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VENEZUELA’S RISING ROLE IN DRUG TRANSIT WORRIES U.S.

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Times Staff Writers

The airliner leaving Caracas for Mexico City carried a seemingly conspicuous cargo: one ton of Colombian cocaine stuffed into 25 bulky, nearly identical suitcases.

But the smugglers’ baggage went untouched by the Venezuelan National Guard and airport police that day in early February. And it may not have been an oversight. Drug traffickers routinely pay a “tax” of nearly $1,400 a pound to security forces to move cocaine through the terminals at the busy Maiquetia airport and on to global markets, foreign and Venezuelan investigators and experts say.

“Maiquetia is to narcos what Memphis is for Federal Express: the hub,” one foreign counter-narcotics official said.

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Thanks to a tip from U.S. agents, Mexican customs officials seized the load when it arrived that night aboard Mexicana Flight 374. Officials found bricks of cocaine beneath false bottoms of suitcases weighing more than 100 pounds each, in one of the biggest busts at Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport.

U.S. and Latin American investigators allege that Venezuela has become a sieve through which a soaring amount of Colombian cocaine moves annually by air and sea. They cite widespread corruption and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s decision to sever anti-drug ties with Washington. In the State Department’s annual report on global drug trafficking, Venezuela was singled out as a growing threat.

“Venezuela’s permissive and corrupt environment led to more trafficking, fewer seizures and an increase in suspected drug flights over the past 12 months,” Anne W. Patterson, assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said in a briefing after the report’s release this month.

“There is systematic corruption. Maiquetia is wide open,” said one foreign counter-narcotics official. Close behind are smaller airports and airstrips in Venezuela’s Apure, Portuguesa and Sucre states, and sea ports such as La Guaira and Puerto Cabello, where tons of cocaine leave in containers or amid bulk cargo.

The U.S. Embassy in Caracas estimates that the amount of Colombian cocaine passing through Venezuela en route to the United States, Europe and elsewhere has quintupled to 250 tons a year since 2001. Depending on whose total cocaine production figures one accepts, a quarter to half of all Colombian drug exports use this country as a “trampoline.”

Venezuela has always been a conduit for Colombian drugs because it shares a porous 1,300-mile border with the country where most of the world’s cocaine is manufactured. But a U.S.-funded crackdown in Colombia has forced traffickers to seek new routes and international alliances.

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U.S. and Colombian officials also cite escalating corruption in the Venezuelan security forces and Washington’s deteriorating relations with Chavez, a vocal foe of the United States.

In August 2005, Chavez announced an end to a 17-year anti-drug agreement with the United States. He forbade Venezuelan officials from sharing any information or mounting joint operations with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, whose agents he describes as spies. In 2006, the amount of cocaine seized in Venezuela dropped by about 40% after having increased every year since 1999, according to the State Department.

Critics stop short of implicating the leftist leader directly in the emergence of the Latin nation as a corrupt haven for smugglers, and the Venezuelan president has described corruption as a “thousand-headed monster.”

At a Caribbean drug summit Friday in the Dominican Republic, Venezuelan officials acknowledged the drug problem and said they would use Chinese satellite technology and newly purchased Russian aircraft to combat traffickers.

“The increased flight traffic does not have Hugo Chavez’s signature on it. It’s not about him,” said Joseph Ruddy, a U.S. attorney in Tampa, Fla., who heads an investigative task force that has prosecuted dozens of drug traffickers in recent years. “It’s about changing traffic patterns.... Narcos go where we aren’t.”

The most painful result of Chavez’s decree, U.S. officials say, was the cutoff of relations with a trusted corps of 40 “vetted” Venezuelan counter-narcotics agents who had been trained in Quantico, Va.

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The agents, who had worked in the Venezuelan National Guard and the intelligence police as liaisons to U.S. officials in the drug fight, have been transferred to other units.

Today, bribes are openly paid to police and armed forces, U.S. and Colombian officials say.

A high-level Colombian official told The Times that the Venezuelan National Guard protects one of his country’s most powerful cartels, the Norte del Valle gang based in Cali, and one of its reputed top leaders, Wilmer Varela.

“Venezuela has become a sanctuary for Colombian traffickers, and the National Guard facilitates it all,” said the official, who asked not to be named because of political sensitivities.

Last month, Chavez removed Luis Correa as head of the National Anti-Narcotics Office, replacing him with a trusted military aide, Luis Reverol Torres. In July, National Guard Brig. Gen. Frank Morgado was sentenced to prison by a military tribunal for links to drug traffickers.

Morgado and Correa came under criticism in April after a DC-7 airliner that had left Maiquetia landed in Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico, with mechanical problems. Police found 5 1/2 tons of cocaine aboard.

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Cocaine seizures by Venezuelan authorities in the last two months totaled 4.8 tons, about what was seized in the Ciudad del Carmen raid. Critics find that number suspiciously low, given the size of single shipments seized elsewhere.

“Twenty-two percent of announced cocaine seizures last year, which totaled 55 tons, came as a result of luck -- drugs discovered at the border or checkpoints,” said one former high-level Venezuelan counter-narcotics official who asked not to be named. “As much movement as there is, the percentage should be much smaller. It shows the lack of investigation.”

There has been no lack of investigation or results in neighboring Colombia, where authorities have gone after the leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups involved in the drug trade.

Plan Colombia, on which the U.S. has spent $4 billion fighting drug trafficking since its launch in 2000, has denied traffickers the “air bridge” facilitating the direct flow of drugs from Colombia to Central America and Mexico that they once enjoyed.

The new air bridge appears to link airports and strips in Venezuela and neighboring Suriname and Guyana to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, comprising the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The aircraft of choice seem to be twin-engine Beechcraft King Air business planes. With the passenger seats removed, the planes can ferry three-quarters of a ton of cocaine per flight.

Haitian and Dominican leaders have issued pleas for help in recent months to stem the flow of drugs from Venezuela, to little avail.

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The State Department, meanwhile, worries its successes in Colombia are coming undone.

“We want to work with the Venezuelans,” said Patterson, the assistant secretary of State. “But we haven’t gotten very far in recent years, and their problem is increasing. That’s the worrisome thing about this. Success in Colombia has basically led to a migration of some of this into Venezuela.”

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

sebastian.rotella@latimes.com

Kraul reported from Caracas and Rotella from Paris.

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Begin text of infobox

$1,400 - “Tax” paid by drug traffickers to security forces to allow movement of a pound of cocaine through a Venezuelan port.

40% - Drop in amount of cocaine seized in Venezuela in 2006.

4.8 tons - Cocaine seizures by Venezuelan authorities in the last two months.

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Source: Venezuelan investigators and experts

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