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September 16, 2005 - Miami Herald (FL)

Venezuela No Longer U.S. Ally In Drug War

In a Move Likely to Strain Ties Further With Hugo Chavez's Government, the White House Took Venezuela Off Its List of Allies in the War on Drugs

By Steven Dudley and Pablo Bachelet

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

WASHINGTON - President Bush has taken Venezuela off his list of allies in the war on drugs, saying that the government of President Hugo Chavez spurned anti-drug cooperation with U.S. officials and fired its effective law enforcement officers.

But the White House waived the cuts in U.S. foreign aid usually attached to the "decertification" so that it can continue to support Venezuelan pro-democracy groups that oppose the leftist Chavez.

Bush's decision is expected to sharply exacerbate already bitter U.S.-Venezuelan relations roiled by Washington's charges that Chavez is promoting subversion around the hemisphere and the Venezuelan president's allegations that Bush is out to kill him.

The U.S. State Department's No. 3 official, Nicholas Burns, announced the Bush administration decision Thursday in New York City around the time Chavez was arriving there for a U.N. summit gathering. The only other nation decertified this year was Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Accompanying Burns, U.S. drug czar John Walters said that in the past Venezuelan cooperation on drugs was "quite successful and extensive" but that now it seemed that Chavez "no longer wants a productive relationship."

Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said of the annual certification process required by U.S. law, "We reject it. . . . it's infantile."

The White House said Venezuela had "failed demonstrably" to stem the flow through its territory of some 150 tons of cocaine and growing amounts of heroin, mostly coming from neighboring Colombia and bound for U.S. and European streets.

Top Officials Sacked

Venezuela's national counternarcotics director, chief narcotics prosecutor and head of the financial intelligence unit "were fired and replaced with Chavez loyalists who lack the necessary training," the statement added.

Caracas had failed to eradicate coca and poppy fields near its border with Colombia, it continued, and did little to stop corruption in law enforcement and the military.

Only last month, Chavez ordered his government officials to stop cooperating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, accusing it of espionage and drug trafficking. U.S. officials denied the charges, and the Venezuelan investigators continued to work with the DEA.

DEA's activities in Caracas turned particularly sensitive last year amid complaints that high-ranking officers of the Venezuelan National Guard are involved in a drugtrafficking "Sun Cartel" named after the sun insignia that Venezuelan generals use on their epaulets instead of stars.

Guard officers earlier this year withdrew from an antidrug task force that included the DEA, and took thousands of dollars of U.S. donated surveillance equipment. The equipment was returned later at the behest of the government's principal antidrug office, known as CONACUID. But then the head of CONACUID was fired.

The U.S. government later revoked the visas of three National Guard officers for suspected involvement in drug trafficking, including Gen. Frank Morgado, former head of the Guard's antidrug unit.

DEA Partnership

Venezuelan Interior and Justice Minister Jesse Chacon earlier this week proposed formally renewing the partnership with the DEA, and presented a written proposal to the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. But he added that the new proposal, among other provisions, prohibits DEA agents from participating in police operations there.

The Bush administration has repeatedly expressed concern about the alleged deterioration of democratic institutions in Venezuela, citing Chavez's control of the judicial and electoral systems and threats to the independent news media. Chavez insists that he's carrying out a radical but peaceful revolution on behalf of the nation's poor.

The waiver of the decertification sanctions -- officially for national security interests -- will allow the U.S. government to support democratic institutions there and "strengthen Venezuela's political party system," the White House said. The two nations remain dependent on each other since Venezuela provides 12 to 15 percent of U.S. oil imports.

A State Department official said Venezuela's refusal to sign a bilateral data-sharing agreement has made it impossible for Washington to show Caracas evidence that an increasing number of aircraft suspected of carrying drugs were flying in and out of Venezuela.

Cutting Back Ties

Venezuela also has long banned U.S. antidrug surveillance overflights of its territory and more recently curtailed military-to-military cooperation on drugs, the White House announcement stated.

In anticipation of the decertification decision, Chacon announced earlier this week that Venezuelan authorities had seized a record 18.7 tons of cocaine in the first eight months of 2005, compared with 19.6 tons throughout 2004. Failure to recognize the government's antidrug efforts showed Washington was acting for political motives, he said.

But U.S. officials told The Herald in Caracas that Chacon's numbers were vastly exaggerated because they included at least four tons seized aboard Venezuelan ships -- by French and Dutch authorities in the Caribbean.

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