U.S. judge says no immunity for ex-Venezuela general accused of drug trafficking

REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/Illustration

NEW YORK, March 15 (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Tuesday rejected a bid by a retired Venezuelan general to dismiss drug trafficking charges against him on the basis of foreign sovereign immunity, saying the doctrine does not apply to a "rogue state."

Cliver Alcala in 2020 was charged with four counts of drugs and weapons crimes. U.S. prosecutors say he participated in a "narco-terrorism" conspiracy in which senior Venezuelan government officials conspired with the FARC Colombian rebel group to ship cocaine to the United States.

Alcala's attorney, Cesar de Castro, said in Manhattan federal court that because Alcala was a uniformed military officer at the time of the alleged conspiracy, any action he took would have been in his official capacity and thus could not be prosecuted in the United States.

U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein disagreed.

"Sovereign immunity does not affect a rogue state or rogue officials," Hellerstein said. "We're dealing with criminal conduct at the highest levels of government."

Prosecutors said that Alcala in 2008 held a meeting with Diosdado Cabello, now a Venezuelan lawmaker from President Nicolas Maduro's socialist party, and agreed to coordinate drug-trafficking with the FARC. Cabello and Maduro were also charged but remain in Venezuela.

Alcala pleaded not guilty after surrendering to U.S. agents in Colombia.

The 2020 indictment came as the Trump administration aimed to force Maduro, who Washington accuses of election-rigging and rights violations, from office. Maduro and Cabello have denied accusations of drug trafficking, and argue Washington is seeking to overthrow their government to control the OPEC nation's oil.

Alcala retired from the military in 2013. He has since become a critic of Maduro and backed opposition leader Juan Guaido, recognized by Washington as Venezuela's rightful leader.

Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Bill Berkrot

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Thomson Reuters

Reports on the New York federal courts. Previously worked as a correspondent in Venezuela and Argentina.