WASHINGTON – A former Venezuelan Supreme Court justice whose flight to the United States has enraged President Hugo Chavez's government is talking to federal law enforcement agents, U.S. officials said Wednesday, providing intelligence that could embarrass Chavez's anti-U.S. government and lead to tougher U.S. action against purported drug trafficking networks.
The former magistrate, Eladio Aponte, has been in the U.S. for almost a month, arriving from Central America after accusing Venezuelan officials of drug links and corruption and claiming he had evidence to back his allegations. Venezuela's National Assembly expelled him from the court in March for allegedly helping a drug trafficker.
A U.S. official said Aponte will speak publicly in the next weeks, once he arranges for family members to be relocated. The comments confirmed a rare example of a top Venezuelan official cooperating with the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration and suggested Aponte may be arranging a deal with Washington for immunity or a new home.
Another U.S. official said a series of indictments and kingpin designations against alleged drug traffickers would likely result from Aponte's cooperation. Aponte is "singing his heart out," the official said.
Both officials asked to remain anonymous so as not to put others at risk, and because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the subject.
The ramifications of Aponte's cooperation were significant.
The Treasury Department has accused former Venezuelan intelligence chief Gen. Henry Rangel Silva and several other members of Chavez's inner circle of helping leftist Colombian rebels by supplying arms and aiding drug trafficking operations. Chavez has brushed aside those accusations as politically motivated. In January, he appointed Rangel as defense minister.
Aponte laid out much of his case in an interview after fleeing Venezuela, saying he believes some military officials, including National Anti-Drug Office chief Gen. Nestor Reverol, have ties to drug traffickers. And he said Chavez's office as well as top military officers asked him to be lenient in the case of a lieutenant arrested with a shipment of cocaine — an order he complied with.
Government officials have vehemently denied Aponte's accusations.
Former DEA operations chief Michael Braun said the information Aponte provides the U.S. could discredit Chavez's government, citing what he called a definite link between Venezuela and the Colombian rebel group FARC.
"They are involved in the cocaine trade," said Braun, who led worldwide drug enforcement operations until 2008. "Our government knows that the vast majority of cocaine making its way into Europe is going from Venezuela into West Africa, carried on hundreds of flights a year." Venezuela's government, he added, "is complicit in the international drug trade and this guy, based on his position in the Venezuelan judicial system, can probably provide some very, very damaging information."
Even if American authorities cannot apprehend anyone in Venezuela, Braun said U.S. indictments would still be important.
"You can make it difficult for these folks to travel, and you expose them for what they really are," he said. "These kinds of investigations often also result in sanctions against individuals, against organizations, in some cases against nations."
Aponte also said in the interview last month that as a military prosecutor he had been contacted by Chavez about a case and urged to support the government's stance. Chavez was interested in a 2004 case involving more than 100 Colombians arrested at a ranch outside Caracas and accused of plotting to destabilize the country and assassinate the president. By 2007, all were freed or pardoned by Chavez.
Chavez, for his part, has called Aponte a criminal and his government has filed an international arrest warrant for the former judge. Prominent drug suspect Walid Makled has said Aponte was an associate who received payments of $70,000 a month.
The allegations have already become fodder for political debate in Venezuela with opposition politicians demanding an investigation.
Associated Press writers Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, and Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz, Calif., contributed to this report.