Venezuela's lack of cooperation with U.S. drug officials is undermining efforts to stem cocaine trafficking, says a report from Washington that has drawn fire from the government of President Hugo Chavez.
Venezuela, which has thousands of miles of coastline and a rugged and porous border with the world's top cocaine producer Colombia, ended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005 after accusing it of spying.
The report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office and seen by Reuters on Thursday says drug corruption has reached the ministerial level in Venezuela and decries a "permissive" attitude to trafficking groups from Colombia.
"At a minimum, the lack of Venezuelan counternarcotics cooperation with the United States is a significant impediment to the U.S. capacity to interdict drugs en route to the United States," said the report, which is expected to be released next week.
News of the report was met with anger by Chavez officials, who have had better relations with U.S. President Barack Obama than his predecessor George W. Bush and hoped Washington would reassess criticism of Venezuela's anti-drug strategy.
"Venezuela is engaged in an active fight against drug trafficking, said Chavez's ambassador to the United States Bernardo Alvarez. He said Interpol and the Organization of the American States praised the drug efforts of Venezuela, which has cooperation agreements with 37 countries.
"Once again we see the use of these reports to discredit governments with which the United States has political differences," he said.
Despite Venezuelan purchases of radar and other anti-drug systems, the United States says 300 tonnes of cocaine passed through the country last year, up from 50 tonnes in 2004.
Venezuela, which blames the drug trade on U.S. demand, counters that its seizures are up, as well as confiscations of drug runners' assets and the extradition of suspected traffickers to the United States and Colombia.
On Thursday, Venezuela extradited a suspected drug lord to Colombia, a day after announcing the seizure of $1 million in suspected drug cash from a light aircraft.
Almost no narcotics are grown in Venezuela but its cities suffer from high rates of drug-related gun crime.
"The findings of this report have heightened my concern that Venezuela's failure to cooperate with the United States on drug interdiction is related to corruption in that country's government," said Senator Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.
"The report's findings require, at a minimum, a comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward Venezuela," said Lugar, who requested the GAO investigation last year.
U.S. President Barack Obama's choice to head Washington's Latin American diplomacy, Arturo Valenzuela, told the Senate as part of his confirmation that he wanted to see Venezuela's cooperation to tackle the flow of cocaine.
Thu Jul 16, 2009 7:33pm EDT - CARACAS (Reuters) - (Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Eric Beech)