From US jail, Venezuelan general who defied Maduro awaits potentially lengthy sentence

FILE - In this courtroom sketch, retired three-star Venezuelan army general Cliver Antonio Alcala Cordones, right, appears in federal court, Jan, 18, 2024, in New York. The formidable opponent of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro who twice tried to mount coups against the socialist leader spoke to The Associated Press as a Manhattan federal judge decides whether to punish him with a long prison sentence. It's the first time Alcalá has spoken since surrendering in 2020. (Elizabeth Williams via AP, File)

FILE – In this courtroom sketch, retired three-star Venezuelan army general Cliver Antonio Alcala Cordones, right, appears in federal court, Jan, 18, 2024, in New York. The formidable opponent of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro who twice tried to mount coups against the socialist leader spoke to The Associated Press as a Manhattan federal judge decides whether to punish him with a long prison sentence. It’s the first time Alcalá has spoken since surrendering in 2020. (Elizabeth Williams via AP, File)

CARMEL, N.Y. (AP) — With his strong military bearing, purposeful stride and firm handshake, Cliver Alcalá still looks every bit the retired three-star Venezuelan army general, even though the only uniform he wears now are drab jailhouse khakis.

A formidable opponent of socialist Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro who twice tried to mount coups against him, Alcalá is in an upstate New York correctional facility awaiting sentencing on Thursday on unrelated federal charges of providing weapons to drug-funded rebels that could put him away for three decades.

“My only regret is that my love of Venezuela has inflicted so much pain on my family,” the 62-year-old Alcalá told The Associated Press in his first interview behind bars. “I take full responsibility for my actions but they are the ones paying the consequences.”

The interview took place earlier this month, right before two days of shocking testimony in court that had nothing to do with the crimes to which Alcalá had pleaded guilty.

In the new testimony, convicted drug traffickers alleged they witnessed Alcalá, two decades ago, leveraging his position as one of Venezuela’s powerful military officers to provide safe passage for ton-sized shipments of cocaine at dirt airstrips, border checkpoints and a major airport.

In exchange, they say he was paid millions of dollars in bribes — at one point collecting $150,000 for every cocaine-laden flight departing for Central America.

As part of a plea deal struck last year, prosecutors dropped all drug charges against Alcalá. Instead, they left only two counts of providing weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — considered by the United States to be a foreign terrorist organization.

Prosecutors are now urging U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein to consider even the previously dismissed charges and unproven allegations of drug smuggling when handing down a sentence — something that surprised Alcalá when he pleaded guilty to the lesser offenses.

“The defendant was not merely a general who was following orders,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo recommending a sentence of 30 years. “He accepted millions of dollars in cocaine-fueled bribes to allow and help tons of poison transit to this country.”

Adam Isacson, a longtime analyst of armed conflict in the Andes for the Washington Office on Latin America, said a stern punishment for Alcalá is likely to dissuade others in the Venezuelan military — whose support is critical to Maduro’s grip on power — from breaking ranks.

“It could complicate any transition from dictatorship to democracy,” Isacson said “Without any leniency from the U.S. for past crimes, the Maduro regime can point to Alcalá as an example of how high the exit costs are for anyone who might be considering disloyalty.”

Isacson noted that the minimum 30 years prosecutors are seeking in Alcalá’s case is longer than the average 12 years served by a cadre of Colombian paramilitary warlords extradited to the U.S. in 2008 on drug-trafficking charges.

Alcalá surrendered in Colombia in 2020 to face a federal indictment charging him, Maduro and a dozen other military and political leaders with a sprawling conspiracy to convert Venezuela into a launchpad for flooding the U.S. with cocaine. All are alleged to be members of what U.S. authorities have dubbed the “Cartel of the Suns,” a reference to the epaulettes affixed to the uniforms of high-ranking military officers.

