CubaBrief: Deja vu in Venezuela for Cuba watchers? American hostages swapped for high profile regime figures. What will the cost be in future hostages, and American lives?

Deja vu?:  Raul Castro in 2014 greets Gerardo Hernandez who killed four Americans. Alex Saab, who laundered profits from cocaine trade that killed Americans, greeted by Nicolas Maduro in 2023.​

In 1999, the year Hugo Chavez took office in Venezuela 3,186 U.S. citizens died of cocaine overdoses. In 2021, after 22 years of the Chavez-Maduro regime in power with the assistance of the Cuban intelligence service 23,513 Americans died in 2021 of cocaine overdoses. The Castro regime turned Venezuela into a mafia state, and it has cost tens of thousands in U.S. lives.

Last week on December 12th, a jury in New York City returned a guilty verdict against a Venezuelan national, Carlos Orense Azocar a.k.a. “El Gordo”, linked to the Soles Cartel, who played an important role in delivering tons of cocaine to the United States. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York issued a statement.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said: “For more than a decade, Carlos Orense Azocar worked with some of the largest narcotics traffickers in the world to send tons of cocaine to the United States.  He partnered with corrupt high-ranking government and military officials in Venezuela and employed an arsenal of high-powered weapons to protect his cocaine distribution organization.  For years, Orense Azocar shipped mountains of poison to this country and made millions of dollars in drug money.  But no more.  A jury in this district has unanimously held Orense Azocar responsible for his crimes, and now he will face a possible life sentence behind bars.” 

Alex Saab, a Colombian national, described by The New York Times as a close ally of Nicolas Maduro, and allegedly a major money launderer with working relationships with both state terror sponsors and terrorist groups will not have to answer for his alleged crimes in a court of law, and may now go on to commit new ones. Juan Forero, South America bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, shared a thread Tweeted out by Marshall S. Billingslea now at the Hudson Institute, a former Presidential Envoy and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing gave the following description of who is Alex Saab, a Colombian national freed by President Biden yesterday, and its significance.

Alex Saab was sanctioned, indicted on multiple criminal charges, arrested and extradited following several years of investigation by the Treasury Department, multiple law enforcement agencies and the Justice Department. Multiple nations across Latin America, Europe and Asia worked together to disrupt his sprawling money-laundering network, which included wholesale theft from the food program intended to feed malnourished Venezuelans (CLAP). He was trafficking in gold looted from the regime’s ecocidal strip-mining & mercury contamination of the Orinoco  When he was arrested, he was in the midst of brokering deals with Iran, the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism. Alex Saab is easily one of the worst, most corrupt testaferro for the Venezuelan regime. His release deals a heavy blow to US credibility in the fight against corruption, particularly in Latin America. It sends a disastrous signal to partner nations who cooperated with us, believing Saab would face justice — no more so than Cape Verde, who extradited him despite enormous Russian, Iranian and Venezuelan regime pressure. Worse, it is a “gut-punch” to the Venezuelan opposition. We supposedly are their friends, but we just let one of the worst Boligarch thieves walk free. …

President Joe Biden issued a statement on “securing the release of Americans detained in Venezuela.

Today, ten Americans who have been detained in Venezuela have been released and are coming home, including all six wrongfully detained Americans. These individuals have lost far too much precious time with their loved ones, and their families have suffered every day in their absence. I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more. Additionally, a fugitive named Leonard Francis, who fled the United States before he could be sentenced for his lead role in a brazen bribery and corruption case – was arrested and returned to the United States from Venezuela so that he will face justice for crimes he committed against the U.S. Government and the American people. We are ensuring that the Venezuelan regime meets its commitments.  They have announced an electoral roadmap – agreed to by opposition parties – for competitive Presidential elections in 2024. This a positive and important step forward. And today, they are releasing twenty political prisoners, on top of five released previously.  We will continue to monitor this closely and take appropriate action if needed.  We stand in support of democracy in Venezuela and the aspirations of the Venezuelan people.

In the same statement President Biden reminded Americans not to go to Venezuela.

“As we welcome home our fellow citizens, I must also remind all Americans of the long-standing warning against traveling to Venezuela. Americans should not travel there.”

However, on the same day Juan S. Gonzalez, Special Assistant to President Biden and Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council made a claim that appears to contradict the President’s warning in an interview with NTN24 that he tweeted out.

