U.S. court awards $73 million to family of dissident who died in custody in Venezuela

Framed portrait of Fernando Alban atop his casket
Venezuelan opposition activist Fernando Albán died in custody in October 2018.
(Ariana Cubillos / Associated Press)

A federal judge in Miami has awarded $73 million in damages to the family of a prominent Venezuelan dissident who died while in custody in what the judge described as a “murder for hire” carried out by a criminal enterprise led by President Nicolás Maduro.

Fernando Albán was arrested in 2018 upon arrival at the international airport in Caracas from New York, where he had been part of a delegation that denounced Maduro’s government on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Albán died three days later in what authorities initially described as suicide by jumping from the 10th floor of a building belonging to Venezuela’s intelligence services.

Albán’s death sparked international outrage and condemnation from the U.S. Last year, his widow and two children sued Maduro and several high-ranking members of Maduro’s government for carrying out the kidnapping, torture and murder of the one-time Caracas councilman.


The family accused the men of belonging to the “Cartel of the Suns,” an alleged drug-smuggling ring involving top Venezuelan officials and guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — a designated terrorist group — that reputedly sends about 220 tons of cocaine from Venezuela into the U.S. each year.

Judge Darrin P. Gayles issued a default judgment against the cartel for failing to respond to the lawsuit in a previously unreported ruling last week. In it, the court found the “Maduro criminal enterprise” liable for federal racketeering offenses in Albán’s death because its entire purpose is to “exercise unlawful authoritarian control over Venezuela” through narcotics trafficking, acts of terrorism and human rights violations.

Adopting the earlier findings of a magistrate judge, the court said operatives for the Maduro government tailed Albán while he was still in New York, taking surveillance photos and sending information back to Venezuela that facilitated his kidnapping and killing upon his return home.

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“Mr. Albán’s murder was a murder for hire because members of the Maduro Criminal Enterprise who committed the murder received payment (in the form of salaries) from the Maduro regime,” the court said.

The court ordered the cartel to pay $73 million to Albán’s estate for the pain and suffering caused by his death.

However, it’s unclear how the survivors will collect the award. While Maduro and other defendants named in the original complaint — including his defense minister and the head of Venezuela’s high court — have been criminally charged in the U.S. with narco-terrorism and corruption, they’re under little pressure domestically from Albán’s former cohorts in the opposition.


Meanwhile, the Biden administration has shown a willingness to ease sanctions on the oil-rich nation in exchange for progress in talks between the government and the opposition to foster a more democratic environment for the 2024 presidential election.

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Additionally, the only alleged cartel ringleader who is in U.S. custody, retired Army Gen. Cliver Alcalá, is represented by a court-appointed legal team after claiming he was unable to pay for his defense.

A lawyer for Albán’s family declined to comment.

Albán’s case has also been denounced at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, which is investigating allegations of torture and killings by Maduro’s security forces. In late 2021, Venezuelan Atty. Gen. Tarek William Saab announced that two members of the feared SEBIN intelligence service had been sentenced to nearly six years in prison for negligence in connection to Albán’s death while in their custody.