Hugo Chávez seems unperturbed by claims of official complicity in crime

| Thursday, October 6th, 2011 | 2 Comments »

The EconomistOPPONENTS of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, are eagerly awaiting the trial of Walid Makled, a businessman extradited from Colombia five months ago. Before he was sent home to face drug-trafficking charges, Mr Makled boasted that he had 15 Venezuelan generals, the interior minister’s brother and five pro-government legislators on his million-dollar monthly payroll. Described by a United States attorney as a “king among kingpins”, Mr Makled is wanted in New York for allegedly shipping tonnes of cocaine from Venezuela. As a prisoner of Mr Chávez’s security service, Mr Makled has now fallen silent. The trial, due to begin soon, may or may not offer more revelations.

The president says Mr Makled’s accusations form part of a plot by the United States to undermine him. Since he kicked out America’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2005, Mr Chávez’s government insists it is intercepting more drugs than before. But its own figures show a drop of almost half in the cocaine seized between 2005 and 2010. The United Nations says that Venezuela is the source of more than half the cocaine seized at sea en route to Europe. American officials say that over 90% of aircraft carrying Colombian cocaine take off from Venezuela.

Venezuelan officials blame all this on geography, pointing out that their country lies next to Colombia, the world’s biggest cocaine producer. Tarek el Aissami, the interior minister, says that since the DEA left Venezuela has arrested and handed over to other countries 69 high-level traffickers, many to the United States. Nonetheless, the business continues to boom.

As in other transit countries, drug consumption and gang warfare are both increasing in Venezuela. But there is no equivalent of the drugs war raging in Mexico between the mobs and the state. Some experts suggest this is because the two have established a modus vivendi.

Mr Makled accused the armed forces of operating four or five drug flights a day from the Colombian border to Central America. The generals he named as his accomplices include the senior armed forces’ commander, the head of military intelligence and the director of the anti-drugs office. Two were already on the US Treasury Department’s blacklist for allegedly colluding with Colombian guerrillas in drug-trafficking. This month a third general, also named by Mr Makled, joined them: Clíver Alcalá, head of the big garrison at Valencia. Venezuela dismissed this as “one more expression of the imperial and arrogant character” of the United States.

Suspicion of high-level government complicity in the drugs trade has deepened because of official confusion over an incident in August in which a light plane landed on a coastal road in the western state of Falcón. When found, it had more than a tonne of cocaine aboard. Its arrival was followed by a shoot-out between state police and dozens of cops from the national detective corps, known as the CICPC.

The head of the Falcón police, who says his men answered an emergency call and were ambushed by the CICPC, was forced to resign. At first national officials said the seizure was an intelligence coup. After two weeks of contradictory official statements, Mr Chávez admitted the plane had taken off from the military airport in Caracas, the capital. The operation, he said, had been a “controlled delivery”, meaning agents had posed as traffickers to entrap the real criminals. But who are they?

Wilmer Flores, the head of the CICPC, insisted it was “one of the best drugs cases” the police had ever been involved in. A few weeks later Mr Flores was decorated—and then sacked, along with almost every other high-ranking member of his force. No explanation was given.

The only people arrested over the affair are five local policemen, three civilians (bystanders, say their lawyers) and a national-guard sergeant. The Venezuelan media have revealed that the Falcón police were indeed responding to an emergency call, and that none of the policemen arrested has a lifestyle which would suggest income from the drugs trade.

Meanwhile, none of the high-ranking officials named by Mr Makled is under investigation. The Venezuelan authorities now have two separate opportunities to display in court their commitment to curbing the drugs trade without fear or favour. They seem unlikely to take them.

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