Venezuela Increasingly A Conduit For Cocaine

Smugglers Exploit Graft, Icy Relations With U.S.

Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 28, 2007; Page A01

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.

Mercedes Eloisa Caraballo holds a photo of her son Deivi Alexander Batista, who was killed by gang members in Caracas, where drug crime is steadily rising.
Mercedes Eloisa Caraballo holds a photo of her son Deivi Alexander Batista, who was killed by gang members in Caracas, where drug crime is steadily rising. (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)

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.

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