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  1. buseman
    MEXICO CITY — Shortly after Mother's Day in the African city of Monrovia, Liberia, drug smugglers gathered to plan massive cocaine shipments across the Atlantic Ocean, according to a recently unsealed U.S. indictment.

    One 4-ton shipment was coming on a jetliner. Another ton and a half would cross on a propeller plane, tons more by ship. The shipments were bound for Russia, Europe and Ghana, with some eventually going to New York. But they were all coming from one place: Venezuela.

    Drug smuggling through Venezuela has exploded since President Hugo Chávez severed contacts with U.S. law enforcement agencies in 2005, U.S. and United Nations officials say in reports.

    I think (Chávez) has totally lost control over the traffickers, said Anthony Maingot, an expert on Caribbean security issues at Florida International University.

    The extent of Chávez's involvement in the drug trade is in question. He has been seizing businesses and prodding Latin nations to turn to socialism as his regime grapples with a significant loss of revenue tied to the drop in the price of Venezuela's main legal export: oil.

    Parts of the Venezuelan military are probably trafficking with drugs and other stuff, and Chávez is not exactly motivated to crack down on them because he needs the military, says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. He is allowing them to dabble in the trade.

    The May drug deal in Monrovia was foiled by U.S. and Liberian undercover agents, according to indictments unsealed this month in a New York federal court. Other traffickers, though, are still moving billions of dollars' worth of cocaine via the same route.

    Venezuela now accounts for 41% of all cocaine shipments to Europe, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said in a June 23 report. In the Caribbean, the United States has reported a rise in flights leaving Venezuela and suspected of dropping U.S.-bound drug shipments in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Honduras.

    Under-the-radar deals

    The Venezuelan government says it is arresting traffickers and installing radar systems to track drug flights. Last week, it extradited three Colombians to the United States to face drug charges.

    Despite that, the U.N. agency said the drug-trafficking situation appears to be deteriorating in Venezuela.

    Most of the world's cocaine comes from Colombia, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But it has become harder for the traffickers to get their drugs to the coast because the Colombian army along with U.S. assistance has been successful in rounding up members of FARC, a violent leftist group that supports itself with drug proceeds.

    So smugglers are using small airplanes to make short flights over the Colombian-Venezuelan border, usually skimming less than 300 feet over the treetops, said Javier Mayorca, a Venezuelan crime expert.

    From there, the drugs are shipped all over the world, according to the United Nations. Some are put on ships in Venezuela. Others are flown from airstrips in Venezuela's Apure state to "drop zones" in the Caribbean Sea, where ships or speedboats pick them up, the U.N. says.

    From 2006 to 2008, half of all ships caught with cocaine in the Atlantic Ocean had departed from Venezuela, compared with only 5% from Colombia, according to the United Nations.

    The (long-distance) transport operations have moved completely to Venezuela, Mayorca said.

    In November, smugglers flew a Boeing 727 from Venezuela, landed it in the desert in Mali, unloaded it and set it ablaze. In April, the African nation of Sierra Leone extradited six men — two of them Venezuelan — to face U.S. charges of using planes to fly drugs from Venezuela.

    In the plot discovered in May, smugglers had planned to fly an Ilyushin-76, a Russian-made airliner, and an Antonov 12, a four-engine propeller plane, from Venezuela to Monrovia.

    The cocaine was to be divided up and taken to Russia, Europe and other African countries. Part of the shipment was to be flown from Ghana to New York, according to the U.S. indictment.

    'Neglect of public security'

    Trafficking surged in Venezuela in 2005 after Chávez ordered police and the military to sever most ties with the U.S. law enforcement agencies, said Shannon O'Neil, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.

    Chávez had accused the U.S. agents of conducting "illegal activities" and said Venezuela was capable of handling its own law enforcement. In 2006, Venezuela also scaled back police ties with its neighbors by withdrawing from the Andean Community, a group of South American countries.

    The United States has tried to compensate by conducting anti-drug flights out of Aruba, Curacao and Colombia, but Venezuela's refusal to cooperate makes it hard to investigate, O'Neil said.

    The Venezuelan government says it has been working hard to stem the flow of drugs. It has installed at least six Chinese-made radar systems to track flights, and says it plans to start scanning shipping containers with equipment donated by the U.S. government in 2006. Some doubt whether Chávez is really going after traffickers.

    There seems to be a general neglect of public security in Venezuela, and not enough cases of infiltration by organized crime being punished, said Adam Isacson, a security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.

    That could lead to a situation like in Mexico, where the government is fighting a bloody and expensive battle against traffickers who have become powerful enough to hire their own armies.

    The worst thing you can do is not recognize the magnitude of the problem, Mayorca says.

    By Chris Hawley,
    July 20, 2010


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