September 13, 2021 | Policy Brief

Corrupt Venezuelan Officials Face Impending Extradition to United States

September 13, 2021 | Policy Brief

Corrupt Venezuelan Officials Face Impending Extradition to United States

The constitutional court of the African island nation of Cape Verde last week authorized the extradition of Colombian businessman Alex Saab to the United States, while Spanish police arrested former Venezuelan general Hugo Carvajal, whom a Spanish court cleared for extradition to the United States last year. Their cases could further expose the Venezuelan regime’s corrupt and criminal nature as well as its links to Iran and Hezbollah, especially if the defendants cooperate with U.S. authorities.

A U.S. federal grand jury indicted Saab on money laundering charges in 2019. The money allegedly laundered came from an elaborate bribery scheme involving Venezuelan imports and exports of basic commodities as well as privileged access to foreign currency at a favorable government-fixed rate. Carvajal faces two pending U.S. indictments for drug trafficking (which also target other Venezuelan regime officials, including President Nicolás Maduro) while he served as a senior military commander during the presidency of Hugo Chavez.

Both Saab and Carvajal are regime insiders and have intimate knowledge of its shady dealings. Carvajal was head of military intelligence between 2004 and 2008 and leveraged his position to protect a drug lord, getting involved in the drug trade in the process. But Carvajal’s position also gave him critical access to and knowledge of one of the most strategic relationships Venezuela developed in the Chavez era — the Caracas-Tehran axis.

It was during Carvajal’s tenure that direct flights — nicknamed “Aeroterror” for their cargo of drugs, weapons, money, and regime officials — were established between the two countries’ capitals. A former U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency official involved in the investigation of Carvajal said he was “the main man between Venezuela and Iran, the Quds force, Hezbollah and the cocaine trafficking.”

Local authorities eventually arrested Carvajal in Aruba in 2013, but he successfully fought extradition to the United States at a time when the Obama administration, amid nuclear negotiations with Iran, chose to reduce pressure on Tehran’s allies and proxies in Latin America. Carvajal returned to Caracas but eventually turned against Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, and escaped to Spain.

In June 2020, local authorities arrested Saab in Cape Verde as his private jet made a refueling stop en route from Caracas to Tehran. According to his attorneys and official Iranian sources, Saab was traveling there on behalf of Maduro’s regime. Media reports allege that Saab was at the center of a gold-for-gasoline scheme that Tehran and Caracas negotiated to keep Venezuela’s beleaguered refining sector afloat. The gold Venezuela ships to Iran has given Tehran critical access to hard currency as the Islamist regime fights sanctions. In addition, Iran’s appetite for gold has facilitated illegal mining in Venezuela, causing devastating, long-term damage to the environment.

Carvajal’s and Saab’s extradition to the United States is welcome news. Now it is up to the Department of Justice and its prosecutors and attorneys to publicly expose the secrets these two men hold, including about the Maduro regime’s dirty dealings with drug lords and terror sponsors.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) and Iran Program. For more analysis from Emanuele, CEFP, and the Iran Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Emanuele on Twitter @eottolenghi. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP and @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran in Latin America Iran-backed Terrorism Sanctions and Illicit Finance