By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 28, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Colombian drug kingpins in league with corrupt Venezuelan military officers are increasingly using this country as a way station for smuggling cocaine to the United States and Europe, according to Colombian and U.S. officials. The Bush administration's dismal relations with Venezuela's government have made matters worse, anti-drug agencies say, paralyzing counternarcotics cooperation.
Venezuela does not cultivate the leaf from which cocaine is derived. Instead, this country on South America's northern fringe, along with Ecuador and Central America, has long been a stopover for cocaine produced in neighboring Colombia, the world's top producer.
Now, however, the volume of cocaine trafficked through Venezuela has risen sharply. Shipments have increased significantly, with suspected northbound drug flights out of the country increasing threefold from 2003 to 2006, according to American radar tracking. Counter-drug officials say up to 220 tons of cocaine -- a third of what Colombia produces -- now pass through Venezuela, double the figure in the 1990s. Most of it is bound for the United States and burgeoning markets in Spain, Britain and Italy.
The traffickers have operated with illegally obtained Venezuelan identification cards from agencies as varied as the National Guard, the DISIP intelligence agency and even the economy ministry, all while living in some of the finest neighborhoods in the Venezuelan capital, according to authorities in Bogota, the Colombian capital, and in Caracas. The trend has led to spiraling turf wars among drug gangs in Caracas slums and has directly challenged the government's ability to rein in corruption.
"The problem of drugs has gotten out of the hands of Venezuela," said Mildred Camero, a former drug czar in President Hugo Ch¿vez's government and now a consultant on narcotics to the United Nations, the United States and private industry.
"Now the situation in Venezuela is grave, grave, grave," Camero added. "At some moment, we're going to collapse."
In an interview, Venezuelan Attorney General Isa¿as Rodr¿guez characterized the corruption as isolated and said the government has made fighting the drug trade a priority. But he acknowledged the problem and said traffickers have corrupted some Venezuelan officials while working hand in hand with others.
"In the DISIP, which is the intelligence police, and undoubtedly in some sectors of the National Guard, there is complacency or participation in drug trafficking," Rodr¿guez said. "And not just them, but civil officials at airports."
Rodr¿guez said his office is investigating officials in the judicial police and the armed forces who are suspected of having supplied government ID cards to traffickers or provided them with protection. Among the high-level officials under investigation are three National Guard generals, including Alexis Maneiro, a former head of intelligence.
In response to U.S. criticism that Venezuela has failed to make anti-drug operations a priority, Rodr¿guez said he has fired 23 prosecutors and 150 judges tainted by the trade, while overseeing stepped-up prosecutions leading to 3,670 convictions since 2000. He also said Camero's replacement as drug czar, Luis Correa, was removed from office this year as rumors swirled -- many of them provided by Colombian traffickers -- that he cooperated with cocaine kingpins. Correa has denied the accusations.
"Before, there was no control," Rodr¿guez said. "That's why we think it's absurd and absolutely unjust the declarations that the Bush administration makes at this moment."Finding the 'Weaknesses'
Counter-drug officials in Washington say Venezuela's failure comes just as increased pressure on cartels in Colombia -- part of a seven-year, $5 billion counternarcotics campaign funded by the United States -- is forcing traffickers out. The campaign has led to the arrest of major trafficking suspects, including Diego Montoya, the Norte del Valle cartel leader arrested in September.
"The effort by these criminal organizations is to avoid pressure," said John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "They go to places where they think they will be able to avoid pressure. Their movement shows you where weaknesses are."
Colombian intelligence has detected as many as seven major Colombian traffickers operating in Venezuela, among them Wilber Varela, considered by some anti-drug agencies to be the most powerful cartel leader in South America. Colombian authorities say renegade commanders from a disbanded right-wing paramilitary coalition also operate along Venezuela's northern border, while Marxist rebels have influence to the south.
Compounding the problem is the corruption among government forces on the 1,300-mile border Colombia shares with Venezuela. It is so serious, officials say, that a group of generals in the Venezuelan National Guard is believed to be running a virtual operation known as the Cartel of the Suns, a reference to the stars on their uniforms.
