By FRANK LÓPEZ BALLESTEROS

United States anti-drug agents are impatient about the silence the Venezuelan regime keeps on Mario Moreno Lozano, a major Colombian drug trafficker connected to officers of the Venezuelan Armed Forces and the police and also to chavista senior officials, and who is now under protection in a prison of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), revealed an exclusive investigation by DIARIO LAS AMÉRICAS.

The US Attorney's Office and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have learned that Moreno Lozano was allegedly protected by Miguel Rodríguez Torres —a Venezuelan Major General and former Minister of the Interior, who is now a dissident chavista and opponent of dictator Nicolás Maduro—, according to testimonies of drug dealers convicted in the United States.

These testimonies —given in exchange for legal benefits— have allowed to assemble the records in which current Venezuelan Vice-president, Tareck El Aissami is accused of “playing a key role in international drug trafficking,” as the US Department of the Treasury revealed in February this year.

In addition, the testimonies to which this newspaper had access involve six businesspersons linked to the Venezuelan Government who made fortunes thanks not only to government contracts, but also to drug trafficking operations.

Born in Guaduas, in the Colombian Department of Cundinamarca, Mario Moreno Lozano, also known as “Juan Carlos,” “Luis Carlos Vélez López" or "Alexis Antonio Rodríguez Rodríguez,” kept the DEA confused in several drug trafficking operations at the expense of his work with drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera, aka “Loco Barrera,” or the Fernández brothers, “Los Gorditos,” all of them convicted in the United States.

According to records of the Puerto Rico District Court, testimonies and interviews with drug traffickers to which this newspaper had access, Moreno was in charge of cocaine transportation and shipments for “Loco Barrera” in Venezuela, “thanks to his important connections with the Venezuelan police.” Moreover, after his boss was arrested, Moreno was also detained, but the Government did not announce it, unlike other cases involving accomplices of the Colombian drug lord.

With his false identities, Moreno was fingered for being involved in several drug trafficking operations, but he managed to camouflage himself, until DEA agents discovered his true identity thanks to the cooperation of a major drug trafficker whose organization operated in the Apure State, west Venezuela.

“Alias Juan Carlos is in Venezuela, specifically in the headquarters of the SEBIN in Caracas, where he continues conducting his drug trafficking operations as usual,” Colombian Roberto Mendez Hurtado, a former leader of a drug smuggling gang who is now imprisoned in the United States, told the DEA and district attorneys. “He was given protection by General Miguel Rodríguez Torres, and neither he nor other people want others to know he is there.”

The work Moreno carried out in Venezuelan territory reached a point where he, along with his partners, held drug trafficking operations using diplomatic bags, which are exempt from inspection at customs and ports around the world; therefore, any shipment could be sent from Venezuela without anybody knowing the contents, according to details provided by Méndez Hurtado.

Located in El Helicoide, south Caracas, the SEBIN headquarters have become a government prison and a torture center of political prisoners of Chavismo, and they are also the shelter of Mario Moreno Lozano, said Méndez Hurtado.

This journal cross-checked the information found in the documents in an investigation comprising police sources, public data of the Venezuelan justice system —including the Supreme Tribunal of Justice—, and a high-ranking source from the Venezuelan political police, who confirmed that the Colombian drug trafficker has been in the SEBIN headquarters “for at least three years.”

The cells of the headquarters of the Venezuelan political police in El Helicoide house today some 350 detainees, including highly dangerous criminals, prisoners of conscience, people arrested without warrant, and people who remain in prison despite the fact that courts ordered their releases, according to data provided by several NGOs.

Mendez Hurtado, who was sentenced to 19 years in prison in the US for transporting hundreds of kilograms of cocaine from Apure state, Venezuela into US territory, collaborated by providing information relating to Moreno Lozano's case, as well as names, routes, and contacts which allow to interlock part of the drug trafficking machinery operating in Venezuela.

Moreno Lozano has been summoned by the District Court of Puerto Rico for smuggling hundreds of kilograms of cocaine from that island into the United States. He lived in Venezuela in recent years with a false identity, and managed to weave a web of contacts with military officials that allowed him to make profit before working with major drug lords. “Loco Barrera,” who is serving a sentence of 35 years in a Miami prison, was his main link with the international mafia.

