April 07, 2008
ELORZA, Venezuela -- Facing criticism that cocaine trafficking is out of control, Venezuela's government this year has embarked on an aggressive program to track drug-smuggling planes and destroy clandestine airstrips used by Colombian drug clans, Venezuelan drug enforcement and military officials said in a series of interviews.
In what appears to be a sharp shift from last year, Venezuelan aircraft and munitions experts have destroyed 157 dirt strips here in the grassy plains state of Apure, most of them in the last two weeks. The government has installed three new Chinese-made radar stations and plans to put up seven others that will completely cover Venezuelan airspace and permit authorities to track unidentified flights originating in neighboring Colombia.
"As a state, we are showing that there is a policy to fight narco-trafficking," said National Guard Col. Nestor Reverol, president of the National Anti-Drug Office, which coordinates the programs. "We're not saying it's just a problem for Colombia and the United States. We're assuming responsibility. That's why we're doing this."
The National Assembly is expected this year to approve a law that will permit Venezuelan fighter planes to shoot down aircraft smuggling cocaine, mirroring a similar program in Colombia, Reverol and air force officials said.
The initiatives, discussed in detail during a tour of a state that has become a hotbed of drug trafficking, come as Venezuela is under increasing criticism from U.S. officials who say rampant corruption and a lax attitude toward trafficking have turned this country into a major way station for cocaine bound for the United States and Europe. Polls show Venezuelans are also concerned with spiraling violent crime, a result of the drug trade.
"I think they are trying to respond to those accusations of not making this a high enough priority, by demonstrating that they are taking lots of action," said John Walsh, who analyzes the drug war for the Washington Office on Latin America, a policy group. "As a domestic political issue, crime has become very salient, and I think the Chávez government sees that as a real challenge and for that reason is also interested."
John Walters, director of the White House drug policy office, said he had doubts about the commitment of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's administration to dismantling trafficking operations.
U.S. officials have been particularly concerned since Colombian authorities released documents to The Washington Post on March 6 that appeared to show ties between Chávez and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerrilla group the United States considers a cocaine cartel. Anti-drug officials in Washington and Colombia have also said in interviews that high-ranking Venezuelan military officers have collaborated with Colombian drug kingpins, providing some with Venezuelan government identification cards and protection.
"If you want to see what makes a consequential difference, you look at what's been going on in Colombia -- real arrests, going after traffickers, infrastructure, really seizing," Walters said by telephone from Washington. "Going after the transnational elements of the trade. I have yet to see that kind of transformation on the part of the Venezuelans."
The United States estimates that up to 250 tons of cocaine -- more than a third of what Colombia produced -- passed through Venezuela last year, more than double the amount trafficked in the 1990s.
That has prompted concern that Venezuela, though always a route for smuggling, has become a major sieve, despite the $6 billion the United States has spent since 2000 to fight drugs and Marxist guerrillas in Colombia.
"What we're now seeing is a threat to our investment, a threat to Plan Colombia," said a senior U.S. Senate staff member who helps shape Latin American policy, speaking on condition that he not be identified by name because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It's the preeminent issue with Venezuela."
The Venezuelans bristle at such characterizations and say it is they -- not the Americans -- who are on the front lines of the drug war.
"We're between the biggest producer of cocaine and the biggest consumer of cocaine, and we're the problem?" Reverol said.
Gen. Jesus GonzÁlez, commander of strategic operations for the armed forces, explained that the government is so committed to the drug war that Chávez regularly calls him to learn details. "Our commander-in-chief is on top of everything that's happening here," he said.
The front line is here in a prairie state that, from a military helicopter, looks like the Dakotas, save for the occasional palm tree that serves as punctuation to a vast expanse of scrub grass that stretches south to the porous border with Colombia. An American reporter, along with a crew from Venezuelan state television, was flown in a Russian-made transport helicopter to a spot so isolated it is known simply by its coordinates, B-9.
A special commando team, lugging detonators, cables and Venezuelan-made explosives, then mined a 1,700-yard strip.
With temperatures approaching 100 degrees, eight explosions rocked the hard ground, blowing craters into the landing field and brown clouds into the sky. With the last blast, officials said they had destroyed all the clandestine strips in this state.
"This is a big blow against drug trafficking," said Col. José Quintero of the air force, who is in charge of Operation Boquete, which loosely means "Big Hole." "We're closing off our airspace for them to move drugs."
Venezuelan officials said the destruction of runways, which was also carried out with aerial bombardments, is part of a larger strategy against Colombian trafficking organizations.
More than $260 million is being spent to place the radar stations around the country. The remaining seven stations, which are also to be used for national defense, will be in place by October. The radar tracking will permit the air force to locate and shoot down what Reverol called "hostile" aircraft once the new law is approved.
"What's important for narco-traffickers to know is that they will be shot down in Venezuelan airspace," Reverol said.
Venezuelan officials said they have 18 planes -- Vietnam-era Broncos and Brazilian-made Super Toucan fighters -- that can be used to shoot down the slow, single-engine planes used to transport cocaine. The Venezuelans are hoping to upgrade that fleet, but the United States has blocked the government's plan to buy 24 Toucans from Brazil.
"That showed that it's the United States that doesn't want to collaborate," Reverol said.
Walters, the U.S. drug official, said it is the Chávez administration that has failed to cooperate. Chávez banned U.S. surveillance flights in its airspace in 1999 and suspended bilateral anti-drug cooperation in 2005 after accusing Drug Enforcement Administration agents of spying.
Here in the scrub grass of Apure, there was little talk about the pitfalls of a long and complex drug war that has vexed governments for years.
Elite troops armed with Belgian assault rifles and heavy packs received medals for their work against the airfields. And officials talked about how they plan to attack dirt strips in Amazonas state in the south and Monagas state along the eastern Caribbean coast.
"The operation continues," said GonzÁlez, the general. "It's not over today."