CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Suspected drug flights from Venezuela to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola rose 44% over the first three months of the year, U.S. officials say, a surge in activity that some believe was behind Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's expressions of willingness to resume anti-drug cooperation with Washington.
Despite the possible rapprochement with Chavez three years after the leftist leader suspended joint anti-drug efforts, U.S. counter-narcotics officials in Venezuela and the Caribbean say they see no sign of cooperation or of reduced traffic.
"Many people here want to cooperate, but this being an autocracy, no one is going to reach out until the big guy does something," said one U.S. government source who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "We're not seeing anything on the narco side except words."
Venezuela's chief anti-drug official, Nestor Reverol, announced that a new radar system purchased from China would soon be in place to monitor illegal air traffic. Questioned by a reporter Monday about concrete steps Venezuela will take to increase cooperation, Reverol said he was awaiting instructions from Chavez.
The suspected drug flight figures were provided by U.S. counter-narcotics officials in Puerto Rico who based them on the tracking of unauthorized air traffic from the Venezuelan-Colombian border area to the island, which comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The flights are monitored by the Pentagon's Joint Interagency Task Force South, based in Key West, Fla., which uses radar-equipped ships and aircraft to track and, when possible, seize suspected drug flights and marine shipments. British, Dutch and French naval vessels have participated in such seizures.
U.S. and European officials say shipments of drugs by air and sea from Venezuela to the Caribbean, Central America and Africa have skyrocketed because of widespread corruption in Venezuela's armed forces. Corresponding police corruption in Haiti and the Dominican Republic smooths the Hispaniola flights.
Between 20% and 25% of all Colombian cocaine reaching the United States is thought to come through Venezuela to the Caribbean and then Central America. Despite U.S.-backed eradication efforts, coca cultivation in Colombia rose 27% last year, according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report issued in June.
Chavez ended all cooperation by Venezuelan anti-drug police with U.S. agents based in Venezuela in August 2005. Since then, he has slowly winnowed U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration presence there from 10 agents to two by refusing to renew work visas.
The Venezuelan president had planned to attend an anti-drug summit Friday in Cartagena, Colombia, that included the leaders of Mexico, Colombia, and several Central American and Caribbean nations, but he canceled at the last minute, citing security concerns.
Venezuelan officials say they are stepping up their enforcement efforts.
Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin says drug seizures in Venezuela are up this year. But U.S. officials in Caracas downplay such claims, saying that most seizures of drugs making their way through Venezuela occur once the shipments leave its territory.
In contrast to Chavez, several Caribbean nations have increased anti-drug cooperation in recent months to respond to the increase in illegal air traffic. In multinational operations, specially trained local police have produced intelligence leading to successful raids that included the deployment of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard helicopters
The efforts, combined with the increasing success of Colombian navy and coast guard units in chasing down "go-fast" boats have forced traffickers to utilize aircraft more than boats to ship drugs, law enforcement officials say.