Considered “the last major drug lord” by the Colombian justice, Barrera was arrested on September 18, 2012 in Táchira state, southwest Venezuela, thanks to an international operation involving Venezuelan, British, Colombian, and American agents.

Méndez Hurtado asserted that alias "Juan Carlos" was directly protected by Major General of the Venezuelan Army Miguel Rodríguez Torres, although he did not explain the connection they might have. Rodríguez was the Minister of the Interior at the time the US Attorney's Office announced the arrest of the Colombian drug lord.

The communications representative of the former minister declined to comment on the issue, and never returned calls and messages asking for an interview. The intricacies around Rodríguez Torres correspond to the secrecy that surrounds the chavista powerful figures. The very own ranks of orthodox Chavismo accused him in 2016 of having collaborated with the DEA and the CIA by allegedly providing them with intelligence information.

As head of the National Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services (DISIP), a body that for 40 years and until 2009 was responsible for intelligence and counter-intelligence operations in Venezuela, Rodriguez Torres was in the Sancta Sanctorum of local espionage during the government of Hugo Chávez, who commissioned him to restructure the organization, now called SEBIN. Torres became SEBIN's director in 2010.

In 2013, Maduro appointed him as Minister of the Interior, Justice and Peace, a unique connection with the work he did at the SEBIN, thus becoming an all-powerful figure of the dark side of power in Venezuela.

tareck_miguelr_makled.jpeg
Tareck El Aissami, Miguel Rodríguez Torres and Walid Makled.
Tareck El Aissami, Miguel Rodríguez Torres and Walid Makled.

The shadow

On July 31, 2012, two months before the fall of "Loco Barrera”, counter-narcotics authorities raided in the island of St. Maarten the residence of Luis Macías Nieto, alias "El Viejo,” a major drug trafficker. Among the evidence found was a Venezuelan identity card under the name of Alexis Antonio Rodríguez-Rodríguez, who turned out to be alias "Juan Carlos" and whose real name is Mario Moreno.

This discovery led the authorities to tie loose ends around the false identities of Moreno, who had been out of sight of the anti-drug agents after the arrest of “Loco Barrera” in Venezuela. However, on May 13, 2014, the Attorney’s Office of Puerto Rico notified the Court that the drug trafficker had been arrested in Venezuelan territory and that his extradition was being processed, a court document revealed.

Nicole Navas Oxman, spokeswoman for the Justice Department, refused to comment on whether Moreno’s extradition had been requested to Caracas.

The fact is that the identity records of the Venezuelan National Electoral Council (CNE) show seven individuals named Alexis Antonio Rodríguez-Rodríguez, which was the name Moreno chose to camouflage himself, according to the identity card found by counter-narcotics agents in St. Maarten. However, none of those individuals have arrest orders or criminal records related to drug trafficking.

In the public judicial records, no charges or criminal records associated with that name or the name Mario Moreno Lozano are found; hence, his criminal record is technically a mystery.

The sentence database of the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice also shows no records. The records are either nonexistent or were sealed.

The absence of records is "an irregularity,” in the opinion of Venezuelan lawyer Luis Quintero Chong. “In every administrative or judicial action, there must be a file with the transcripts of the proceeding against an individual. In order to reach any kind of apprehension, there must be a record opening the investigation file.”

The arrest of this Colombian drug trafficker, on an unknown date, marks the start of the mysterious history of alias “Juan Carlos,” whom the Puerto Rico District Court has charged with being involved in an international network of drug trafficking in the Caribbean, whose most notorious members have been arrested.

Some of them, like Ricardo Yu, alias "El Chino,” smuggled narcotics from Venezuela and, in many operations, had connections with Venezuelan police officers, such as Pedro Luis Martín Olivares, former chief of financial intelligence at the SEBIN and one of the DEA’s most wanted fugitives since 2015 for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

According to the investigation and the information provided by agents of the US counter-narcotics agency in judicial texts, Moreno Lozano was a drug trafficker operating in the Caribbean. Overall, he traded cocaine with clients in Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic through connections he had from Colombia and Venezuela.

