APNewsBreak: Venezuelan judge talking to US

May 9, 2012 - 3:35 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Venezuelan Supreme Court Magistrate Eladio Aponte is in the United States talking to the Drug Enforcement Administration and Justice Department, U.S. officials said, making him one of the highest ranking Venezuelan officials to cooperate with U.S. authorities.

The former judge has accused Venezuelan officials of having ties to drug trafficking and of corruption and said he has evidence backing his allegations. Venezuela's National Assembly expelled him from the court in March for allegedly helping an alleged drug trafficker.

"If the proceedings advance without delays, in the next weeks Aponte will be ready to speak publicly, once he has finished the relocation of his loved ones," said the official. "Protecting family is something logical that any person would do."

Another U.S. official says a series of indictments and U.S. kingpin designations against alleged drug traffickers would likely result from Aponte's cooperation. Aponte is "singing his heart out," the official said.

Both officials asked to remain anonymous so as not to put others at risk and because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the subject.

Any indictments would remain sealed, one of the officials said, but the broader ramifications of Aponte's cooperation were significant.

In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department accused then-Venezuelan intelligence chief Gen. Henry Rangel Silva and four other members of President Hugo Chavez's inner circle of helping leftist Colombian rebels by supplying arms and aiding drug trafficking operations. Chavez brushed aside those accusations as politically motivated, and in January he appointed Rangel as defense minister.

Aponte laid out much of his case in an interview after fleeing Venezuela, saying he believes some military officials, including National Anti-Drug Office chief Gen. Nestor Reverol, have ties to drug traffickers. Government officials have vehemently denied those accusations.

Aponte also said in the interview that as a military prosecutor, he had been contacted by Chavez about a case.

Chavez, for his part, has called Aponte "a criminal."

If Aponte provides U.S. authorities with evidence of corruption or drug ties among government officials, such claims could become a larger scandal for Chavez's government and might hurt its image internationally.

The charges have already become fodder for political debate in Venezuela as opposition politicians have called for an investigation into the claims.

However, the U.S. government's previous accusations against the Venezuelan government, including repeated allegations that it has failed in its counterdrug efforts, have not significantly impacted Chavez's domestic support nor his relationships with allied countries in Latin America.

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Associated Press writer Ian James contributed from Caracas, Venezuela.