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U.S. condemns Venezuela's anti-drug efforts

A report from the General Accounting Office blames corruption and lack of cooperation with the U.S. for a rise in cocaine trafficking. Venezuela's ambassador calls it a 'poor analysis.'

July 21, 2009|Chris Kraul | Kraul is a special correspondent.

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — A breakdown in anti-drug cooperation between Venezuela and the United States has contributed to an alarming surge in cocaine trafficking from Venezuela, according to a report issued Monday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The volume of drugs passing through Venezuela more than quadrupled from 66 tons in 2004 to 287 tons in 2007, the GAO said. U.S.-Venezuelan counter-narcotics cooperation ended in 2005, as friction intensified between the Bush administration and leftist President Hugo Chavez.

Although Venezuela was already a major corridor for Colombian cocaine before Chavez took office in 1999, the volume has increased to the point that in 2007, one-quarter of all Colombian cocaine produced passed through Venezuela, according to estimates.

The GAO said trafficking has increased in part because of Chavez's alleged tolerance of Colombian rebels in Venezuelan territory and because of widespread corruption in his military and police ranks.

"Venezuela is caught between the world's largest producer of cocaine, Colombia, and largest consumer, the United States," the report concludes. "Nevertheless, absent greater initiative by the Venezuelan government to resume counter-narcotics cooperation with the United States, U.S. efforts to address the increasing flow of cocaine through Venezuela will continue to be problematic."

Venezuela denies it has failed to hold up its end of the drug fight, saying that it only chooses to no longer work with the United States. In an interview Monday, Venezuela's ambassador in Washington, Bernardo Alvarez, said the report is "poor analysis that relies on old news and slanted sources."

"It's another reflection of a Cold War mentality against Venezuela. Colombia and the United States are exempted from blame. According to the report, it's all Venezuela's fault," Alvarez said.

Venezuela seizes 28% of all drugs passing through, a higher rate than the United States, Alvarez said.

Luis Fernandez, assistant director of Venezuela's anti-narcotics police, said the country has seized 25 drug-ferrying airplanes and 30 tons of cocaine this year, and has invested in a $250-million Chinese radar system to detect drug flights.

"We reject this unilateral report from a country that pretends to be the judge of the world," Fernandez said.

The report was commissioned in early 2008 by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to look into allegations that Venezuela was becoming a cocaine trafficking hub.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said in an e-mailed statement that the report's details reflect "corruption in that country's government" and "require at a minimum a comprehensive review of U.S. policy towards Venezuela."

In any case, the GAO report amounts to a harsh official condemnation of what the U.S. sees as Chavez's failure to stem the rising flow of drugs across Venezuela. American officials usually prefer to discuss the issue off the record for fear of exacerbating already troubled relations between the countries.

After hitting a nadir last year, when each country expelled the other's ambassador, U.S.-Venezuelan relations have improved since President Obama took office, and full diplomatic relations were restored early this month. But the subject of narcotics is likely to remain a thorny one.

In 2005, Chavez reassigned more than 30 agents who had received training in the U.S., forbidding joint undercover sting operations and recalling intelligence officers working in the United States. He has also winnowed the number of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents by not renewing their work visas, referring to the agents as spies.

Former Venezuelan anti-drug czar Mildred Camero said Monday that once-excellent cooperation between the countries began to go downhill after the short-lived April 2002 coup against Chavez, in which the fiery president believes the United States had a hand.

The GAO report accuses the Chavez government of throwing a "lifeline" to drug-trafficking Colombian rebel groups by affording them "significant support and safe haven" along the border.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is thought to control as much as 60% of Colombian cocaine production and trafficking, the report says. In condemning Chavez for supporting the rebel group, the report relies on the Colombian government's representations of e-mails recovered in the laptop of FARC commander Raul Reyes, who was killed by Colombian armed forces in a March 2008 raid into Ecuador.

Although Interpol declared a selection of the e-mails as legitimate, Chavez denies giving the FARC refuge and claims the e-mails were part of an elaborate disinformation program to discredit him.

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