August 22, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- The U.S. drug czar appealed to Venezuela's government on Friday to take action against the flourishing flow of cocaine being smuggled through the country.
White House drug czar John Walters told The Associated Press that Venezuela has shown no willingness to cooperate with U.S. officials against drugs.
"Cooperation's gotten worse and the problem's gotten bigger," Walters told the AP in a phone interview from Washington.
The flow of Colombian cocaine through Venezuela has quadrupled since 2004, reaching an estimated 282 tons last year, he said.
"The flow is increasing as dramatically as it is because it is operating in a condition of impunity," Walters said. "The failure of the Venezuelan government to go after this is a failure to be serious."
Venezuelan officials argue they are taking drug trafficking seriously and point to large seizures in recent years. President Hugo Chavez and his foreign minister, Nicolas Maduro, have suggested they would be willing to work with the U.S. against drugs on terms of mutual respect.
But Walters said his attempt to restart cooperation has been stymied as Venezuelan officials have yet to agree to his request for a meeting, and a visa request for him and other American officials has been held up for more than a week.
"Frankly, this has gotten to the point where they're playing games," Walters said. "Usually drugs is beyond a lot of other political differences. We have a cooperative relationship with Cuba."
But in Venezuela's case, he said, "there just has been no willingness to establish that cooperation or re-establish a working relationship."
There was no immediate reaction from Venezuela's government. Its top counter-drug official, Nestor Reverol, did not immediately return a call to an aide seeking comment.
U.S. law enforcement officials have detected repeated flights by planes that take off from Venezuela, drop large loads of cocaine off the island of Hispaniola and return to Venezuela, Walters said. Other multi-ton loads are moving, largely by ship but also by air, from Venezuela to west Africa - a way station for shipments to Europe.
In the latest bust, Dutch and U.S. officials said Friday that the Dutch Navy and U.S. Coast Guard seized 4.6 tons (4.2 metric tons) of cocaine last weekend aboard a freighter in the Caribbean that had set sail from Venezuela.
The Dutch Navy said it is the largest haul of cocaine it has ever intercepted.
Walters, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, recommended a list of actions Venezuela could take to cooperate. They include:
- Chavez directing government leaders to facilitate cooperation with the U.S.
- approving pending visa applications for seven agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, since there currently are just two in Venezuela.
- re-establishing Venezuelan law enforcement units that are approved to work with the DEA.
- allowing access by U.S. law enforcement personnel to Caracas' international airport in Maiquetia.
- begin using U.S.-provided equipment for scanning cargo in Puerto Cabello, the country's largest port. Walters says a state-of-the-art X-ray machine is just "sitting there."
DEA operations have been restricted since Chavez suspended formal cooperation in August 2005, accusing the DEA of being a front for espionage.
Walters said that hasn't changed: "there has been no willingness to cooperate with DEA."
Still, counter-drug efforts were one of the topics discussed by Venezuela's foreign minister and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter on Friday as the Pennsylvania Republican visited Caracas, the state-run Bolivarian News Agency reported.
Maduro said the meeting was cordial and addressed topics from the upcoming U.S. presidential election to baseball. Details of what they discussed about drugs weren't immediately available.
Walters said the U.S. is ready to provide Venezuela with photos of planes that have been repeatedly shuttling drugs out of Venezuela, including images showing their tail numbers.
The traffickers, Walters said, are clearly "buying people" and "compromising government authority."
"You've got to go after the criminals and you've got to go after those who are in positions of authority and are criminals," Walters said. His message for Venezuela, he added, is: "Just do it. It's in your interest to do it."
Associated Press writer Andrew O. Selksy, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.