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For months, the Bush administration has been blasting President Hugo Chavez's government in Venezuela for performing poorly in the war on drugs. American officials say 250 tons of Colombian cocaine now flows through Venezuela on its way to the United States and Europe, more than double the amount in the late 1990s. But the Venezuelans say they're doing more than ever before to stem the flow. NPR's Juan Forero has this report from the front lines of the drug war.
JUAN FORERO: The vast plains here in Apure state in western Venezuela are hot and flat, the great expanse broken up only by the occasional palm tree. With temperatures at nearly 100 degrees, nothing even moves here, except for Venezuelan demolitions experts carrying explosives, detonators, timers and cables across the scrub grass.
They then wire a dirt airstrip. It's one of dozens discovered in this remote region just miles away from Colombia, where cocaine is produced and packaged for export.
(Soundbite of explosion)
FORERO: One by one, blasts shake a quiet afternoon, and huge plumes of smoke reach for the blue sky. This was the last of 157 dirt airfields destroyed by Venezuelan forces in an operation dubbed Big Hole, or Operation Boquete in Spanish. The idea is to stop Colombian traffickers from flying in with loads of cocaine, cocaine that would later wind up on American and European streets.
Air Force Colonel Jose Quintero is overseeing the operation.
Colonel JOSE QUINTERO (Venezuela Air Force): (Through translator) This is a big blow to drug trafficking. We're closing off our airspace for them to move drugs.
FORERO: The Bush administration has been at odds with Chavez' government on all its policies, and officials are skeptical about the latest claims in the war on drugs. White House drug czar John Walters says he doesn't think there's a visible change. He says rampant corruption in Venezuela's armed forces and police have permitted the country to become a key way station for Colombian traffickers.
John Walsh closely tracks drug issues for the Washington Office on Latin America, a policy group.
Mr. JOHN WALSH (Washington Office on Latin America): I think in the face of the quantities of cocaine that appear to be moving through Venezuela, I think you have to have realistically low expectations, at least at the outset, that much is going to be disrupted.
Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: At an army outpost on the edge of the plains, soldiers line up to receive medals for their effort in the war on drugs.
Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: General Jesus Gonzalez touts the latest effort as extraordinary. The army has used helicopters to send hundreds of troops along the border.
(Soundbite of helicopter engine)
FORERO: The government is putting up new, Chinese-made radar stations to cover all Venezuelan airspace and detect clandestine flights from Colombia. And the national assembly is considering a law that would allow the Venezuelan air force to shoot down drug-smuggling planes.
Colonel Nestor Reverol, who heads all anti-drug operations for the government, says it's all part of a grand design.
COLONEL NESTOR REVEROL (Venezuela): (Through translator) These are policies the Venezuelan state is applying in the frontal fight against drugs.
FORERO: Officials say they are now going to destroy airfields far from here, in the Amazonian region, and to the far northeast, along the Caribbean coast.
Juan Forero, NPR News, Apure State, Venezuela.
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