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October 28, 2007
Chavez Facilitating Cocaine Trafficking from Columbia
Venezuela's President for life Hugo Chavez and his government have gotten in the drug business in a big way.
US and Columbian officials say that drug lords are running their cocaine through Venezuela using military and intelligence assets as well as enjoying Venezuelan hospitality:
Now, however, the volume of cocaine trafficked through Venezuela has risen sharply. Shipments have increased significantly, with suspected northbound drug flights out of the country increasing threefold from 2003 to 2006, according to American radar tracking. It is unclear exactly how much corruption in the Venezuelan intelligence and military there is and how much is tolerated by the government. But there is little doubt that because some of the drug dealers have diplomatic passports, the wrongdoing goes beyond isolated pockets of greedy military officers:
Counter-drug officials say up to 220 tons of cocaine -- a third of what Colombia produces -- now pass through Venezuela, double the figure in the 1990s. Most of it is bound for the United States and burgeoning markets in Spain, Britain and Italy.
The traffickers have operated with illegally obtained Venezuelan identification cards from agencies as varied as the National Guard, the DISIP intelligence agency and even the economy ministry, all while living in some of the finest neighborhoods in the Venezuelan capital, according to authorities in Bogota, the Colombian capital, and in Caracas.
The trend has led to spiraling turf wars among drug gangs in Caracas slums and has directly challenged the government's ability to rein in corruption. "The problem of drugs has gotten out of the hands of Venezuela," said Mildred Camero, a former drug czar in President Hugo Ch¿vez's government and now a consultant on narcotics to the United Nations, the United States and private industry.
In interviews, two jailed members of trafficking organizations -- both of whom have provided information to Colombian and Venezuelan officials -- spoke of coordination between Venezuelan authorities and traffickers. The increased cooperation with the drug lords has led to increased crime as the cartels battle for turf in Venezuela. Whether it will be enough for Chavez to initiate a crackdown on his own security forces is another matter.
"They collaborated with narco-traffickers, and they'd work with us," said Rafael Garcia, a former Colombian intelligence official who was also a member of the once-powerful Northern Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces, a paramilitary organization.
Garcia, who is jailed in Bogota, said one of the biggest Colombian traffickers in Venezuela has been Hermagoras Gonzalez, better known as the Fatman Gonzalez, who authorities say has obtained credentials from the DISIP.
Another suspected trafficker, Farid Feris Dom¿nguez, jailed in Combita prison north of Bogota, spoke of how he lived in a $900,000 house in the exclusive La Lagunita neighborhood of Caracas and enjoyed the privileges of a Venezuelan diplomatic passport. He said he had also been close to Correa, the former drug czar removed by Chavez.