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Fugitive traffickers from Colombia find safety in Venezuela

By Steven Dudley | Miami Herald

Dec. 19, 2005 | Venezuela is becoming a refuge for Colombian drug traffickers seeking to avoid capture in their neighboring homeland, according to several Venezuelan and foreign counter-drug officials.

The traffickers, who include at least three top leaders of Colombia's notorious North Valley Cartel, may be taking advantage of Venezuela's limited drug cooperation with Washington amid the heated political clash between President Hugo Chávez and the Bush administration, analysts say.

They also may be trying to stay on top of their exports to Europe, the destination of the vast majority of the Colombian cocaine passing through Venezuela, the analysts and officials added. Traffickers sending drugs to Europe can avoid violating U.S. laws and facing feared U.S. requests for their extraditions.

''They're coming here to avoid extradition, to avoid law enforcement in their own country because it's more stringent,'' said one foreign counter-drug official who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. ``And this is a new market, a new opportunity.''

SEIZURE STATISTICS

Venezuela has long been a transit point for illegal drugs leaving Colombia. But the government's own statistics on seizures show a massive increase under Chávez -- from 12,151 kilograms in 1999 to 31,222 in 2004 and 44,571 this year through mid-September.

The list of prominent suspected traffickers who have sought refuge in Venezuela includes three Colombian members of the North Valley cartel who are on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, three U.S. and Colombian counter-drug officials have told The Herald. They are Wilber Varela, nicknamed Soap; Juan Carlos Ramirez-Abadía, also known as Lollipop; and Diego Montoya, alias Don Diego. The FBI is offering up to $5 million for information leading to the capture of any of the three.

Another cartel member, Hernando Gómez, was captured in Cuba last year with a false Venezuelan passport, the counter-drug officials noted. Gómez remains jailed in Cuba on unclear charges, although Colombia has asked for his extradition. Gómez also is wanted in the United States.

PASSPORTS FOR SALE

One former senior Venezuelan counter-drug official cited credible reports that the country's immigration officials had sold Venezuelan passports to drug traffickers for up to $1 million apiece. The official requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals.

There is no evidence the Chávez administration approves of the presence of these drug lords, who also spend time in Colombia and other countries.

Venezuela's counter-drug agency, known as CONACUID for its Spanish acronym, did not respond to repeated requests by The Herald for comment. But Venezuelan authorities have insisted that the increased seizures illustrate their resolve in fighting drugs. And this week, a Venezuelan judge ordered the arrest of 14 police officers here for trafficking three tons of cocaine.

The drug traffickers' increased use of Venezuela as a safe haven and transit point comes as the Chávez and Bush governments trade mutual accusations of interventionism in the region that have spilled over into the field of counter-drug cooperation.

U.S. REBUFFED

In August, the Venezuelan government announced it would no longer cooperate with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and accused its agents stationed here of espionage. Venezuela also has long barred U.S. counter-drug surveillance airplanes from patrolling its airspace, and Chávez has not extradited any drug trafficker wanted by the U.S. government despite several requests.

Washington denied the allegations against the DEA and shortly afterward revoked the U.S. visas of three high-ranking Venezuelan National Guard officers, including the former head of the Guard's anti-drug unit, on suspicion of helping drug traffickers. A month later, the U.S. government removed Caracas from its list of allies in the war on drugs.

`DOESN'T SEEM UNIQUE'

Some analysts caution that drug seizures have been rising throughout the hemisphere -- speculating that the complaints of drug lords living in Venezuela may be the result of the Chávez-Bush political clash.

''The increase [in trafficking through Venezuela] doesn't seem unique,'' said John Walsh, an analyst at the liberal Washington Office on Latin America. ``It's a continued adaptation of the industry to get products to market.''

But others say Chávez runs a risk if he doesn't crack down on the traffickers.

''Given the limited cooperation of the Venezuelan government -- the refusal to allow overflights, the expulsion of the DEA -- all of these things have made Venezuela more attractive for traffickers,'' said Bruce Bagley, a political science professor at the University of Miami who has long followed the drug trafficking industry.

A RISKY GAMBIT

''This is an extremely dangerous game for Chávez,'' Bagley added. ``There's a real danger that the Chávez government, not simply for its anti-American stance but for its tolerance in international drug trade, will become an international pariah.''

Last month, the Mexican government, which has been sparring openly with Venezuela over U.S.-led proposals for a hemisphere-wide free trade zone, complained that corrupt airport officials in Venezuela were allowing heroin shipments on airplanes bound for Mexico.

''This is a new route that we hadn't seen before,'' Mexican antidrug prosecutor Noe Ramírez was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. Venezuelan government officials denied Mexico's claims.

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Gerardo Reyes contributed to this report from Miami.

sdudley@herald.com



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