Wall Street Journal
May 9, 2007
BRUSSELS -- Latin American drug cartels are using commercial airports and ports in Venezuela as a "safe base" to ship increasing quantities of cocaine to Europe, according to U.S. antidrug czar John Walters.
The comments by Mr. Walters, director of the White House's office of National Drug Control Policy, added to an escalating war of words between Venezuela and the U.S. over global narcotics trafficking.
Mr. Walters urged European nations that have better relations with Venezuela than the U.S. has to persuade President Hugo Chávez to cooperate more in combating the narcotics trade. Mr. Walters's visit to Brussels also included talks with European Union officials on drug eradication in Afghanistan.
Mr. Walters said he wasn't accusing Mr. Chávez or other senior Venezuelan officials of involvement in the trade.
[John Walters]Mr. Walters said the Venezuelan government should be able to control trafficking at known airports. "The point is that this is not a matter of 'can't get there' or 'can't find it,' " he said in a telephone interview. Drug cartels often use clandestine dirt roads or landing strips cut out of the jungle to move drugs on small aircraft.
Antonio Garcia, a spokesman for the Venezuelan Embassy in Brussels, described Mr. Walters's comments as "politically contaminated" and part of a continuing U.S. effort to isolate Venezuela internationally. "The Venezuelan government reiterates its desire to cooperate with the international community in the fight against drugs," Mr. Garcia said.
Venezuela ceased cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in 2005 as relations between the two countries deteriorated. On Monday, Venezuelan Justice Minister Pedro Carreño said that decision was made because the DEA was "moving a large amount of drugs."
Mr. Walters said Europe makes up 25% of the global market for cocaine. With consumption and prices falling in the U.S., he said Europe was an increasingly attractive destination for traffickers.
In response to that shift in the market and to interdiction efforts, traffickers have moved away from small, fast boats used to shift drugs into the Caribbean -- the main transshipment point to West Africa and Europe -- according to Mr. Walters. Instead, drug traffickers are using larger aircraft and container ships, increasingly from Venezuela, he said.
According to Mr. Walters's office, the number of suspected drug flights from Venezuela to the Caribbean almost doubled in 2005 and the upward trend continued last year. Mr. Walters said DEA investigators have been able to spot the trend in drug flights from Venezuela because information from drug busts at airports around the world is shared and the origin of flights can be tracked.
As evidence, Mr. Walters cited the February seizure at Mexico City's airport of a metric ton of cocaine packed into at least 20 suitcases on a commercial airliner that flew in from Caracas. He said so large a shipment through a commercial airport suggests local corruption. (A metric ton is about 1.1 U.S. tons.)
The U.S. estimates that the flow of cocaine through Venezuela has risen to more than 200 metric tons a year. Mr. Walters also said U.S. surveillance suggests that a growing number of ships seized carrying cocaine had come from Venezuelan ports. He said the DEA was particularly concerned about container traffic.
The International Narcotics Control Board, a United Nations agency, said in its March annual report that total cocaine seizures in Venezuela in 2005 rose 87%, to 58.4 metric tons, with 23 metric tons seized in the first six months of last year. Most of the seized cocaine was headed to Spain and the United Kingdom.