WHEN Hugo Chávez became Venezuela’s president, in 1999, he promised an overhaul of the country’s notoriously venal judiciary. But according to charges made by a recently dismissed supreme-court justice, the flaws Mr Chávez vowed to rectify are nothing compared with what has transpired under his rule.
On March 20th the legislature removed Eladio Aponte from the court. Previously a colonel and the chief military prosecutor, he joined it in 2004 when Mr Chávez expanded it and appointed 17 loyalists. He was accused of giving government credentials to Walid Makled, an alleged drug baron. The government had long been aware of his actions, and Mr Aponte says that Mr Makled was seen at the time as a legitimate businessman friendly to Mr Chávez. Extradited last year from Colombia, Mr Makled is now on trial in Caracas for drug trafficking and conspiracy to commit murder. On April 25th he said he had paid Mr Aponte millions of dollars.
Mr Aponte was not criminally charged in connection with Mr Makled’s case. Nonetheless, he still fled the country. Weeks later he showed up in Miami, where he is said to be collaborating with the American authorities.
Now that he is safely abroad, Mr Aponte has minced no words. On April 18th he gave an interview to SOiTV, a Miami-based television channel, in which he recalled that senior officials “from the president down” would phone him with instructions on sensitive cases. In his account, Elías Jaua, the vice-president, held weekly meetings with leaders of the judiciary—which is constitutionally separate from the executive—and would have those who disobeyed him fired. He also said there is a long-standing order not to release political prisoners, who the opposition says number over a dozen. They include María Lourdes Afiuni, a judge who has spent over two years in pre-trial detention.
Mr Aponte’s most explosive claims involve the government’s links to guerrillas and drug traffickers. Asked about its relationship with Colombia’s FARC, Mr Aponte said he was told to “turn a blind eye to all those gentlemen” (see article). In one case, he said, Henry Rangel Silva, now the defence minister, ordered leniency for a lieutenant-colonel who had been arrested for cocaine-smuggling. He was later freed without trial. Mr Aponte also accused Clíver Alcalá, a general, of being the country’s “drug tsar”. Both men were already on the United States Treasury Department’s blacklist of alleged collaborators with the drug trade.
The government has dismissed Mr Aponte as a discredited turncoat offering no proof. “He sold his soul to the devil,” said Nicolás Maduro, the foreign minister. But if Mr Aponte has evidence to back up his assertions, America could issue indictments of Venezuelan officials.
Politics and biology, however, may move faster than the wheels of justice. Both countries will hold presidential elections this year. And Mr Chávez, who is running for re-election, just spent two weeks in Cuba undergoing radiation therapy after the recurrence of his pelvic cancer. With no heir apparent, tensions within his party are rising. Mr Aponte may not be the last high-level defector in 2012.