By Girish Gupta
CARACAS (Reuters) - Last March, Chief Justice Maikel Moreno shocked Venezuela when his Supreme Court nullified the powers of the National Assembly and transferred them to the 32-judge tribunal.
Even in a country used to political upheaval, the decision triggered major protests, forcing Moreno to roll back much of the move three days later.
But the power play illustrated Moreno's role as enforcer for the embattled administration of President Nicolas Maduro, now branded a dictatorship by a growing number of governments, from France and the United States to South American neighbors Colombia and Peru.
The 51-year-old bodyguard-turned-judge and his court have overruled virtually every major law passed by the opposition-led assembly.
Moreno's past, however, remains unknown even to most Venezuelans. To trace his ascent, Reuters examined documents and interviewed associates, colleagues and friends of the chief justice in five countries.
The picture that emerges is of a jurist who, by leveraging personal connections and handling politically sensitive cases that other lawyers and judges rejected, endeared himself to Maduro and fellow members of the late Hugo Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution."
In his rise to Venezuela's top judicial perch, Moreno left behind a past that includes allegations he participated in extortion and influence-peddling rackets and his arrest in 1989 on suspicions of killing a teenager, according to government documents and people familiar with his history.
Reuters found no evidence Moreno was ever tried or convicted of any criminal charges.
In a brief text-message exchange with Reuters on Nov. 7, Moreno said the allegations of jail time, long rumored in Venezuela, were "invented" by sensationalists.
He offered to give Reuters an interview, but then did not respond to requests to schedule one. He did not respond to additional questions by text about his career or other episodes in which he was accused of wrongdoing.
Neither the Supreme Court nor Maduro's government responded to separate requests for comment.
Documents including a 2006 intelligence report by the Supreme Court's security division and a high court ruling against Moreno last decade point to episodes in which Moreno was accused of being on the wrong side of the law – from the 1989 shooting to his ouster as a lower court judge in 2007 for what the high court said was the improper release of two murder suspects.
Opponents of the Maduro government say Moreno is instrumental in propping up an administration that is increasingly authoritarian.
In recent months, the top court has sentenced five opposition mayors to prison. It approved the ouster of Venezuela's chief prosecutor, who fled the country in mid-August, joining a growing exodus of Maduro critics.
In May, Moreno's court gave the green light for Maduro to proceed with the election that created the Constituent Assembly, a legislature that now supersedes the National Assembly and cemented for many the country's tilt toward authoritarian rule. At least 125 people died in four months of protests that ensued after the court sought in March to neuter the assembly.
"The greatest affront to the people is to put a criminal in charge of the judicial system," said Luis Velazquez, a former Venezuelan judge who investigated Moreno on behalf of the Supreme Court a decade before Maduro appointed Moreno to run the top bench.
During his investigation, Velazquez says he found an arrest record for Moreno after the 1989 shooting death of the teen and investigated a phone call in which another judge in a separate case recorded Moreno allegedly pressuring him to release a suspected arms and drug trafficker.
The chief justice is not the first senior Venezuelan official to be accused of abuse of power.
The U.S. government earlier this year accused Vice President Tareck El Aissami of drug trafficking. It sanctioned Maduro himself for having "deliberately and repeatedly abused the rights of citizens" with repressive tactics. And it sanctioned Moreno and seven other Supreme Court justices for allegedly usurping the legislature and "restricting the rights and thwarting the will of the Venezuelan people."
Venezuela's government has dismissed the accusations and criticized the sanctions, which bar Americans from engaging in business with any of the officials and freezes any assets the officials may have in U.S. jurisdictions.
El Aissami, the vice president, denied ties to the drug trade and slammed the United States on Twitter for "miserable provocations" and "vile aggression."
Under Chavez and now Maduro, the economy has cratered and social stability has ruptured in a country that was once one of Latin America's most prosperous and still boasts the world's largest proven oil reserves.
After an October vote in which Maduro's Socialist party candidates swept a majority of gubernatorial elections, the president dismissed accusations of fraud and defended the legitimacy of his government.
"I am not a dictator," Maduro said. "I have a moustache and look like Stalin, but I'm not him."
A HOMICIDE "RESOLVED"
Little in the public record exists about Moreno's youth. He was born on New Year's Eve, 1965, in the eastern city of El Tigre, according to public tax and electoral documents.
In the late 1980s, court, intelligence and newspaper records show he worked as a bodyguard for then-President Carlos Andres Perez. It is not clear how he became a bodyguard or joined the president's security detail.
That era in Venezuela, marked by food shortages and high inflation similar to the conditions roiling the country now, set the stage for the eventual entry of Chavez, a disgruntled leftist Army officer, into power.
With anger and hardship mounting, riots erupted in 1989. Hundreds of people died.
On the evening of April 26, Moreno and two other Perez bodyguards were in Parque Central, a working-class neighborhood of Caracas, the capital, according to an account two days later in El Nacional, a national newspaper.
For reasons that are not clear, a brawl broke out. Ruben Gil, a 19-year-old student, entered the fray with a baseball bat, the newspaper said. The bodyguards opened fire, shooting Gil dead.
