USA has ignored a high-ranking crime boss stranded in Venezuela - Itemp
USA has ignored a high-ranking crime boss stranded in Venezuela

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US drug agents might lose track of a prominent Colombian drug trafficker detained in May 2014 in Venezuela and in custody in the cells of Nicolás Maduro’s government political police, as a result of a judicial limbo in Washington that has delayed his extradition.

With powerful links in the underworld of South American organized crime and by using dozen aliases to camouflage himself during complex counternarcotic operations between the Caribbean and the United States, Mario Moreno Lozano has come to the attention of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). During his stay in Venezuela all those years with the support of Venezuelan top government officers, Moreno Lozano expanded his range of information and contacts.

His testimony is of the essence in order to close sensitive drug trafficking cases that have been open for years in US courts, some of which cases compromise both senior civilian and military officers of Maduro’s government. Nevertheless, his wealth of information could go beyond the Bolivarian Venezuela.

After Caracas and Washington severed all diplomatic links on January 23, 2019, official contacts vanished without trace, including a feeble court cooperation by then. Still in another chapter of a toxic power-drug trafficking relationship, Venezuela has taken benefit from this context.

The mystery begins in Caracas and ends in the corridors of power in Washington, where the US Government has declined to respond for a request to comment on the case of Moreno Lozano, arguing that the issue of extraditions is classified.

Discovery in both the US Department of State and the US Department of Justice has been delayed in view of the impact made by Covid-19 on the federal government operations. As a result, a petition for access to the docket on the basis of the Freedom of Information Act is awaiting the response from both agencies.

On the Venezuelan side, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) -an appendix of Maduro’s Executive Office- issued a ruling where the United States is held liable for waiving a case that, as a matter of fact, Caracas had neglected six years ago.

Moreno Lozano’s case, however, is not the only one pending with Venezuela at the US Department of State and the US Department of Justice.  In 2018-2019, the United States failed to complete the steps for extradition of a dozen presumed criminals from Caracas, no matter how significant their crimes were, according to the record of TSJ rulings.

The Supreme Tribunal of Justice is empowered to authorize the extradition of foreign citizens requested by foreign countries. For their part, the nationals of Venezuela are not extraditable under the Venezuelan Constitution.

Interestingly, in the midst of the Venezuelan government silence, on May 22, 2019, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice released a leading opinion where Moreno Lozano’s case was made available to the United States for a requisition for extradition within a two-month term. 

Mario Moreno Lozano, aka “Juan Carlos,” “Luis Carlos Vélez López,” “Alexis Antonio Rodríguez Rodríguez,” or “Luis Vélez López,” was born in the Colombian city of Caldas, in October 1967.

For years, he managed to mislead DEA agents about multiple drug-trafficking operations at the expense of his work with Colombian kingpin Daniel Barrera Barrera, aka “Loco Barrera,” or the Fernández brothers, aka “Los Gorditos,” all of them currently behind bars in the United States.

Besides working with “Loco Barrera,” Moreno Lozano performed some operations with some other relevant drug barons, including Víctor Antonio García, aka “Chiva Loca;” Hernando Salgado; Dante Tagliabetti, and aka “Chuito.” The latter two were charged in Puerto Rico with drug trafficking, a court source knowledgeable of the inquests into Moreno Lozano told ITEMP.

Based on an original investigation displayed in November 2017 by Miami’s newspaper Diario Las Américas, including documents of the District Court of Puerto Rico, in addition to testimonies and interviews with drug traffickers, Moreno Lozano ran the business of transport and loading of cocaine on behalf of “Loco Barrera” in Venezuela, “thanks to his significant contacts with the Venezuelan police.”

DEA and the US Department of Justice, “are cognizant that Moreno Lozano presumably received direct protection from Miguel Rodríguez Torres, a major general and former minister of the Interior and Justice, that turned out to be a dissenter of Chávezism and now an opponent of dictator Nicolás Maduro.”

Rodríguez Torres has been in jail since 2018, after being detained for allegedly scheming against Maduro. In 2013-2014, the general served as Minister of the Interior and Justice. Therefore, his office was supposed to be responsible for Moreno Lozano’s case: from his detention up to his potential extradition to the United States or deportation to Colombia, his country of origin.

