who was for years the U.S.′ main caretaker in the war on drugs, of “fabricating” evidence against him and the Chávez government even as it was cooperating with U.S. prosecutors to arrest Colombian narcos hiding inside Venezuela
“It’s a lie that will eventually collapse,” Carvajal wrote. “I’ve always trusted that the truth will prevail.”
Goodman reported from Miami.