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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Venezuela's Drug-Trafficking Role Is Growing Fast, U.S. Report Says

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Venezuela's Drug-Trafficking Role Is Growing Fast, U.S. Report Says
Government Corruption, Aid to Colombian Rebels Are Cited

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 19, 2009

BOGOTA, Colombia, July 18 -- A report for the U.S. Congress on drug smuggling through Venezuela concludes that corruption at high levels of President Hugo Chávez's government and state aid to Colombia's drug-trafficking guerrillas have made Venezuela a major launching pad for cocaine bound for the United States and Europe.

Since 1996, successive U.S. administrations have considered Venezuela a key drug-trafficking hub, the Government Accountability Office report says. But now, it says, the amount of cocaine flowing into Venezuela from Colombia, Venezuela's neighbor and the world's top producer of the drug, has skyrocketed, going from an estimated 60 metric tons in 2004 to 260 metric tons in 2007. That amounted to 17 percent of all the cocaine produced in the Andes in 2007.

The report, which was first reported by Spain's El Pais newspaper Thursday and obtained by The Washington Post on Friday, represents U.S. officials' strongest condemnation yet of Venezuela's alleged role in drug trafficking. It says Venezuela has extended a "lifeline" to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the United States estimates has a hand in the trafficking of 60 percent of the cocaine produced in Colombia.

The report, scheduled to be made public in Washington on Monday, drew an angry response from Chávez, whose government has repeatedly clashed with the United States. Speaking to reporters in Bolivia on Friday, the populist leader characterized the report as a political tool used by the United States to besmirch his country. He also said the United States, as the world's top cocaine consumer, has no right to lecture Venezuela.

"The United States is the first narco-trafficking country," Chávez said, adding that Venezuela's geography -- particularly its rugged 1,300-mile border with Colombia -- makes it vulnerable to traffickers. He also asserted that Venezuela had made important gains in the drug war since expelling U.S. counter-drug agents in 2005, a measure the GAO says made Venezuela more attractive to Colombian traffickers.

"Venezuela has begun to hit narco-trafficking hard since the DEA left," Chávez said, referring to the Drug Enforcement Administration. "The DEA is filled with drug traffickers."

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) commissioned the GAO study in February 2008, asking the nonpartisan agency to determine whether Venezuela was "in the process of becoming a narco-state, heavily dependent [on] and beholden to the international trade in illegal drugs."

In a statement about the GAO report, Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the findings "have heightened my concern that Venezuela's failure to cooperate with the United States on drug interdiction is related to corruption in that country's government." He said the report underscores a need for a comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward Venezuela.

The release of the report is expected to provide ammunition to some Republican lawmakers who have criticized the Obama administration's efforts to reinstate the deposed president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, a close ally of Chávez. U.S. diplomats have said that despite his ties to Chávez, Zelaya should be returned to power to serve the six months left in his term.

A Democratic aide in Congress who works on Latin American policy issues suggested that the call for a review of U.S. policy toward Venezuela could interfere with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's bid to improve relations with Caracas, which were badly frayed during the Bush years. "The administration inherited a messy bilateral relationship and deserves a chance to put it on a more even keel," the aide said.

The GAO report describes how cocaine produced in Colombia is smuggled into Venezuela via land and river routes, as well as on short flights originating from remote regions along Colombia's eastern border. Most of the cocaine is then shipped out on merchant vessels, fishing boats and so-called go-fast boats. Though most of it is destined for U.S. streets, increasing amounts are being sent to Europe, the report says.

The GAO contends that corruption in Venezuela, reaching from officers in the National Guard to officials in top levels of government, has contributed to the surge in trafficking.

In September, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control designated three Venezuelan high-ranking officials, all close aides to Chávez, as "drug kingpins" for protecting FARC drug shipments and providing arms and funding to Colombian guerrillas. They are Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, director of the military's Intelligence Directorate; Henry de Jesús Rangel Silva, head of the Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services; and Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, former interior and justice minister.

News of the GAO report came as Colombian officials in Bogota released an internal FARC video in which the rebel group's second-in-command, Jorge Briceño, reads the deathbed manifesto, written in March 2008, by the then-supreme commander, Manuel Marulanda. In the video, seized in May from a FARC operative and obtained by the Associated Press, Marulanda stresses the strategic importance of "maintaining good political relations, friendship and confidence with the governments of Venezuela and Ecuador."

Marulanda's letter also laments that a trove of internal e-mails, many of them compromising Venezuelan and Ecuadoran officials, fell into the hands of Colombian authorities that month. Briceño, reading the letter to a group of guerrillas in a jungle clearing, announces that among FARC "secrets" that were lost is information about the "assistance in dollars" to Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa's 2006 presidential campaign.

Venezuela did not immediately respond to the video. But on Saturday, Correa, an ally of Chávez, denied receiving campaign funds from the FARC and suggested the video was a "setup."

"There is a setup to damage the image of the country and the government," he said in a radio address.

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