Overlapping Doubts

When “Loco Barrera” fell into disgrace, Moreno Lozano was captured in Caracas. At that time, police authorities told not a word of it, unlike some other occasions, where the Venezuelan government trumpets the detentions of alleged drug traffickers, parading them like a trophy.

Assuming nine false identities for years, alternatively and as needed, the shadow of Moreno Lozano was always present in some big drug operation to the United States from Venezuela or Colombia, according to the case file.

Moreno Lozano made good use of his multiple aliases up to the moment when DEA agents unveiled his true identity in cooperation with a relevant drug trafficker that worked in Venezuela for a decade and forged a relationship with Venezuelan police agents and military officers.

The leading opinion by Justice Juan Luis Ibarra, the president of the TSJ Criminal Cassation Chamber, specifies that the case file was received on May 15, 2019 from a criminal court containing a requisition for passive extradition of Moreno Lozano by virtue of a Red Notice from Interpol, under number A-3538/5-2014, released on May 9, 2014. There, the US Government requested the Colombian drug lord “on charges of criminal association to export five or more kilos of cocaine” to the United States. 

The background of the case described in the leading opinion mirrors the inconsistencies regarding Moreno Lozano in Venezuela. He had been “The Invisible Man” for Venezuelan authorities from his detention on May 2, 2014 through a morning of May 2019.

But Moreno Lozano’s ties to organized crime did not finish with his imprisonment in the cells of the Venezuelan political police, according to the press. In January 2018, Venezuelan portal Punto de Corte disclosed that police agents who captured the kingpin and processed his warrant of arrest were also involved in a talked-about drug case on the Colombia-Venezuela border.

“When the news came about the detention of the agents, a relationship was established immediately with Moreno Lozano, who reportedly led his drug trafficking network from Sebin’s cells,” related the press article, accompanied by an image of the warrant of arrest of the drug trafficker.

Fame and Glory

According to DEA, in 2003-2013, Moreno Lozano was a member of a criminal organization engaged in cocaine trafficking in the Caribbean. In that region, Moreno Lozano successfully completed the transport of thousand kilos of cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela to the United States, particularly Puerto Rico.

By using his multiple identities over that decade, the drug trafficker “acted as the primary source of supply, being responsible for obtaining the drug from third parties. For such purpose, he used Saint-Martin island as the transshipment point to deliver the cocaine to the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and some European countries, including Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and Croatia,” reveals the Interpol warrant of arrest. 

Joseph Pelz, the DEA agent responsible for Moreno Lozano’s case in Puerto Rico in 2014, abstained from making any comments because of the ongoing accusation.

On June 18, 2014, in learning about Moreno Lozano being taken into custody by Venezuelan authorities, agent Pelz received an e-mail describing Moreno Lozano’s links with other international drug traffickers, according to a copy reviewed by ITEMP.

The US Department of Justice had a profound interest in the drug lord, to such an extent that Richard “Dick” Gregorie, a federal prosecutor with the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Florida, closely followed up the inquests. He even met in Miami with witnesses that supplied key information of the then fugitive.

Gregorie retired from the US Attorney’s Office in Miami, concluding a 42-year career with the Department of Justice. Gregorie handled high-profile prosecutions involving international drug traffickers and heads of State, including Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega.

“I am sorry that I am unfamiliar with this case (Moreno Lozano). However, you should check on the status of diplomatic relations between the USA and Venezuela. Does the US State Department recognize the Maduro Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Does the US recognize the current Venezuelan Supreme Court? Extradition requires recognition of the proper parties,” the seasoned attorney elaborated.

Over the past five years, since his capture, the Colombian drug trafficker stood without court proceedings at all in the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebin), headquartered in Helicoide, Caracas. The dungeon of most political prisoners under Maduro’s regime is among the heaviest guarded jails in Venezuela.

The government version of the detainee, echoed by the leading opinion of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, is that Moreno Lozano was captured by Sebin agents in Caracas, specifically in an office of the Identification and Immigration Service, because he “was carrying out multiple illicit activities.”

As broken down in the record, the day of his capture, Moreno Lozano was seeking a Venezuelan passport by using one of his false identities. However, the security system at the Immigration Department intercepted the fraudulent operation. In this way, security agents detained him as an undocumented person.

