November 6, 2014 / 7:30 PM / 5 years ago

Former Venezuelan judge pleads guilty in Miami drug money case

MIAMI (Reuters) - A former Venezuelan judge who was accused by the United States of involvement in drug trafficking pleaded guilty in Miami federal court on Wednesday to extortion, obstruction of justice and money laundering, according to court documents.

Benny Palmeri-Bacchi was accused of taking bribes from a South American drug cartel boss in exchange for impeding efforts to have him extradited to the United States.

Prosecutors agreed to drop a charge of drug trafficking and have his sentences run concurrently in return for his full cooperation in the case.

He faces a sentence of between six and seven years, according to sentencing guidelines.

Palmeri-Bacchi’s case is part of U.S. legal efforts targeting high-ranking Venezuelan officials, including Venezuela’s former military intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal, suspected to aiding and abetting Colombian drug traffickers.

Carvajal was briefly arrested in the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba while on diplomatic business in July but quickly freed and allowed to return to Venezuela.

Palmeri-Bacchi originally pleaded not guilty to charges of distributing cocaine to the United States, as well as conspiracy to obstruct justice, money laundering, and extortion in July.

He was arrested that month after he flew into Miami for a family vacation to Disney World. He was charged along with Rodolfo McTurk, a former director of Interpol in Venezuela.

The pair allegedly helped Jamie Alberto Marin Zamora, a drug kingpin with Colombia’s North Valley Cartel, ship thousands of kilograms of cocaine from Venezuela to the United States, according to a federal grand jury indictment unsealed in December 2013.

Marin-Zamora allegedly paid $850,000 to Palmeri-Bacchi to open a phony case against him in Venezuela to obstruct his extradition to the United States, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

McTurk is thought to still be Venezuela and along with Palmeri-Bacchi was declared a fugitive in late 2013.

Prosecutors are seeking to seize $2.5 million from Wells Fargo and Espirito Santo Bank accounts owned by the men.

Reporting By David Adams

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