“…No more Americans will be detained in Venezuela, and if they are detained they will be deported to the United States. The important thing is that now Venezuela is no longer on the same list with countries like Iran, Russia, North Korea that negotiate with Americans as hostages.”

Alex Saab’s money-laundering network facilitated the profits of the Soles Cartel’s cocaine trafficking to the United States.  A cartel that came into existence with the know-how of the Cuban intelligence service.

Christopher Dickey  World News Editor at The Daily Beast on June 4, 2018 wrote a well researched and documented article “How Cuba Helped Make Venezuela a Mafia State” that outlines the Castro regime’s involvement in linking up Venezuelan officials with drug traffickers and guerrilla groups, but begins with the 1989 Ochoa Trial, an effort by the Cuban autocrats to whitewash their drug trafficking image by executing the high ranking Cuban general Arnaldo Ochoa in a political show trial. This ended one chapter of large-scale drug trafficking for the Castros, but a new chapter would begin with the Chavez regime in Venezuela according to Dickey.

“In the years that followed the Ochoa trial, Cuba offered to cooperate with the United States fighting against drug traffickers. The Clinton administration shelved proposed indictments of the regime, and as relations gradually warmed, the U.S. would begin to liaise with Cuban authorities in the war on drugs. But at the same time the Cuban intelligence services were reaching out in other directions, to networks that would become the world’s biggest suppliers of cocaine: the narco-guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and  Venezuela’s security forces. Cuban counterintelligence is said to have tutored the Venezuelan spies, domestic and foreign, and helped to organize them to root out opposition to the regime of Hugo Chávez. Indeed, the Cubans taught them to do whatever might be necessary to survive.Over time, many of Chavez’s officers would become known as the Cartel de los Soles, the Cartel of the Suns: “cartel” because of their involvement with the drug trade on a scale that nobody in 1989 could have imagined; “the suns” for the insignias on the epaulets of Venezuela’s generals.”

This also concurs with earlier reporting by Jackson Diehl in The Washington Post on the Venezuela, FARC, Cuba trafficking axis in the May 24, 2015 in the article “A drug cartel’s power in Venezuela“:

Ever since Colombian commandos captured the laptop of a leader of the FARC organization eight years ago, it’s been known that Chávez gave the Colombian narcoguerrillas sanctuary and allowed them to traffic cocaine from Venezuela to the United States with the help of the Venezuelan army. But not until a former Chávez bodyguard [ Leamsy Salazar] defected to the United States in January did the scale of what is called the “Cartel of the Suns ” start to become publicly known.


The day after Salazar’s arrival in Washington, Spain’s ABC newspaper published a detailed account of the emerging case against Cabello, and last month, ABC reporter Emili Blasco followed up with a book laying out the allegations of Salazar and other defectors, who say Cuba’s communist regime and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah have been cut in on the trafficking. That was followed by a lengthy report last week in the Wall Street Journal that said Cabello’s cartel had turned Venezuela into “a global hub for cocaine trafficking and money laundering.”

Juan Reinaldo Sanchez,Fidel Castro’s bodyguard, wrote a tell-all memoir and was interviewed by John Simpson of BBC Newsnight. Sanchez explained how he became disillusioned with Fidel Castro because of the Cuban dictator’s links to drug traffickers, despite his public denunciations of the practice. Sanchez died within a year of publishing his memoir in May 2015 at the age of 66.

The exchange of Alex Saab for innocent U.S. hostages, and a fugitive is reminiscent of the exchange of Cuban spy chief Gerardo Hernandez on December 17, 2014 and two other Cuban spies for Alan Gross, an innocent U.S. hostage, and an unidentified Cuban spy. We now know the 2014 deal was a bad one. This one appears to be another poor deal that will negatively impact U.S. national security and the Venezuelan people.

Unlike Saab, who was freed quickly before undergoing a fair trial in a U.S. court of law, Gerardo Hernandez was found guilty of espionage and murder conspiracy. He played a role in the murder of four Americans on February 24, 1996. Hernandez, like Saab who was embraced by Maduro upon his return to Venezuela, returned to a hero’s welcome in Cuba embraced by Raul Castro.

Gerardo Hernández was promoted to Deputy National Coordinator of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in April 2020, tasked with monitoring neighborhood committees to spy on all Cubans on the island. He was also appointed to the Castro dictatorship’s Council of State, the 31-member body that oversees day-to-day life on the island, on December 17, 2020. Gerardo Hernández was spotted in Moscow on May 31, 2023, laying a wreath to a monument of Fidel Castro.

