Pubdate: Mon, 7 Apr 2008
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A08
Copyright: 2008 The Washington Post Company
Author: Juan Forero, Washington Post Foreign Service
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Walters, John)


ELORZA, Venezuela -- Facing criticism that cocaine trafficking is out
of control, Venezuela's government this year has embarked on an
aggressive program to track drug-smuggling planes and destroy
clandestine airstrips used by Colombian drug clans, Venezuelan drug
enforcement and military officials said in a series of interviews.

In what appears to be a sharp shift from last year, Venezuelan
aircraft and munitions experts have destroyed 157 dirt strips here in
the grassy plains state of Apure, most of them in the last two weeks.
The government has installed three new Chinese-made radar stations and
plans to put up seven others that will completely cover Venezuelan
airspace and permit authorities to track unidentified flights
originating in neighboring Colombia.

"As a state, we are showing that there is a policy to fight
narco-trafficking," said National Guard Col. Nestor Reverol, president
of the National Anti-Drug Office, which coordinates the programs.
"We're not saying it's just a problem for Colombia and the United
States. We're assuming responsibility. That's why we're doing this."

The National Assembly is expected this year to approve a law that will
permit Venezuelan fighter planes to shoot down aircraft smuggling
cocaine, mirroring a similar program in Colombia, Reverol and air
force officials said.

The initiatives, discussed in detail during a tour of a state that has
become a hotbed of drug trafficking, come as Venezuela is under
increasing criticism from U.S. officials who say rampant corruption
and a lax attitude toward trafficking have turned this country into a
major way station for cocaine bound for the United States and Europe.
Polls show Venezuelans are also concerned with spiraling violent
crime, a result of the drug trade.

"I think they are trying to respond to those accusations of not making
this a high enough priority, by demonstrating that they are taking
lots of action," said John Walsh, who analyzes the drug war for the
Washington Office on Latin America, a policy group. "As a domestic
political issue, crime has become very salient, and I think the Chavez
government sees that as a real challenge and for that reason is also

John Walters, director of the White House drug policy office, said he
had doubts about the commitment of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's
administration to dismantling trafficking operations.

U.S. officials have been particularly concerned since Colombian
authorities released documents to The Washington Post on March 6 that
appeared to show ties between Chavez and the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia, a guerrilla group the United States considers a
cocaine cartel. Anti-drug officials in Washington and Colombia have
also said in interviews that high-ranking Venezuelan military officers
have collaborated with Colombian drug kingpins, providing some with
Venezuelan government identification cards and protection.

"If you want to see what makes a consequential difference, you look at
what's been going on in Colombia -- real arrests, going after
traffickers, infrastructure, really seizing," Walters said by
telephone from Washington. "Going after the transnational elements of
the trade. I have yet to see that kind of transformation on the part
of the Venezuelans."

The United States estimates that up to 250 tons of cocaine -- more
than a third of what Colombia produced -- passed through Venezuela
last year, more than double the amount trafficked in the 1990s.

That has prompted concern that Venezuela, though always a route for
smuggling, has become a major sieve, despite the $6 billion the United
States has spent since 2000 to fight drugs and Marxist guerrillas in

"What we're now seeing is a threat to our investment, a threat to Plan
Colombia," said a senior U.S. Senate staff member who helps shape
Latin American policy, speaking on condition that he not be identified
by name because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It's the preeminent
issue with Venezuela."

The Venezuelans bristle at such characterizations and say it is they
- -- not the Americans -- who are on the front lines of the drug war.

"We're between the biggest producer of cocaine and the biggest
consumer of cocaine, and we're the problem?" Reverol said.

Gen. Jesus Gonzalez, commander of strategic operations for the armed
forces, explained that the government is so committed to the drug war
that Chavez regularly calls him to learn details. "Our
commander-in-chief is on top of everything that's happening here," he

The front line is here in a prairie state that, from a military
helicopter, looks like the Dakotas, save for the occasional palm tree
that serves as punctuation to a vast expanse of scrub grass that
stretches south to the porous border with Colombia. An American
reporter, along with a crew from Venezuelan state television, was
flown in a Russian-made transport helicopter to a spot so isolated it
is known simply by its coordinates, B-9.

A special commando team, lugging detonators, cables and
Venezuelan-made explosives, then mined a 1,700-yard strip.

With temperatures approaching 100 degrees, eight explosions rocked the
hard ground, blowing craters into the landing field and brown clouds
into the sky. With the last blast, officials said they had destroyed
all the clandestine strips in this state.

"This is a big blow against drug trafficking," said Col. Jose Quintero
of the air force, who is in charge of Operation Boquete, which loosely
means "Big Hole." "We're closing off our airspace for them to move

Venezuelan officials said the destruction of runways, which was also
carried out with aerial bombardments, is part of a larger strategy
against Colombian trafficking organizations.

More than $260 million is being spent to place the radar stations
around the country. The remaining seven stations, which are also to be
used for national defense, will be in place by October. The radar
tracking will permit the air force to locate and shoot down what
Reverol called "hostile" aircraft once the new law is approved.

"What's important for narco-traffickers to know is that they will be
shot down in Venezuelan airspace," Reverol said.

Venezuelan officials said they have 18 planes -- Vietnam-era Broncos
and Brazilian-made Super Toucan fighters -- that can be used to shoot
down the slow, single-engine planes used to transport cocaine. The
Venezuelans are hoping to upgrade that fleet, but the United States
has blocked the government's plan to buy 24 Toucans from Brazil.

"That showed that it's the United States that doesn't want to
collaborate," Reverol said.

Walters, the U.S. drug official, said it is the Chavez administration
that has failed to cooperate. Chavez banned U.S. surveillance flights
in its airspace in 1999 and suspended bilateral anti-drug cooperation
in 2005 after accusing Drug Enforcement Administration agents of spying.

Here in the scrub grass of Apure, there was little talk about the
pitfalls of a long and complex drug war that has vexed governments for

Elite troops armed with Belgian assault rifles and heavy packs
received medals for their work against the airfields. And officials
talked about how they plan to attack dirt strips in Amazonas state in
the south and Monagas state along the eastern Caribbean coast.

"The operation continues," said Gonzalez, the general. "It's not over
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake