- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The U.S. State Department has accused senior Venezuelan officials, including a close aide to President Hugo Chavez, of assisting narcotics trafficking from Colombia in an annual report that describes Venezuela as a “major drug-transit country.”

The charges drew an indignant rebuke from Mr. Chavez, who recently won a popular referendum on constitutional changes allowing him to be re-elected indefinitely.

He told Venezuela´s National Assembly that President Obama should “go clean up that dirt.”

“The biggest support for narco-trafficking comes from the nation of the north,” Mr. Chavez told lawmakers earlier this month. He also accused Mr. Obama of continuing the hostile policies of the Bush administration.

The escalating tension between Washington and Caracas comes at a time when the Obama administration is trying to improve relations with international rivals such as Russia, Iran and Cuba.

“Venezuela remains a major drug-transit country with high-levels of corruption and a weak judicial system. Growing illicit drug transshipments through Venezuela are enabled by Venezuela´s lack of international counternarcotics cooperation,” says the State Department´s 2009 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.

The report released in late February stops short of accusing Mr. Chavez of direct involvement in the drug trade.

But it names three senior Venezuelan officials as “Tier II Kingpins” for material assisting the narcotics trafficking activities of FARC,” the main Marxist rebel movement in neighboring Colombia.

The named officials include Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, a top aide to Mr. Chavez, who has served as justice and interior minister.

Mr. Rodriguez has been the Venezuelan government’s main contact with FARC, according to Colombian security officials, who point to captured computer records of his correspondence with a top rebel leader who was killed last year.

Mr. Rodriguez resigned from the government following Colombia’s recent revelations about his contacts with FARC.

“The FARC often cross into Venezuela to facilitate trafficking activities, for rest and relaxation and to evade Colombian security services, often with the collusion of some elements of Venezuelan security forces,” says the State Department report.

Other officials named in the scathing five-page section about Venezuela include Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios and Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva, who head key anti-narcotics and intelligence units.

“Narcotics trafficking in Venezuela has increased fivefold since 2002, from 50 [metric tons] to 250 [metric tons] in 2007,” according to the report, which claims that Venezuela now serves as the main outlet into the U.S. and Europe for cocaine and heroin produced in Colombia.

Venezuelan traffickers have been arrested in Mexico, Spain, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, St. Lucia, Dominica and several West African countries, including Ghana and Guinea, which increasingly serve as a bridge for drugs entering Europe.

“Counternarcotics successes in Colombia have forced traffickers to shift routes through neighboring Venezuela,” says the State Department, which accuses key units of Venezuela’s security services, including the Special Anti-Narcotics Units of the National Guard and the Federal Investigative Police, of being complicit in the drug trade.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro has said that the report is “plagued with lies,” claiming that drug seizures and arrests have increased in Venezuela during the past year.

U.S. officials say that Venezuela does not invite U.S. or European government representatives to review results of interdiction efforts and that seizures are mainly limited to low-level actors.

Several fugitives sought by U.S. anti-drug agencies were arrested in Venezuela last year. They include Luis Ramon Guerra, associated with Colombia’s North Valley cartel, as well as Hermagoras Gonzalez.

Mr. Guerra was deported from Venezuelan to the United States, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, but extradition requests for Mr. Gonzalez have been refused.

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