One wonders what news roles Nicolas Maduro and his Cuban handlers will be designating to Alex Saab?

With regards to Mr. Gonzalez’s claim that “no more Americans will be detained in Venezuela” would recommend following President Biden’s advice instead, “Americans should not travel there.”

InSight Crime, December 21, 2023

Venezuelan Officials Key in Convicted Drug Trafficker’s Network

by Venezuela Investigative Unit

21 Dec 2023

Carlos Orense Azocar, alias el “Gordo”

The conviction of a Venezuelan drug trafficker in the United States underscores the wide range of services that Venezuelan security forces have provided to trafficking networks.

A US federal court on December 12 found Carlos Orense Azocar, alias “El Gordo,” guilty of leading a transnational drug trafficking network in which active military officials and high-ranking Venezuelan politicians participated.

This institutionalized scheme played a crucial role in the network’s ability to traffic over 40 tons of cocaine per year, according to US investigations.

To operate unimpeded on Venezuelan soil, Orense sought the support and protection of high-ranking government officials, some of whom were linked to the so-called Cartel of the Sun (Cartel de los Soles), a network of Venezuelan authorities who provide services to various criminal structures in the country.

“His relationship with the Maduro regime allowed him to protect the illegal economies carried out on the farms he owned in Guárico and Apure,” explained Maibort Petit, a Venezuelan investigator and political expert who has followed Orense’s case closely.

Orense was arrested in Italy in May 2021. He was later extradited to the United States in June 2022, where he had been indicted on drug trafficking and weapons charges in the Southern District of New York.

Over the 10 years that the network operated, it used dozens of planes and go-fast boats to move cocaine shipments from Venezuela to the United States via Central America and the Caribbean, according to judicial documents accessed by InSight Crime.

Orense’s network also did business with major transnational groups, including the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the Norte del Valle Cartel (NDVC), and the Beltrán Leyva Organization.

InSight Crime Analysis

In addition to having the financial means, criminal contacts, and infrastructure to dispatch drug shipments out of Venezuela, support from the military was a guarantee that shipments sent by Orense’s network would be protected in various ways.

The organization employed active police and military officials to guard its farms and clandestine airstrips, as well as to escort drug shipments smuggled on Venezuelan highways.

Senior intelligence officials, including Hugo “El Pollo” Carvajal, a former chief of military intelligence, provided Orense with official credentials so he could move freely through the country. Carvajal was mentioned in the case and confirmed to US officials that he received bribes from Orense in exchange for providing security for drug shipments, even giving the organization vehicles to transport the drugs.

The collusion between Orense and Venezuelan officials went so far that the South American country’s air force provided his organization with transponder codes intended only for military use so the narco-jets used by Orense’s network could travel more easily through the region’s airspace.

Orense’s contacts in the military also helped him acquire heavy weaponry, including rifles and machine guns, which the organization later sold to criminal organizations including the FARC.

U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York , December 13, 2023

Venezuelan National Carlos Orense Azocar Convicted After Trial On Drug Trafficking And Weapons Charges

Carlos Orense Azocar Conspired with High-Ranking Venezuelan Officials and Members of the Venezuelan Military and Intelligence Agencies to Distribute Tons of Cocaine to the United States

Damian Williams, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Anne Milgram, the Administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”), announced that a jury returned a guilty verdict against CARLOS ORENSE AZOCAR yesterday on all three counts in the Indictment, which contained cocaine-importation and weapons charges.  The defendant was found guilty following a two-week trial before U.S. District Judge Vernon S. Broderick.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said: “For more than a decade, Carlos Orense Azocar worked with some of the largest narcotics traffickers in the world to send tons of cocaine to the United States.  He partnered with corrupt high-ranking government and military officials in Venezuela and employed an arsenal of high-powered weapons to protect his cocaine distribution organization.  For years, Orense Azocar shipped mountains of poison to this country and made millions of dollars in drug money.  But no more.  A jury in this district has unanimously held Orense Azocar responsible for his crimes, and now he will face a possible life sentence behind bars.” 