The question is: how come that, from that Friday of May 2014 to the day when the ruling was issued in 2019, five years elapsed and a drug baron such as Moreno Lozano, in the crosshairs of DEA, went by unnoticed in the principal deposit of political prisoners and the seat of the Venezuelan government intelligence service? Nobody noted his presence and reported on his whereabouts?

Jonathan Rusch, who was a federal prosecutor for 26 years in the Fraud Section of the US Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, suspects of “something weird” in the protracted extradition argued by the Venezuelan government with respect to Moreno Lozano.

“I am not personally familiar with the case involving Mario Moreno Lozano, but if the Justice Department had gone to the trouble of having Interpol issue a Red Notice on Moreno, it would be truly extraordinary for the Justice Department not to follow up with a formal extradition request,” Rusch said.

“From my experience as a federal prosecutor, I can say that federal prosecutors and agents who have invested substantial time and effort in building a case on a major criminal are strongly motivated to pursue that case by seeking extradition, unless there is absolutely no prospect of the requested government’s compliance with an extradition request,”, said.

For that reason, “I can only speculate that a decision not to seek extradition may be based on the Department’s conclusion that making the formal request would be fruitless if Moreno continues to be protected, or on a more general decision to have no official dealings of any kind with the Maduro regime,” the ex-federal prosecutor added.

Rusch does “not believe that the Justice Department would have overlooked or lost an extradition request on Moreno. It is far more likely that the United States never sent the extradition request or that the United States sent a request, but the Venezuelan government chose to ignore it.”

The US Department of Justice has a process in place through its Office of International Affairs (OIA) to review, provide guidance and deliver to foreign governments its prosecutors’ requests for extradition.

In 2019, the federal government received 319 requests for extradition from multiple foreign countries with agreements effective in this matter. Concomitantly, it approved 569 extraditions of subjects requested for specific crimes, except for US citizens, who are not extraditable.

The Interpol Red Notice issued against Moreno Lozano is not restricted to Venezuela; local authorities could even expel him to Colombia, his country of origin. The statute of limitations laid down by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice for the US Government to file a formal request has been extinguished. Furthermore, no reference is made of the drug trafficker as a detainee in the records of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

In 2006-2015, a total number of 78 international drug traffickers who sought shelter in Venezuela were turned over by local authorities to DEA agents, according to the Venezuelan Ministry of the Interior and Justice. Eventually, the US Department of Justice would work on future charges against Venezuelan top government officers in light of their cooperation with drug cartels.

A document of the US Department of State published by WikiLeaks depicted the troubles faced by US diplomats when dealing with Venezuela in terms of court joint efforts. They have been even taken by surprise at Caracas reporting once in a while on the surrender of one or another drug kingpin.

As the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs during President Barack Obama Administration, Roberta Jacobson had a responsibility to ponder on Washington-Caracas relations. Hundreds of reports on the alleged benevolence of the Bolivarian regime towards drug trafficking and organized crime landed in her hands.

“While our CN cooperation with Venezuela is almost non-existent, due to the government’s reluctance to work with us on a consistent basis, it does choose on occasion to make significant arrests and turn the individuals over to us,” Jacobson admitted in a document dated July 13, 2015.

The expert diplomat referred to the surrender of three prominent drug lords that remained hidden in Venezuela until 2020. Due to the intelligence endeavors of Colombia and the United Kingdom, Venezuelan authorities took action and arrested them.

“It is virtually impossible to discern their (Venezuelan government’s) motivation for doing so in these cases,” Jacobson reasoned.

“Regardless of their motivation, it is an objectively good thing that these three individuals will be facing justice for their crimes in the United States. We welcomed the Venezuelan action, but take care not praise them for taking actions that they should be doing anyway,” wrote Jacobson in an unclassified document retrieved by WikiLeaks from the thousand e-mails in the inbox of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

When the US Department of Justice offered US$ 15 million for Maduro, Attorney General William P. Barr charged him with using cocaine as “a weapon to undermine” the United States. For counternarcotic agents, the main challenge with Venezuela is that the Government-State apparatus, maintaining its grip on power, is involved at the highest level in the drug business. Thus, combatting drug cartels seems to be all highly implausible.