Correction to This Article
This article about Venezuela's anti-drug efforts incorrectly says that the country has Super Toucan fighter aircraft. It has an earlier version of the plane, known commonly as the Tucano. The United States has blocked its attempt to buy 24 Super Toucans.

Venezuela Steps Up Efforts To Thwart Cocaine Traffic

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 7, 2008

ELORZA, Venezuela -- Facing criticism that cocaine trafficking is out of control, Venezuela's government this year has embarked on an aggressive program to track drug-smuggling planes and destroy clandestine airstrips used by Colombian drug clans, Venezuelan drug enforcement and military officials said in a series of interviews.

In what appears to be a sharp shift from last year, Venezuelan aircraft and munitions experts have destroyed 157 dirt strips here in the grassy plains state of Apure, most of them in the last two weeks. The government has installed three new Chinese-made radar stations and plans to put up seven others that will completely cover Venezuelan airspace and permit authorities to track unidentified flights originating in neighboring Colombia.

"As a state, we are showing that there is a policy to fight narco-trafficking," said National Guard Col. Nestor Reverol, president of the National Anti-Drug Office, which coordinates the programs. "We're not saying it's just a problem for Colombia and the United States. We're assuming responsibility. That's why we're doing this."

The National Assembly is expected this year to approve a law that will permit Venezuelan fighter planes to shoot down aircraft smuggling cocaine, mirroring a similar program in Colombia, Reverol and air force officials said.

The initiatives, discussed in detail during a tour of a state that has become a hotbed of drug trafficking, come as Venezuela is under increasing criticism from U.S. officials who say rampant corruption and a lax attitude toward trafficking have turned this country into a major way station for cocaine bound for the United States and Europe. Polls show Venezuelans are also concerned with spiraling violent crime, a result of the drug trade.

"I think they are trying to respond to those accusations of not making this a high enough priority, by demonstrating that they are taking lots of action," said John Walsh, who analyzes the drug war for the Washington Office on Latin America, a policy group. "As a domestic political issue, crime has become very salient, and I think the Chávez government sees that as a real challenge and for that reason is also interested."

John Walters, director of the White House drug policy office, said he had doubts about the commitment of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's administration to dismantling trafficking operations.

U.S. officials have been particularly concerned since Colombian authorities released documents to The Washington Post on March 6 that appeared to show ties between Chávez and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerrilla group the United States considers a cocaine cartel. Anti-drug officials in Washington and Colombia have also said in interviews that high-ranking Venezuelan military officers have collaborated with Colombian drug kingpins, providing some with Venezuelan government identification cards and protection.

"If you want to see what makes a consequential difference, you look at what's been going on in Colombia -- real arrests, going after traffickers, infrastructure, really seizing," Walters said by telephone from Washington. "Going after the transnational elements of the trade. I have yet to see that kind of transformation on the part of the Venezuelans."

The United States estimates that up to 250 tons of cocaine -- more than a third of what Colombia produced -- passed through Venezuela last year, more than double the amount trafficked in the 1990s.

That has prompted concern that Venezuela, though always a route for smuggling, has become a major sieve, despite the $6 billion the United States has spent since 2000 to fight drugs and Marxist guerrillas in Colombia.

"What we're now seeing is a threat to our investment, a threat to Plan Colombia," said a senior U.S. Senate staff member who helps shape Latin American policy, speaking on condition that he not be identified by name because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It's the preeminent issue with Venezuela."

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