- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Corruption in Venezuela is a key factor in the surge in cocaine production in neighboring Colombia, complicating U.S. efforts to aid Bogota as it struggles to recover from a half-century of civil war, the State Department’s point man on illegal drug trafficking told a Senate hearing Tuesday.

William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, spoke at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the state of anti-drug efforts in Colombia, where coca production has soared to record levels even as the government in Bogota implements the peace deal with leftist rebels. The political and economic crisis engulfing Venezuela, he said, is only complicating the problem.

“A substantial amount [of cocaine] goes through Venezuela,” Mr. Brownfield told lawmakers. “It does not happen unless the drug traffickers have a network in Venezuela, a network of officials who will look the other way.”

“By the end of the last decade, there was almost no institution in Venezuela involved in security or law enforcement affairs that had not been penetrated by professional drug trafficking organizations,” he added.

Despite combined efforts by the U.S. and the Colombian government, Colombia remains the world’s largest producer of cocaine and the biggest source of the illegal drug in the U.S. Coca cultivation surged 18 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to a White House report released in the spring.

Critics in the U.S. and Colombia, including conservative former President Alvaro Uribe, say the terms of the peace accord with FARC rebels are in part to blame, giving perverse incentives for Colombian farmers to plant more coca at least in the short term. Citing health concerns, the Colombian government also banned aerial fumigation of coca plants in 2015, a decision that Mr. Brownfield said has inhibited eradication efforts.

Though the U.S. has sanctioned Venezuelan officials involved in drug crimes — adding several more to the list just last week — Mr. Brownfield confirmed that there are still Venezuelan officials involved in drug crimes who have not been sanctioned.

“I deeply believe there are individuals in the Venezuelan government who will one day be extradited to the U.S. and face charges for their participation in the drug trade,” Mr. Rubio said, adding that “they have played a role in destabilizing Colombia.”

Jose Cardenas, former acting assistant administrator who dealt with Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development, told the hearing that “Venezuela is a disaster for Colombia, not only regarding the narco-trafficking … but also the humanitarian crisis of Venezuelans pouring over the border into the areas of Colombia that [we] are setting out to pacify and stabilize.”

The U.S. has an “essential complementary role” in helping Colombia and should focus on finding illegally acquired assets that onetime FARC fighters have kept hidden, Mr. Cardenas said. The U.S. should provide intelligence and technical support for surveillance of FARC members as well as appoint officials who will ensure that the U.S. agenda is met, he added.

Though the U.S. has provided more than $10 billion in aid to Colombia since 2000, President Trump proposed slashing last year’s $391 million aid package by $140 million for the coming fiscal year.

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said that in order to justify its use of U.S. taxpayer funds, Colombia must uphold several conditions, including sufficient eradication of coca, extradition of criminal FARC members and protection of human rights.

“I have a problem [with] U.S. taxpayer money continuing to flow to Colombia if extradition isn’t going to be continually dealt with … and if [coca production] is just a tertiary consideration as we move forward,” Mr. Menendez said. “I strongly support our efforts to support Colombia, but Colombia has to be reciprocal.”

Mr. Palmieri said the U.S. should ensure the investigation and prosecution of criminals too. Many FARC members, who still hide assets and money acquired illegally before the peace deal, have been granted amnesty — which should be given to as few people as possible, Mr. Brownfield said.

Whatever efforts are made, Mr. Brownfield emphasized, stability in Colombia will not happen overnight.

“I’ve learned that it takes many years to get into these crises, and it’s going to take us a good number of years to get out of them,” he said. “Hold me accountable for long-term objectives, but I’m not going to have a solution to the problem for you by lunch today or lunch tomorrow.”

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