Venezuelan ex-general discussing possible plea with U.S. - prosecutor

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former Venezuelan general jailed in the United States on drug trafficking charges is discussing a possible guilty plea with prosecutors, according to recently-released court filings, in a sweeping case in which President Nicolas Maduro is also a defendant.

Cliver Alcala, who retired from the armed forces in 2013 and later fell out with Maduro's government, surrendered to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in neighboring Colombia in March 2020. Sources told Reuters at the time that Alcala had agreed to collaborate with prosecutors.

Cooperation by Alcala or other alleged co-conspirators could help prosecutors build their cases against Maduro and Socialist Party Vice President Diosdado Cabello, who are charged in the case

Maduro is accused of conspiring with Colombian rebels for two decades to "flood" the United States with cocaine. He and Cabello have denied the charges, which were filed as the Trump administration pressed Maduro to leave power.

Maduro, whom Washington has labeled a dictator, remains in office despite diplomatic pressure and U.S. sanctions on Venezuela's oil industry, backed by the South American country's military and allies including Russia and Cuba.

After surrendering in March 2020, Alcala pleaded not guilty to narco-terrorism conspiracy, conspiring to import cocaine and related weapons charges brought by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyle Wirshba told U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in an April 12 hearing that Alcala and prosecutors had "engaged in discussions about whether or not a possible pretrial disposition of this matter might be possible," according to a transcript released on Sept. 7.

A pretrial disposition refers to a plea, and could mean the defendant has reached a deal to cooperate or has "had enough" and decided to plead guilty, said Steven Cash, counsel at the Day Pitney law firm and a former prosecutor at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

Alcala's attorney, Cesar de Castro, told the judge the government's statements were accurate. De Castro did not respond to requests for comment about the discussions. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.

Another former Venezuelan official charged in the same case, ex-military intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal, was arrested in Madrid last week at the United States' request and will be held pending extradition.

And Alex Saab - a businessman close to Maduro facing U.S. money laundering charges in an unrelated case - could soon face extradition from Cape Verde, where he is being held.

Both Carvajal and Saab have denied the U.S. charges.

Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and a former State Department official, said testimony by the three men could help U.S. officials disrupt criminal networks linked to the Venezuelan government.

"It's potentially a major inflection point to get these guys collaborating and on the record, and exposing the inner mechanics of chavismo," Farnsworth said, referring to the movement began by Maduro's predecessor and mentor, the late former President Hugo Chavez.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Daniel Wallis)

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