"Presidential Bodyguards Kill Youth," read the front-page headline, above a picture of Gil's weeping mother, Carmen Romelia Marquez de Gomez.
Police arrested Moreno, according to the newspaper account, people familiar with the incident and an intelligence report prepared a decade ago by the security division of Venezuela's Supreme Court. A mugshot from his arrest, included in the report and dated the week after the killing, shows Moreno was arrested for "homicide."
The Supreme Court commissioned the report, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters, in 2006. The 32-member court was already aligned with the leftist government by then, because of appointments made by Chavez, but several judges there had begun to question Moreno's rulings as a lower court judge.
The report, which has never before been made public, was signed by Luis Enrique Villoria Garcia, director general of the court's security division at the time.
Reuters was unable to reach Villoria to discuss the report.
One page appears to be missing from the 19-page copy reviewed by Reuters.
But details from the report regarding the homicide and Moreno's removal from the bench in 2007 were independently verified by people familiar with its contents. Those people include one senior government official, three former Supreme Court judges and three former senior intelligence officials.
Important details about the homicide and Moreno's arrest remain unclear. Notably, Reuters was unable to find a paper trail documenting whether Moreno was tried, sentenced or imprisoned.
The Supreme Court report says he was jailed until sometime in 1990, and cites a criminal case number for a homicide charge against him, 522755, but Reuters could not find any files associated with the case.
A security guard at Lebrun, a central judicial archive in Caracas, would not grant Reuters access to records there. The Supreme Court did not respond to requests seeking permission to search the archive.
Gil's mother died a decade ago, according to people close to the family.
Two people close to Gil told Reuters that witnesses and family members at the time of the brawl said Moreno fired the shot that killed the 19-year-old. These people, who requested anonymity, saying they were afraid of reprisals, said Gil had been a gang member and that an existing, but unspecified rivalry with Moreno had sparked the brawl.
One person, who says he saw Gil's body in a Caracas morgue, said the young man was shot in the back. Gil's death certificate, reviewed by Reuters, cites gunshot as the cause of death.
Three people close to the family said legal proceedings followed Gil's death, but none of them knew what became of the case. "I have wanted to denounce him for years, but I have been too scared," one of these people said.
Moreno has never publicly denied, confirmed or discussed shooting Gil.
He told friends and colleagues the killing was in self-defense, according to a person close to Moreno who spoke on condition of anonymity. Another person, who also asked not to be named, told Reuters that Moreno said any fallout from the killing had been "resolved."
At some point in 1990, according to the intelligence report, Moreno was released from jail. It said he had received "an illegally granted procedural benefit" but gave no further details about his release.
In the text exchange with Reuters, Moreno disputed the assertion of jail time, saying it and the other details from the report "are not true either." He did not clarify or directly address other specifics from the report.
Once free, Moreno pursued a law degree at Santa Maria University, in Caracas. He worked as a bailiff while he studied, according to his official biography.
While Moreno studied, Chavez in 1992 led a failed coup attempt against Perez's increasingly unpopular government. Chavez was jailed, but freed in 1994 thanks to the work of Cilia Flores, a firebrand attorney fond of leftist causes.
In the next decade, Flores became a close aide of Chavez and the head of the National Assembly. She was also a friend of Moreno. It is not clear how she knew him, but Flores years before had also studied law at Santa Maria.
The government did not respond to Reuters requests to speak with Flores. Reuters could not reach her outside government channels.
Completing his law degree in 1995, Moreno worked for two years as an attorney before taking a job as a legal advisor at Corporacion Alas de Venezuela C.A., a holding company for Venezuelan airline Aeropostal Alas de Venezuela.
By that time, Chavez had won increasing support from working-class Venezuelans and was on track to win the 1998 presidential election. Moreno was already bragging about his close ties to Flores and other ascendant Chavistas.
"He made sure everyone knew about that relationship," said Nelson Ramiz, who owned Aeropostal but gave up control of the airline and moved to Miami in 2007 after a dispute with regulators.
After three years at the airline, Moreno worked as a legal advisor to the metropolitan police in Sucre, a district of Caracas. He also began advising the National Assembly and became an auxiliary judge for a district in the country's northeast.
For the rest of the 1990s, Moreno alternated between work as an attorney and judge, sometimes wearing both hats at nearly the same time.
It is not unusual for some attorneys in Venezuela to also work as judges. But Moreno's choice of cases sometimes created what critics saw as conflicts of interest. In one episode, he defended a suspect in a high-profile homicide trial and later, as judge, heard related charges against another suspect.
Both cases stemmed from shooting deaths that occurred during a short-lived coup against Chavez in April 2002.
During the coup, gunfire erupted as opposition supporters marched toward Miraflores Palace, seat of the presidency. Witnesses later said they saw rooftop snipers, gunmen on a bridge and gun-wielding police officers during the shooting.
By the time the violence ended, 19 people were dead.
Basic facts of the event, which fueled years of controversy and trials, are still disputed by critics and supporters of the Chavez and Maduro governments.
