March 10, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- One of the U.S. government's most-wanted drug trafficking suspects has been captured in Venezuela and should be tried in the South American country, the justice minister said Monday.
The United States had offered a reward of up to $5 million for the arrest of Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco, and Justice Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin said he was detained on Saturday.
"I think he should be tried here in Venezuela," Rodriguez told reporters. "We aren't afraid of investigating here in Venezuela."
He said authorities believe Gonzalez has committed crimes in Venezuela, and they would investigate whether some officials him with official identification cards. Images of a National Guard ID card purportedly held by Gonzalez circulated after his capture.
"We don't hide the truth," Rodriguez said, pledging that anyone who might have aided him will be prosecuted.
U.S. and Colombian officials have alleged that corrupt Venezuelan military officers protected Gonzalez. President Hugo Chavez, meanwhile, has accused Washington and Bogota of unfairly labeling Venezuela a drug haven for political reasons.
Gonzalez's lawyer, Freddy Ferrer, told the private TV channel Globovision on Sunday that his client is innocent and criticized his "illegal and illegitimate detention" by a counter-drug squad at a ranch in western Venezuela.
U.S. authorities accuse Gonzalez of leading a drug ring known as the Guajira cartel and say he helped smuggle many tons of cocaine to the U.S.
The U.S. State Department also says Gonzalez was reportedly a member of a right-wing Colombian paramilitary faction involved in smuggling arms from Europe through Venezuela to Colombia in the La Guajira border region.
Gonzalez has been indicted in New Jersey on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to distribute cocaine, and in New York on drug trafficking charges.
Though U.S. authorities say he was born in Maicao, Colombia, his lawyer said Gonzalez was born in Venezuela. The justice minister said Gonzalez is thought to be Colombian.
Gonzalez has used aliases including "Gordito" - or "Fatso" - while leading the cartel in the past decade with partner Salomon Camacho Mora, according to a reward listing by the U.S. State Department's counter-drug bureau.
It said the two are accused of smuggling up to 10 tons of cocaine to the United States in 1999 and 2000 alone, and that their cartel has also employed extortion and murder. Gonzalez and Camacho are accused of having strong links to drug trafficking organizations in the Dominican Republic.