Before laying down weapons as part of a 2016 peace deal, the FARC regularly used the porous border region Venezuela as a safe haven and hub for U.S.-bound cocaine shipments — often with the support or at least consent of Venezuelan security forces.

Over the two-day hearing earlier this month, Hellerstein heard from two associates of major Venezuelan drug traffickers and a former police officer who was a well-paid DEA informant. The three witnesses described Alcalá as a powerful trafficker whose power extended well beyond his rank and formal responsibilities in the military.

But Alcalá’s court-appointed attorneys have disputed that portrayal, noting he lived openly in Colombia for years prior to his arrest, with a small rented apartment, a beat-up Nissan and barely $3,000 in his bank account.

“He was not living the life of an exiled corrupt Latin American leader rich with the spoils of monies corruptly earned,” his attorneys wrote in a pre-sentencing memo seeking just six years behind bars.

They argue that the drug accusations against him lack credibility and are a brazen attempt to either retaliate against the general by traffickers he targeted or recover part of the $10 million reward the U.S. offered for his arrest and conviction. One witness mentioned Alcala only nine years into his cooperation agreement with the DEA — after Alcala’s arrest

“Did there come a time when you became a nice man?” Hellerstein quipped to one witness who admitted on the stand to hiring corrupt cops to steal from his grandmother and lying to his U.S. handlers about threats he made to associates in Miami.

Then there’s Alcalá’s role as an outspoken foe of Maduro, whom the U.S. has blamed for destroying the country’s democracy and oil-rich economy.

Around the same time Alcalá was plotting against Maduro, the Trump administration was offering a $15 million reward for Maduro’s arrest and actively urging members of the military to rebel.

Alcalá opposed Maduro almost from the moment he assumed the mantle of the Bolivarian revolution from Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer in 2013, the same year Alcalá retired from the military. His dissent escalated in 2017 when, with the knowledge of the U.S. government, he leveraged his influence among the Venezuelan officer corps to rally troops to remove Maduro.

“These were not theoretical debates about democratic change, these were plans for armed insurrection against a regime and its leadership,” his attorneys wrote.

The 2017 barracks revolt failed, ending with several plotters arrested. Alcalá managed to flee across the border to Colombia, where he made contact with the Central Intelligence Agency.

A few years later, he would try again, this time in coordination with the democratic opposition led by Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. recognized in 2019 as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

Alcalá’s comrade-in-arms in his final fateful battle was a former U.S. Green Beret and decorated Iraq and Afghanistan veteran named Jordan Goudreau. An investigation by the AP in 2020 detailed how the two like-minded warriors joined up to train a motley crew of Venezuelan military deserters at clandestine camps in Colombia.

Alcalá’s arrest doomed whatever dim hopes the rebellion had of succeeding.

“Traitor, deserter, drug trafficker,” Maduro crowed following his arrest. “The devil is paying you back in the way the devil knows how.”

Alcalá’s hardscrabble journey is something of a Venezuelan salt-of-the-Earth sojourn. Unlike many of Maduro’s civilian opponents, who hail from Venezuela’s white elite minority, Alcalá was born into poverty and raised by his grandmother after being orphaned at an early age when he was abandoned by his father and his mother died.

To provide some structure, he and two brothers were sent to the military. He finished top in his class, impressing colleagues — including Chávez, a charismatic tank commander and instructor – with his physical and mental stamina. His closest match was his older brother, Carlos Alcala, who Chávez would name as head of the army and until recently served as Maduro’s ambassador to Iran.

Even in prison, Alcalá remains a fighter. He said he has used his time behind bars to reflect on his choices, missteps and regrets. He’s read more than 200 books — most of them history books — and maintains a battle-ready physique by running 5 miles on a treadmill every day.

“I haven’t run this fast since I was lieutenant,” he jokes of his personal-best pace, a 7-minute mile. “The guards just look at me like I’m crazy.”

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Associated Press writer Jim Mustian in New York contributed to this report.

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Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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