Venezuelan drug lord Walid Makled claims to have damning evidence of the military and government elite’s ties to the drug trade. Three months in, his trial has offered few explosive revelations, but there are several ticking time bombs to watch out for.
Makled went into hiding when the security forces raided his farm in 2008 and arrested three of his brothers. After he was arrested in Colombia in 2010, he claimed that he had kept many high-ranking military officials and several governors on his payroll, including the head of the anti-narcotics office and the commander of the armed forces.
Instead of extraditing Makled to the US, where he is wanted for drug trafficking, and where he would presumably have shared intelligence with the authorities, Colombia sent him to Venezuela. His closed-door trial for drug trafficking, money laundering, and two counts of homicide began April 9.
It will likely be a long one. One of Makled’s defense attorneys told EFE that proceedings will probably take a year or more, as the defense has presented 180 pieces of evidence, while the prosecution has presented 400. Seven weeks into the trial, the defense had only gone through 25. Three of Makled’s brothers and nine of his employees, arrested during the 2009 farm raid, are also facing charges.
While the trial, closed to the press, has not offered up new details about Makled’s alleged links to the government and military, there have been several intriguing developments. Below are five factors that may prove to be influential in how the trial plays out:
1. Makled’s silence may speak louder than words.
Makled’s decision not to testify is one that he could reverse at a later point in the trial, according to Venezuela’s Organic Penal Procedures Code (COPP). One of Makled’s defense attorneys has said that Makled’s choice is a “very personal decision,” and added, somewhat ominously, “he will know what things to guard and what he should say.”
After former Supreme Court Judge Eladio Aponte left the country and became a informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), state television released footage of Makled, in handcuffs and accompanied by police, calling Aponte the primary associate in his airline business, which is suspected of smuggling tons of cocaine outside the country. While it is not clear when the footage was recorded, its release was clearly intended to cast further doubt on Aponte’s allegations of corruption within the Venezuelan government, by emphasizing his links to Makled. The release of the video footage was one indication that state media, at least, is willing to manipulate Makled’s allegations to achieve its own political ends. Critics of President Hugo Chavez’s administration have been doing the same, pointing to Makled’s claims as evidence that Venezuela is a “narco-state.”
Makled knows that his information is worth a great deal to both the government and the opposition, for different reasons. By not saying everything he knows — or by using the threat of his testimony as leverage — he can make a play to influence the outcome of the trial.
2. The judge has been accused of being too close to the government.
Judge Ali Paredes also handled the high-profile trial of Judge Maria Afiuni, a case heavily criticized by human rights groups. Afiuni was jailed in 2009 after she issued a ruling in a corruption case that infuriated Chavez. Her case is often cited as an example of the undue influence of the executive branch over the judiciary.
At the time, Afiuni refused to appear before Paredes in court on the grounds that she wouldn’t receive a fair trial. In December 2011, Paredes ruled that she must remain under house arrest for two years.
Paredes’ involvement in the Afiuni case raises the question of whether he will give Makled a fair trial, or whether he will issue his rulings with an eye on the government’s interests.
3. Makled’s brothers are sitting on intelligence of their own.
Walid’s three brothers, arrested during the farm raid in 2008, are also on trial for drug trafficking. While they have not spoken as openly as Walid about their alleged knowledge of the drug trade, they are also receiving closed door trials, suggesting that there are interests who do not want their testimony made public. One brother has been placed under house arrest due to a reported medical condition. Another one, Abdla, has his own political future at stake. At the time of his arrest, he was running for political office and was considered a challenge to the rule of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), raising suspicions about the timing of the farm raid.
4. Makled’s employees say they know nothing.
Statements from several of Makled’s detained employees suggest that, in the government’s eagerness to show that they were striking a blow against drug trafficking, they may have arrested Makled’s farm employees simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. According to a report by El Nacional, among nine employees detained at the farm are the maid, the gardener, the cook, and two farm hands, one of whom is 72 years old and has prostrate cancer. All deny knowing that the farm was used a storehouse for cocaine — during the raid, security forces found 400 kilos of the drug on the premises. These denials would be routine, except for the fact that one employee has already pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and testified that neither the employees (nor Makled) knew that he was storing cocaine in the house. If it turns out that these employees were held on scant evidence, it could cast further doubt on the efficiency of Venezuela’s judiciary in handling the Makled case.
5. The defense is playing hardball.
Makled’s team of attorneys are working hard to find loopholes or irregularities that could result in the judge ruling certain evidence inadmissible. So far much of this involves casting doubt on whether the raid on Makled’s farm was carried out according to procedure. According to Venezuelan law, such police raids must be conducted in the presence of at least three witnesses. The defense won a minor victory in one court session, when a National Guard officer admitted that the witnesses were not present when the security forces collected vital evidence at a landing strip found on the farm grounds.