The Obama administration is about to lose an extraordinary opportunity to prosecute one of the world’s biggest drug traffickers. It will fail to break up a network that annually smuggles hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States. And it will miss delivering a devastating blow to the most dedicated U.S. adversary in Latin America, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.
You wouldn’t have known that from watching the White House meeting last week of Presidents Obama and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia. They gathered to celebrate the completion of an “action plan” that could lead, maybe, to congressional ratification of a long-stalled free trade treaty between Colombia and the United States. Remarkably, they said nothing in public about the judgment of no-confidence Santos has made about Obama — a product of Obama’s previous neglect of a valuable ally.
In fact, the U.S.-Colombian trade plan, which leaves the treaty several steps from ratification, may matter less than the decision Santos announced two days before reaching Washington. The democratically elected Colombian leader is a graduate of the University of Kansas and a lifelong friend of the United States. He nevertheless confirmed that he will deliver a man named Walid Makled Garcia, whom Colombia arrested last August on a U.S. warrant, to his native Venezuela rather than to the United States.
Few people had heard of Makled before last year, but he has recently made himself famous thanks to a series of jailhouse interviews. In them, Makled, whom the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has accused of shipping up to 10 tons of cocaine a month from Venezuela to the United States, has described bribing or collaborating with scores of the highest officials of Chavez’s government — including his general in chief, the head of military intelligence, the commander of the Navy and some 40 other generals.
Makled says he has videotapes and other evidence documenting his transactions with the generals and with other senior government officials — provincial governors, members of Congress, cabinet secretaries. He says he has information about Venezuela’s help for Hezbollah and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups.
All this, he said repeatedly in an interview with the Univision network, “I will tell to the prosecutor” in New York, where Makled has been indicted on drug charges. That could give the Justice Department the evidence to indict, and the Treasury Department the grounds to sanction, scores of Venezuela’s top leaders.
It could also lead, as Carl Meacham of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff told me, to “a massive turning point in how people look at the Chavez regime.” A self-styled socialist regarded as the successor to Fidel Castro would be reborn as the heir of Manuel Noriega — ruler not of a revolution but of a narco-state.
Only Santos says he will deliver Makled to Chavez — who scurried to make an extradition request ahead of the Justice Department. Chavez, who had a falling-out with Makled when one of the trafficker’s brothers ran for office without his permission, has charged Makled with two murders. He has also offered Santos a rich array of concessions: an end to the near-state of war between their countries; payment of the nearly $1 billion Venezuela owes to Colombian exporters; the return of Colombian drug traffickers captured in Venezuela. It goes without saying that if Makled goes to Caracas, his allegations about the regime’s drug trafficking will be quickly stifled.
Why would Santos make such a dirty deal? The Colombian has been excusing himself to old American friends by saying he didn’t know how important Makled was before he promised him to Chavez at a meeting last November. In public he cites unconvincing legal technicalities. But another part of his reasoning is undoubtably a judgment about Obama.
Even while holding Santos and his predecessor Alvaro Uribe at arms’ length, the U.S. president has shown no stomach for taking on Chavez. He just spent a week touring Latin America without once mentioning Venezuela — or visiting Colombia. Santos knows what Colombia will gain from sending Makled to Venezuela — and he can guess how Chavez, who has threatened war more than once, might react if the trafficker is delivered to the United States. But would Obama really use Makled to put pressure on Chavez? Would he back up Colombia if Venezuela sent its army to the border again?
Santos guessed that Obama eschews such aggressive U.S. leadership — and it seems he was right. Though Republican members of Congress and DEA officials are seething over the Makled decision — Sen. Richard Lugar calls it “a reversal of years of cooperation” — Obama seems to have shrugged it off. According to Santos, when the Makled case came up in their White House meeting, Obama said he “understood.”