When Colombian drug traffickers need to move cocaine out of the country, their first stop is often Venezuela, say U.S. officials (AP). Short flights connecting remote jungle air strips in northern Colombia with Venezuelan destinations just miles across the border tripled between 2003 and 2006, according to the International Crisis Group. Now U.S. and Colombian officials say that over a third of Colombia’s total cocaine output is thought to exit the country via Venezuela. U.S. counternarcotics efforts in the Andean region have focused on Plan Colombia, a multibillion dollar initiative to eradicate crops and cripple drug cartels. But the rise in trafficking through Venezuela threatens to derail what progress has been achieved in Colombia and calls into question the efficacy of U.S. counternarcotics policy in the region.
Unlike Colombia, Venezuela refuses to cooperate with the United States to combat narcotics trafficking. The country’s attorney general admits the National Guard and the intelligence service both have ties to drug traffickers, along with civilian airport employees (NPR). The border area, which Colombian officials have trouble monitoring due to its difficult terrain, is a “breeding ground for crime and violence,” according to an International Crisis Group report on drug trafficking in Latin America. The U.S. State Department blames Venezuela for not doing its part to fight corruption and trafficking in the region. Caracas suspended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005. Since then, drug seizures have dropped from thirty-five to forty metric tons in 2005 to between twenty and twenty-five metric tons in 2006, according to the 2008 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. “We remain open to working with Venezuela on this issue,” said David T. Johnson, assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, in February 2008. “But we have thus far not had a willing partner.”
Venezuela counters that it is making ample effort to control the drugs trade burgeoning within its borders. It destroyed over one hundred air strips near the Colombian border this year, and is installing radar stations that will allow Venezuelan authorities to track unauthorized flights from Colombia (WashPost). Experts say these efforts are designed to counter U.S. accusations, but also address domestic concerns about growing crime rates. According to Venezuela’s El Universal, there were 710 murders in Caracas in the first three months of 2008, compared to 621 during the same period last year. The Venezuelan government stopped releasing official homicide rates in 2003, but security website Stratfor suggests Caracas is among the most dangerous cities in the world, with a homicide rate more than double that of Detroit. Experts say much of this violence is drug related. The Venezuela-Colombia border, meanwhile, is a haven for guerrilla groups such as FARC and the ELN.
Alleged ties between the Venezuelan government and the FARC have further heightened U.S. concerns. The Colombian government claims it has evidence, obtained from the laptop of a FARC rebel killed in Ecuador, that Venezuela offered financial support to guerrilla group. The German magazine Spiegel reports that Caracas apparently promised FARC arms as well as a stake in Venezuela’s oil industry. As a Washington Post editorial notes, if these allegations prove to be true, the U.S. State Department will have more than enough evidence to add Venezuela to a list of state sponsors of terrorism. Such a designation would trigger automatic sanctions and could affect U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil (Bloomberg).