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said: “Orense Azocar and his drug trafficking organization used every means available, including high-powered weaponry, government corruption, and bribery, to safeguard his expansive operation and traffic hundreds of tons of cocaine into the United States.  Today’s verdict is another example of the dangerous and vital work DEA does every day across the globe and our relentless pursuit of justice for those responsible for causing harm to the American people.”

As reflected in the Indictment, public filings, and the evidence presented at trial:

Beginning in or about 2003, ORENSE AZOCAR and his drug trafficking organization distributed tons of cocaine destined for importation into the United States.  ORENSE AZOCAR helped transport, receive, and distribute loads of cocaine ranging from hundreds to thousands of kilograms from Venezuela to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere, using air and maritime routes.  ORENSE AZOCAR operated fincas, or ranches, in Venezuela, where he stored his cocaine in underground tanks, stored hundreds of deadly weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition, and which had clandestine landing strips from which he dispatched airplanes loaded with cocaine.  ORENSE AZOCAR also loaded cocaine on “go-fast” boats that sped from the Venezuelan coastline to intermediate delivery points in the Caribbean, including the Dominican Republic and close to Puerto Rico.  To aid in his cocaine distribution, ORENSE AZOCAR worked with and paid bribes to high-ranking officials throughout the Venezuelan government, including military generals and army officials, national police commissioners, and high-ranking officials in the Venezuelan intelligence agencies.  ORENSE AZOCAR’s corrupt Venezuelan government connections secured access to military-grade weaponry, protection from military and law enforcement raids, safe passage for ORENSE AZOCAR’s cocaine convoys through checkpoints, and fraudulent airplane transponder codes to permit ORENSE AZOCAR’s cocaine-laden aircraft to freely depart Venezuela en route to Central America and Mexico.  ORENSE AZOCAR similarly partnered with armed guerilla forces operating in Colombia and Venezuela to source cocaine and secure safe passage for his cocaine shipments.  ORENSE AZOCAR distributed hundreds of tons of cocaine and made tens of millions of dollars through his narcotics trafficking.

To protect and expand his cocaine trafficking organization, ORENSE AZOCAR employed high-powered weaponry.  He had armed security teams that guarded his finca; traveled in armored vehicles with armed security; and used armed security, military forces, and police to protect his convoys of cocaine.  Among other weapons, ORENSE AZOCAR employed automatic rifles, submachine guns, handguns modified to operate as machine guns, and a 50-caliber mounted machine gun. 

*                *                *

ORENSE AZOCAR, 68, of Venezuela, was convicted on three counts: (i) conspiring to import cocaine into the United States, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum potential sentence of life in prison; (ii) using and carrying machine guns during, and possessing machine guns in furtherance of, the cocaine-importation conspiracy, which carries a mandatory consecutive minimum sentence of 30 years in prison and maximum potential sentence of life in prison; and (iii) conspiring to use and carry machine guns during, and to possess machine guns in furtherance of, the cocaine-importation conspiracy, which carries a maximum potential sentence of life in prison.

The minimum and maximum potential sentences are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for information purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge.

This prosecution is part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (“OCDETF”) operation.  OCDETF identifies, disrupts, and dismantles the highest-level criminal organizations that threaten the United States using a prosecutor-led, intelligence-driven, multi-agency approach.

Mr. Williams praised the outstanding efforts of the DEA’s Special Operations Division Bilateral Investigations Unit, OCDETF New York Strike Force, and SDNY Digital Forensics Unit, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs.

This case is being handled by the Office’s National Security and International Narcotics Unit.  Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kaylan E. Lasky, Michael D. Lockard, and Kevin Sullivan are in charge of the prosecution, with assistance from Paralegal Specialist William Sirmon.

Updated December 13, 2023

Reuters, December 13, 2023

Venezuelan accused of bribing top officials convicted on US drugs charges

Luc Cohen

December 13, 2023

NEW YORK, Dec 12 (Reuters) – A man accused of bribing top Venezuelan political and military leaders was convicted on Wednesday of shipping tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine to the United states.

A federal jury in New York found Carlos Orense guilty on three counts of drug trafficking and criminal weapons possession after a two-week trial. Orense had pleaded not guilty, and his defense lawyer portrayed him at trial as a legitimate businessman in Venezuela’s agricultural and oil sectors.

“He partnered with corrupt high-ranking government and military officials in Venezuela and employed an arsenal of high-powered weapons to protect his cocaine distribution organization,” Damian Williams, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said in a statement.

