- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 5, 2014

MIAMI (AP) - A former Venezuelan judge pleaded guilty Wednesday to several U.S. charges in a cocaine-trafficking case that connected high-ranking officials of the late President Hugo Chavez’s government to Colombian drug cartels.

Court records show Benny Palmeri-Bacchi pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice, launder money and extortion. He has been jailed since his arrest in August at Miami International Airport on the way to a family vacation at Disney World.

Each count carries a potential 20-year prison sentence, although prosecutors are recommending that all three sentences be imposed concurrently. U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro set sentencing for Feb. 6.

A grand jury indictment charged that Palmeri-Bacchi conspired with Venezuela’s former Interpol director, Rodolfo McTurk, to help move Colombian cocaine through Venezuela to the U.S. McTurk was also indicted but has remained in Venezuela.

Also charged was Hugo Carvajal, a former Venezuelan military intelligence chief close to Chavez. Carvajal was arrested in Aruba on a U.S. warrant, but Venezuela managed in July to secure his release.

According to court documents, Palmeri-Bacchi was paid $850,000 in order to help create false Venezuelan drug charges against Jaime Alberto “Beto” Marin-Zamora, a top member of Colombia’s North Valley Cartel. The idea was to use that fake case to prevent Marin-Zamora’s extradition to the U.S.

Marin-Zamora, however, was brought to face U.S. justice in 2010 and is serving a 16-year prison term after pleading guilty to drug charges.

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