Richard Penalver, a government supporter accused of being one of the shooters, hired Moreno as his defense lawyer. In 2003, Moreno secured Penalver's acquittal, a victory for the pro-government camp.
Shortly thereafter, this time as pre-trial judge, Moreno agreed to hear whether a case should proceed against Ivan Simonovis, a former Caracas police commissioner who faced charges related to four of the deaths.
Government opponents argued that the charges were manipulated and that Simonovis was being made a scapegoat. They also perceived a conflict for Moreno because of his recent role in clearing Penalver.
Although the defense asked Moreno to recuse himself, according to one of the attorneys and a Simonovis family member, Moreno refused. He sent the case to trial, where Simonovis was convicted the following year and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Simonovis, now serving time under house arrest because of an illness, is not allowed under the terms of his sentence to discuss the case with Reuters.
Few other judges were willing to hear such a polarizing case.
"None of us wanted to take on political cases," one former Supreme Court justice told Reuters. "Maikel did, though, to ingratiate himself" with the Chavez government.
At the time, Moreno was getting ever closer to crucial powerbrokers, especially Flores and her longtime boyfriend - Chavez's confidante and future successor, Maduro. The judge and the power couple grew to have regular contact, the former justice said.
Moreno began throwing his weight around with other judges.
In 2004, Caracas judge Luis Melendez recorded a telephone conversation in which Moreno said he was phoning at the behest of Jose Vicente Rangel, Venezuela's vice president at the time. Disturbed by a prior call from Moreno, Melendez taped the follow-up conversation and gave the recording to internal inspectors of the national judiciary.
In the recording, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters, Moreno is heard pressuring Melendez to release Saul Cordero, a suspected criminal charged at the time with drug and arms trafficking. Reuters also reviewed a transcript of the call printed on Supreme Court letterhead during its investigation of Moreno in 2006.
"The important thing is for him to be out," Moreno told Melendez. "Do what needs to be done."
The senior government official and one other person familiar with the recording said it was authentic.
It is not clear whether Melendez released Cordero. But Cordero was never tried on the charges and eventually was named a police chief by a pro-government mayor in the municipality of Caroni.
Reuters could not reach Cordero, Melendez or Rangel for comment.
"GRAVE AND INEXCUSABLE ERRORS"
By 2006, word of the phone call and of Moreno's controversial role in the 2002 shooting trials was increasingly well-known in judicial circles, according to several judges, attorneys and other officials active at the time. The Supreme Court ordered its security division to investigate.
The resulting intelligence report unearthed allegations that helped derail Moreno's first stint as a judge.
The report, for instance, held that Moreno's efforts to affect judicial outcomes went beyond pressuring colleagues. It cited testimony by numerous witnesses alleging Moreno took part in an extortion ring — known as "Los Enanos," or "the Dwarves" — that secured payments from defendants in exchange for lenient sentences or acquittals.
Moreno was never charged for anything related to the alleged extortion. But his behavior, the report warned, was a threat to the courts, to Chavez and to "the revolution."
In 2007, the Supreme Court found Moreno in contempt of the tribunal and defrocked him as an appeals court judge. Citing "grave and inexcusable errors," the high court found Moreno had improperly released two murder suspects, according to its ruling.
Reuters could not determine on what grounds Moreno had released the two suspects.
Despite his ouster, Moreno remained calm, according to people who spoke with him at the time. Allies like Maduro, whom Chavez had just named foreign minister, would help him.
"Maduro and Cilia will protect me," Moreno told Ramiz, according to the former airline owner's recollection of a conversation with Moreno shortly after the dismissal. The two had remained friendly after Moreno left Aeropostal.
Almost immediately, Maduro sent Moreno to a diplomatic post in Rome. After a year, Maduro sent Moreno to Trinidad and Tobago, a Caribbean country much closer to home, where he held a commercial post with the Venezuelan embassy until 2010.
Moreno then returned to Caracas and studied for a doctorate.
Chavez, stricken by cancer, died in March 2013. Maduro, by then vice president, succeeded Chavez the following month. Weeks later, he married Flores, making her first lady.
With his allies firmly in power, Moreno revived a judicial career that three senior judges said would have remained moribund without such connections, given Moreno's arrest in the 1989 killing and his later ouster from the court system.
The country's 1999 constitution, rewritten by Chavez, stipulates the head of the Supreme Court be of "good repute."
In 2014, Maduro named Moreno, with a fresh doctorate in constitutional law, to the top court.
Since then, Moreno's influence has only grown.
In February 2017, Maduro named him chief justice, outraging critics, including Gabriela Ramirez, the national ombudsman at the time. Ramirez unsuccessfully sought to derail the appointment, citing to senior officials Moreno's ouster from the appeals court.
Under Moreno as chief justice, the court proceeded to dismiss every legal challenge to Maduro's authority that has reached the bench.
(Reporting by Girish Gupta in Caracas. Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Bolivar; Deisy Buitrago, Alexandra Ulmer, Corina Pons, Andreina Aponte, Brian Ellsworth and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas and Jorge Pineda in Santo Domingo. Editing by Paulo Prada.)