Orense was convicted after a witness testified that Orense’s ties with Venezuelan officials such as former military intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal and former general Cliver Alcala helped him transport cocaine through Venezuela’s territory and export it via air and sea without detection.

The witness, former Orense associate Antonio Arvelaiz, also testified that a onetime chief executive officer of Venezuelan-owned U.S. oil refiner Citgo Petroleum helped Orense move drug money in the mid-2000s.

Carvajal has pleaded not guilty to separate U.S. drug trafficking charges. Alcala pleaded guilty earlier this year to providing material assistance to Colombia’s FARC rebels. Citgo declined to comment.

U.S. accusations of official Venezuelan complicity in the drugs trade have long been a source of tension in the frosty relationship between Washington and the socialist-run OPEC member. President Nicolas Maduro himself was indicted in 2020 on U.S. “narcoterrorism” charges, which he called false and racist. (Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga in Houston; editing by Grant McCool)

U.S. Department of Justice,October 18, 2021

Colombian Businessman Charged with Money Laundering Extradited to the United States from Cabo Verde

Alex Nain Saab Moran (Saab), 49, a Colombian citizen, will make his initial appearance in federal court in Miami, Florida, today after being extradited from the Republic of Cabo Verde. Saab is charged in an indictment with laundering the proceeds of violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in connection with a scheme to pay bribes to take advantage of Venezuela’s government-controlled exchange rate. He is expected to make his initial court appearance today at 1:00 p.m. before U.S. Magistrate Judge John J. O’Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Specifically, on July 25, 2019, Saab was charged along with Alvaro Pulido Vargas, aka German Enrique Rubio Salas, 55, also a Colombian citizen, in an eight-count indictment with one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and seven counts of money laundering. The indictment alleges that beginning in or around November 2011 and continuing until at least September 2015, Saab and Pulido conspired with others to launder the proceeds of an illegal bribery scheme from bank accounts located in Venezuela to and through bank accounts located in the United States. According to the indictment, Saab and Pulido obtained a contract with the Venezuelan government in November 2011 to build low-income housing units. The defendants and their co-conspirators then took advantage of Venezuela’s government-controlled exchange rate, under which U.S. dollars could be obtained at a favorable rate, by submitting false and fraudulent import documents for goods and materials that were never imported into Venezuela and bribing Venezuelan government officials to approve those documents. The indictment alleges that the unlawful activity was a bribery scheme that violated the FCPA and involved bribery offenses against Venezuela. It also alleges that meetings in furtherance of the bribe payments occurred in Miami and that Saab and Pulido wired money related to the scheme to bank accounts in the Southern District of Florida. As a result of the scheme, Saab and Pulido transferred approximately $350 million out of Venezuela, through the United States, to overseas accounts they owned or controlled. 

On June 12, 2020, Saab was detained in the Republic of Cabo Verde, an archipelago nation west of continental Africa, at the request of the United States. The United States thereafter submitted a formal extradition request, which Saab opposed. On March 16, the Cabo Verdean Supreme Court approved the extradition of Saab. After further litigation concerning Saab’s detention and extradition between Saab’s lawyers and the Cabo Verdean Attorney General’s Office, on Aug. 30, the Constitutional Court of Cabo Verde dismissed his appeal; and on Oct. 13, it denied the last reconsideration request by Saab and certified the completion of the proceedings concerning the extradition of Saab to the United States. The Minister of Justice of Cabo Verde then ordered his surrender, consistent with the court orders, resulting in Saab’s arrival in the United States on Oct. 16. 

Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Acting U.S. Attorney Juan Antonio Gonzalez for the Southern District of Florida, and Acting Special Agent in Charge La Verne J. Hibbert of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Miami Field Office made the announcement. 

Assistant Attorney General Polite and Acting U.S. Attorney Gonzalez commended and thanked the Government of the Republic of Cabo Verde for their assistance in the extradition of Saab to the United States. The Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs provided substantial assistance in securing Saab’s arrest and extradition, as did INTERPOL Washington.

This case was investigated by DEA Miami with assistance from the FBI’s Miami Field Office and Homeland Security Investigation’s Miami Field Office. FBI’s International Operations Division transported Saab from Cabo Verde to the United States.

Trial Attorney Alexander Kramer of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt K. Lunkenheimer of the Southern District of Florida are prosecuting the case.

An indictment is merely an allegation, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.