Cocaine’s Flow Is Unchecked in Venezuela
By William Neuman, NY Times, July 26, 2012
LA MACANILLA, Venezuela—The Venezuelan government has trumpeted one major blow after another against drug traffickers, showing off barrels of liquid cocaine seized, drug planes recovered, cocaine labs raided and airstrips destroyed.
But a visit this month to a remote region of Venezuela’s vast western plains, which a Colombian guerrilla group has turned into one of the world’s busiest transit hubs for the movement of cocaine to the United States, has shown that the government’s triumphant claims are vastly overstated.
Deep in the broad savanna, one remote airstrip the government said it had disabled in a recent army raid appeared to be back in business. The remains of two small aircraft set on fire by the army had been cleared away. Traffickers working with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which operates with surprising latitude on this side of the border, appeared to have reclaimed the strip to continue their secret drug flights shuttling Colombian cocaine toward users in the United States.
There were no signs that soldiers had blasted holes in the runway or taken other steps to prevent it from being used again.
For years, the United States has been working with friendly governments in Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and other countries in Latin America, spending billions of dollars to disrupt the flow of drugs northward. But because of antagonistic relations with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, the reach of American drug agents, and the aid that comes with them, does not extend here.
“Our airspace has been taken over,” said Luis Lippa, a former governor of Apure State who plans to run again as an opposition candidate in elections in December. Referring to the grip of traffickers on the border region, he said, “Our national territory has been reduced.”
A map of flight tracks made by a United States government task force using data from long-range radar makes the point vividly: a thick tangle of squiggly lines, representing drug flights, originates in Apure, on Venezuela’s border with Colombia; heads north to the Caribbean; and then takes a sharp left toward Central America. From there, the drugs are moved north by Mexico’s well-established traffickers.
President Obama signed a memorandum in September that designated Venezuela, for the seventh time, as a country that failed to meet international obligations to fight drug trafficking. He cited a federal report that concluded that the country was “one of the preferred trafficking routes out of South America” and had a “generally permissive and corrupt environment.”
Venezuela says that it is caught in the middle—Colombia produces the drugs and the United States consumes them—and that it is doing all it can to fight back. In May, the government announced that the number of illicit flights it detected had been cut in half this year, although it declined to provide data to back up the claim.
But the United States says Venezuela’s efforts are deeply hobbled by corruption, particularly by ties between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, which controls much of the cocaine traffic in the region.
Since 2008, the Treasury Department has accused at least seven high-level military officers and current and former officials in Mr. Chávez’s government of aiding the FARC, and sometimes exchanging weapons for drugs. Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva was one of those singled out by Treasury officials. Venezuela dismissed the accusations as imperialist meddling.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that as much as 24 percent of the cocaine shipped out of South America in 2010 passed through Venezuela, accounting for more than 200 tons.