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VENEZUELA: Drug Trafficking Getting Worse, Says U.S. Report

Danielle Kurtzleben and Ali Gharib*

WASHINGTON, Jul 20 2009 (IPS) - Governmental corruption and the refusal to cooperate with U.S. counter-drug efforts are worsening a ballooning drug trafficking problem in Venezuela, according to a new report by the investigative office of the U.S. Congress.

The report, released Monday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), may further fray long-tense relations between the two countries which had appeared to improve modestly since the inauguration six months ago of President Barack Obama.

The report says that gains from the U.S.’s six-billion-dollar Plan Colombia counternarcotics programme are being undermined by Caracas’s “permissive environment” for Colombian insurgent groups, notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a left-wing guerrilla group that supports itself in part through drug production and trafficking.

“According to U.S. officials, a high level of corruption within the Venezuelan government, military, and other law enforcement and security forces contributes to the permissive environment,” said the report.

Venezuela’s 2,000-km-long border with Colombia has long been a preferred route for Colombian drug runners. But shipments of cocaine from Colombia to Venezuela skyrocketed from 60 metric tonnes in 2004 to 260 metric tonnes in 2007, said the GAO.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez denied the GAO’s findings as they were leaked to various press outlets over the past several days, calling the study a smear and accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy because drug trafficking is fuelled by U.S. demand.

“This is a tough issue for the U.S. to lecture Latin America about because the U.S. hasn’t done its part,” said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), a think tank here. “It’s both demand, and it’s a failure of law enforcement here, too. The U.S. also deserves to be criticised.”

In the past, the U.S. and Venezuela have cooperated in anti-drug efforts, but as the relationship deteriorated, cooperation fell off, culminating in Chavez’s 2005 expulsion of U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials from Venezuela, accusing them of espionage.

Chavez said that Venezuelan anti-narcotics efforts have continued without the U.S. But the GAO report claimed that Venezuelan security forces are known to take bribes in exchange for facilitating drug shipments or, upon seizing drugs, either returning them to the traffickers or keeping them.

“[The U.S. State Department] reports that members of the special counternarcotics units of the National Guard and the Federal Investigative Police often facilitate or are themselves involved in drug trafficking,” said the report. “In addition, although the Venezuelan government reports that it seizes cocaine and incinerates it, some may be taken by Venezuelan officials or returned to drug traffickers.”

According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) 2009 World Drug Report, seizures of cocaine in Venezuela dropped from 58 metric tonnes in 2005 to fewer than 32 metric tonnes in 2007.

Perhaps the strongest charge made by the report is that Venezuela provides a “lifeline” to the FARC and other groups.

“By allowing illegal armed groups to elude capture and by providing material support, Venezuela has extended a lifeline to Colombian illegal armed groups, and their continued existence endangers Colombian security gains achieved with U.S. assistance, according to U.S. and Colombian government officials,” the report asserts.

“For any government to support a group like the FARC is very serious,” Shifter told IPS. “Being involved in the drug trade is something that is of concern, but it’s not limited to Venezuela. Support for the FARC has more serious political and strategic considerations.”

“The findings of this report 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,” said Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations committee who commissioned the GAO report.

Tensions between Washington and Caracas came to a head in September 2008, when Venezuela expelled the U.S. ambassador, accusing him of spying. The U.S. followed suit by expelling the Venezuelan ambassador.

U.S.-Venezuela relations have since softened; Chavez applauded Barack Obama’s election in 2008, and the two leaders greeted each other warmly at the April Summit of the Americas.

Ambassadors in both countries were reinstated in June.

Lugar, a moderate Republican who, among other things, has called for moving toward normalising relations with Cuba, had asked the GAO 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”.

“The report’s findings require, at a minimum, a comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward Venezuela,” Lugar said late last week when the GAO’s findings first became known.

“President Chavez has recently approved the re-establishment of our respective ambassadors. I hope he sees this as an opportunity to further dialogue in areas of common interest, but also in matters of sharp differences,” Lugar added.

The recent agreement to return ambassadors marked the latest step in a gradual détente between Caracas and Washington since Obama became president. But tensions seem to be on the rise again, particularly in the wake of the ongoing political crisis over the coup d’etat against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

While both Obama and Chavez have called for Zelaya’s re-instatement, Chavez’s call for more aggressive actions as well as his charges that U.S. government agencies were behind the coup itself and his strong scepticism of the mediation undertaken by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias have clearly irritated Washington.

It is in that context that the latest report is expected to be seized on by anti-Chavez forces here, led by hard-liners in the Cuban-American community, such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and former Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Otto Reich, who gave strong backing to the coup attempt against Chavez and who has also spoken out against Zelaya, depicting him as a puppet of the Venezuelan leader.

That characterization of Zelaya during the Honduran crisis has been used as well by prominent neo-conservative commentators in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the National Review, and the Weekly Standard who see “Chavismo” as the greatest threat Washington faces in the Americas and who have also played up Chavez’s alleged friendship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The latest edition of the Standard, for example, features a cover photo of an embrace between Zelaya and Chavez entitled “Comrades in Arms” and sub-titled “On Hugo Chavez’s Honduran Adventure”.

Adam Isaacson, a Latin America specialist at the Centre for International Policy, said that the report should be of concern to Venezuela itself.

“Venezuela has this rapidly growing problem, and won’t even deal with the DEA,” he told IPS. “Venezuela should be worried as well. If you have that amount of cocaine going through the country, you’re risking ending up like Mexico, with powerful organised crime and violence. No leader wants violence.”

Rather than siding outright with narco-traffickers, it’s likely that Venezuela doesn’t have the internal security capacity to deal with the problem, Isaacson said, noting that despite large oil revenues, Chavez has not properly addressed public safety.

“You’ve seen it happen in Colombia, Mexico and Central America. A country not set up to combat the money of crime and narco-trafficking just gets steamrolled by it. That could be what you’re seeing in Venezuela.”

*Jim Lobe contributed to this story.

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