BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Venezuela, Colombia and the United States finally appear to agree on something: that drug trafficking suspect Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco is a dangerous felon.
Gonzalez, arrested over the weekend in Venezuela by the nation's intelligence police force, will be tried in Venezuela on drug trafficking, money laundering and false identity charges, Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin said at a news conference Monday.
Gonzalez, 48, has been indicted in New Jersey and New York federal courts on drug trafficking charges and is wanted in Colombia on suspicion of murder. He has been on an Interpol list of wanted suspects since 2005.
Gonzalez's importance is underscored by a $5-million reward that the U.S. State Department had posted for his capture. The Colombian has been identified as the head of the so-called Guajira cartel, named for the desolate peninsula that forms Venezuela's northwestern boundary. The cartel controls as much as one-third of the 250 tons of cocaine that annually passes through Venezuela on the way to U.S. and European markets, authorities say.
That passage is said to be facilitated by the so-called Cartel of the Sun, a group of corrupt Venezuelan army and police officials named for the solar insignia on the uniforms of the Venezuelan national guard. Gonzalez's Guajira cartel is said to be closely associated with the guard.
Gonzalez, whose 230-pound, 5-foot-5-inch frame earned him the nickname "Gordito," or Fatso, was arrested Saturday at his ranch in Caja Seca, at the southern end of Lake Maracaibo.
Few details of his arrest have been released, but Venezuelan authorities have said he was taken into custody by the nation's investigative police force, known as the Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services.
Attorney Freddy Ferrer Medina, told reporters that his client, when arrested, was carrying ID badges from the national guard and Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services, and also an official permit to bear arms.
The lawyer said that the ID badges were legitimate and that Gonzalez's arrest was illegal because there were no outstanding charges against him in Zulia state.
Gonzalez long ago moved to Venezuela's western border state of Zulia, where he owns ranches and other businesses including pharmacies. Arrested with him were 13 of his employees.
He was born in the Guajiran border town of Maicao in Colombia, where dealing in contraband is a way of life for many. Gonzalez is believed to have turned to crime while serving in the so-called Guajira Peasants' Self-Defense paramilitary and to have moved to Venezuela to manage the militia's drugs-for-arms trade.
Gonzalez, whose brother was killed in a shootout with police in Venezuela in 2004, is described by foreign counter-narcotics officials as ruthless.
Among the Bush administration's complaints about Venezuela in recent years has been its emergence as a drug-trafficking hub because, officials say, its security forces have been infiltrated by Colombian narcos such as Gonzalez.
Venezuela could legally extradite Gonzalez to Colombia or the United States because he is a Colombian citizen. (Venezuelan law prohibits the extradition of its citizens.)
But Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ended all cooperation with U.S. narcotics officials in 2005, describing them as "spies." He reassigned 40 specially vetted Venezuelan anti-drug police officers who had been trained in Quantico, Va., to other beats. He did not expel U.S. agents but has granted fewer work visas.
Meanwhile, drug traffic has quintupled in Venezuela since 2002, according to the former U.S. ambassador there. U.S. officials such as White House anti-drug czar John P. Walters have cited Venezuela's lax enforcement and corruption as reasons.
According to the U.S. State Department's annual drug report released last month, seizures of illegal drugs in Venezuela "dropped substantially in 2007 while seizures of drugs coming out of Venezuela by other countries, including the U.S. and United Kingdom, rose sharply."
U.S. officials contacted Monday said it was too early to say whether Gonzalez's arrest means the Venezuelan government is clamping down harder on drug trafficking. "Let's find out more about how and why [the arrest] happened first," said one, who asked to remain anonymous.
Special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.