Melvin S. Patterson, spokesman for the DEA, noted that the Caribbean Division of the agency, which is in charge of Moreno’s case, has not yet completed the investigation, and therefore could not comment on the case.

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Big Fishes

A 2016 DEA report on drug threats warned that Puerto Rico-based organizations had established heroin trafficking routes from Venezuela to the island. In some cases, the dealers are instructing drug smugglers who transport the drugs to travel from Caracas to cities along the US East Coast, such as New York or Miami, to deliver the heroin.

“Drug trafficking has infiltrated the top government at an impressive level. That explains one aspect of the crisis in Venezuela: civilians who became rich by working with military officers who are now [rich] thanks to this business,” asserted Joaquín Pérez, an important lawyer based in Miami who has handled cases of major drug traffickers with connections in the South American country.

In the last five years, the testimonies of drug traffickers in exchange for judicial benefits in the US —the famous "Rule 35"— have been essential to find out, by name and last name, the connections of military officers and civilians who operate in the so-called "Cartel of the Suns."

The compilation of information has made it possible to assemble records with key data, which for now involve military officers and civilians, including relatives of Venezuelan Vice-president Tareck El Aissami.

The Treasury accused the politician, an orthodox chavista, of being an “active drug trafficker," arguing that El Aissami had received payments to allow the shipment of drugs belonging to the Venezuelan drug lord Walid Makled, who is now serving a sentence in Caracas, and that he was also involved in the transport of drugs caches to Los Zetas, a Mexican cartel that conducted operations in Venezuela.

The data provided by the Treasury to accuse El Aissami — former governor and former minister of the interior who was a key figure in the transition of power in Venezuela after Chávez's death— points out that he provided protection to drug trafficker "Loco Barrera," as well as the also trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco, who was arrested in Venezuela in March 2008.

As Washington works to close the circle on the network that allegedly allowed the vice-president to act in collusion with drug traffickers, it has seized billions of dollars in assets belonging to his so-called front man, businessman Samark López Bello.

Groups of proxies or partners linked to drug trafficking in Venezuela who have made businesses with the State at the expense of its relationship with Chavismo, are targeted by the DEA or already under ongoing investigation.

Two major drug traffickers, with no direct relationship, asserted in several statements that businessman Antonio Alvelaiz Idler, who is being prosecuted in the US for fraud, had connections with another Venezuelan businessman, Neif Antonio Gebran, who was targeted by the Venezuela justice.

“Arvelaiz worked with a gentleman called Neif Antonio Gebran, who was connected with Vice-president El Aissami. Gebran worked with other partners who are friends of mine, and Tareck worked with Walid Makled," read one of the correspondences of Mendez Hurtado to which DIARIO LAS AMÉRICAS had access. In that same mail, mention is made of “Emilio Martínez, alias 'Chiche Smith,' who worked alongside Makled and is a big name in Venezuela in drug trafficking, and the [US] Attorney Office knows him.”

In other statements, mention is made of meetings and contacts between a trafficker who has been already prosecuted in the US (the source requested anonymity) with Pedro Martín Olivares, a former SEBIN agent sought by the DEA, and businessmen Carlos Orense and Alexander del Nogal Márquez, best known as Alex del Nogal, in May 2011.

“Del Nogal is a true criminal. He developed ties with the upper echelons of Chavismo and has been involved in drug trafficking cases for many years. He is a key figure in the expansion of that business in Venezuela, thanks to his connections with military officers,” said Mildred Camero, who was the head of the Venezuelan Anti-Drug Office until 2005.

The international justice has had much to do with this last character. Arrested in Italy for drug trafficking, the businessman made a fortune thanks to his businesses with the Venezuelan regime, to the point of becoming the SEBIN financial advisor, as reported by a Caracas newspaper.

The Government of the United States has imposed sanctions on more than 100 Venezuelan high-ranking officials and their families due to their ties with drug trafficking, corruption, and human rights violations. In most cases, American and European counter-narcotics agents are working under the assumption that the criminal networks in Venezuela are protected by a “mafia parallel State,” which makes investigation more difficult, but not impossible.

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