BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Authorities in Aruba announced Thursday that they arrested a close confidant of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who was sent as that country's consul to the Caribbean island despite being sanctioned by the U.S. government on charges of drug trafficking.
Hugo Carvajal, the former head of military intelligence under Chavez, was arrested at the request of the U.S. prosecutors and is expected to appear in an Aruban court Friday.
Carvajal was one of a number of high-ranking Venezuelan military officials blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury in 2008 for allegedly providing weapons to Marxist rebels in neighboring Colombia and helping them smuggle cocaine to fund their insurgency. Despite the charges, he remained close to power circles in Venezuela and in January was appointed consul to Aruba by Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro.
Venezuela condemned the arrest, calling it a "grave violation" of international law and the Vienna Convention granting diplomats immunity from arrest.
Venezuela's foreign ministry released a statement calling on the Netherlands, which manages foreign affairs for the otherwise autonomously run Aruba, to immediately free Carvajal. It warned that commercial and diplomatic ties could be affected.
There was no immediate comment from the Dutch government.
Officials in Aruba said they were initially confused about whether Carvajal had immunity since he holds a diplomatic passport from Venezuela. However, they went ahead with the detention because he had yet to receive his accreditation.
"Immunity is always linked to a function," prosecutors' spokeswoman Ann Angela said in a phone interview. "And he does not have any function here in Aruba. He is not the consul general; therefore he has no immunity."
U.S. prosecutors now have 60 days to formalize their extradition request, Angela said.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.
Chavez was an instructor at the military academy in Caracas when Carvajal was a student there in the early 1980s. Like many other cadets from that era, Carvajal later took up arms with Chavez in a failed 1992 coup uprising that catapulted the young tank commander to fame and set the stage for his future rise to power through the ballot box.
Although Aruba is located just 15 miles (24 kilometers) off Venezuela's coast, the semi-autonomous country has more ties to Washington than Caracas, said Michael Sharpe, an assistant professor at New York's York College who specializes in international relations and has published on the Dutch Caribbean.
"Despite Aruba at one time being the location of one of the largest oil refineries in the world refining Venezuelan oil, this is no longer the case. Since the closing of the oil refineries in the 1980s, Aruba's No. 1 source of revenue has been tourism and thus it has far more extensive ties to the U.S. economically than it does to Venezuela," Sharpe said.
The island's currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar and like the neighboring Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, U.S. military planes can use the island for multinational counter-drug missions in the region, a cause of friction with Venezuela. Aruba, unlike many of its Caribbean neighbors, has never been a member of Venezuela's Petrocaribe fuel initiative.
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman reported this story from Bogota, Colombia, and David McFadden reported from Kingston, Jamaica.