"A Venezuelan military officer fights to get sent to the border," said Camero, the former drug czar, who was abruptly forced out in 2005. "He knows he'll earn more money there than simply as an officer of the Venezuelan armed forces."
In interviews, two jailed members of trafficking organizations -- both of whom have provided information to Colombian and Venezuelan officials -- spoke of coordination between Venezuelan authorities and traffickers.
"They collaborated with narco-traffickers, and they'd work with us," said Rafael Garcia, a former Colombian intelligence official who was also a member of the once-powerful Northern Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces, a paramilitary organization.
Garcia, who is jailed in Bogota, said one of the biggest Colombian traffickers in Venezuela has been Hermagoras Gonzalez, better known as the Fatman Gonzalez, who authorities say has obtained credentials from the DISIP.
Another suspected trafficker, Farid Feris Dom¿nguez, jailed in Combita prison north of Bogota, spoke of how he lived in a $900,000 house in the exclusive La Lagunita neighborhood of Caracas and enjoyed the privileges of a Venezuelan diplomatic passport. He said he had also been close to Correa, the former drug czar removed by Ch¿vez.
The Venezuelan government said Dom¿nguez's arrest in Caracas last year, and subsequent handover to Colombian authorities, shows its commitment to arresting cartel leaders. But Dom¿nguez said Venezuelan authorities had extorted him and handed him over to the Colombians only after they'd concluded he'd become a liability.
"They betrayed me, the same agencies I had been working with," he said.Deadly Consequences
The traffickers have stepped up their activities as Venezuela's government has sharply curtailed relations with U.S. counter-drug officials.
Saying his government would not stand for what he called violations of Venezuela's sovereignty, Ch¿vez banned American surveillance flights in its airspace in 1999, shortly after he took office. Then, in August 2005, he suspended bilateral anti-drug cooperation after accusing the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration of spying, charges the Bush administration strenuously denies.
Though Venezuelan relations with Colombian officials, particularly those on the border, are somewhat better, high-ranking officials in Colombia's security services say cooperation on drug issues has steadily worsened.
"What changed dramatically has not just been that corruption has grown more profound, but that the cooperation stopped with us and the North Americans," said a high-ranking police official in Colombia's capital who has long coordinated counternarcotics operations. "We used to be able to call and say: 'Show me this.' 'Let's check that.' Now, they won't even take our calls."
The trafficking of cocaine into Venezuela is made easy by a porous border torn by violence and marked by hundreds of dirt trails and dozens of unmonitored rivers.
In recent years, traffickers have transported tons of cocaine on hundreds of short flights from jungle airstrips in Colombia to landing pads just a few miles away in Venezuela -- flights so short that Colombia's air force has little time to intercept.
Small planes then depart from as far south as the Venezuelan state of Apure, nearly 300 miles south of the coastline, and fly north to Dutch islands or Hispaniola, which is shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
That's the last step before the contraband is shipped to U.S. cities.
Cocaine is also smuggled to Europe via shipping containers, on clandestine flights to Africa and on airliners using Caracas's international airport, where American authorities say airport workers are bribed to permit the smuggling of a ton of cocaine each month.
The consequences of the cocaine pipeline have been felt across Venezuelan society, which has experienced an alarming spike in homicides and other crimes in recent years.
Before recently extraditing Luis Hernando G¿mez Bustamante to face drug charges in the United States, Colombian police interrogated him about drug operations through Venezuela. G¿mez described Venezuela as a "temple" to cocaine trafficking and said the Venezuelans have no idea what's about to hit them.
In many neighborhoods of Caracas, residents already know. The drug trade has meant gangs fighting for control. When they lose, it can mean death.
One resident, Deivi Alexander Batista, who had hoped to play professional baseball, was killed on a recent night -- shot eight times on the street by gang members. His mother, Mercedes Eloisa Caraballo, rushed to where he had fallen and held him as he died.
"I saw my son be born, and I saw him die," she said, crying softly. "I saw him die in a way that was so cowardly."