Pubdate: Sun, 19 Jul 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Author: Juan Forero


Government Corruption, Aid to Colombian Rebels Are Cited

BOGOTA, Colombia, -- A report for the U.S. Congress on drug smuggling
through Venezuela concludes that corruption at high levels of
President Hugo Chavez'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 Chavez, 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

"The United States is the first narco-trafficking country," Chavez
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

"Venezuela has begun to hit narco-trafficking hard since the DEA
left," Chavez 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 Chavez. U.S. diplomats have said that despite his ties
to Chavez, 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 Chavez, 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 Jes=FAs Rangel Silva, head of the Directorate of
Intelligence and Prevention Services; and Ramon Rodriguez Chacin,
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 Brice=F1o, 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. Brice=F1o, 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 Chavez, 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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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr