Cocaine Finds a New Latin American Home Colombia's increased anti-trafficking measures have led its country's drug traffickers to seek out a new way to ship the drug out of South America. Often, that way is through Venezuela.
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Cocaine Finds a New Latin American Home

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Cocaine Finds a New Latin American Home

Cocaine Finds a New Latin American Home

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People fighting the war on drugs face some good news and some bad news. The good news from their perspective is that the U.S. is cracking down on a major source of cocaine. They're moving to slow the drug trade in Colombia. The bad news is that drug traffickers adapt. We'll be tracking that kind of adaptation this week as we report on the changing face of the drug trade abroad.

Colombian traffickers have already crossed the border.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from a neighboring country, Venezuela.

(Soundbite of music)

JUAN FORERO: On a narrow bridge over the Tachira River joining Venezuela with Colombia, the music is all about the frontier - a jagged, porous, violent 1,300-mile border that for all intents and purposes exists in name only.

Here in Urena, northwest of Venezuela, people cross by the thousands on foot and on rickety motorcycles past vendors selling chilled juice and listening to radios. They pull suitcases and carry over-sized boxes.

(Soundbite of noise)

FORERO: And the trucks roll in by the thousands. The inspections are usually perfunctory. That's permitted tons of cocaine to make its way from Colombia, where most of the world's cocaine is produced, and onto the first leg of an indirect, multi-nation journey.

General Oscar Naranjo is chief of Colombia's National Police - a man who has been chasing traffickers since the days when the merchandise of choice were bales of marijuana.

General OSCAR NARANJO (Colombia's National Police): (Through translator) What we've seen in recent years is a proliferation of routes from Latin America to Africa, Africa to Europe. That signifies that the corridor they've tried to use to move drugs goes through Colombia, Venezuela, some African countries and some European countries.

FORERO: American and Colombian counter drug officials say that cocaine is increasingly crossing Venezuela, doubling in the last decade to an estimated 200 metric tons this past year. Much of it gets into Venezuela through dozens of unpatrolled rivers flowing between the two countries, like the long Tachira River; or on short flights from clandestine airfields in Colombia's vast jungles to strips just 50 or a hundred miles away, right here in Venezuela.

The merchandise is then flown out in small planes that fly to the Dominican Republic or Haiti - yet another weigh station before the drugs hit American cities; or they go by plane and ship container to Europe, increasingly by first stopping in West Africa.

Anti-drug agencies say complicity by Venezuelan officials has exacerbated the problem.

Venezuelan Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez, in a rare interview, acknowledges that a problem exists. Two institutions that have had members linked to drug trafficking include the DISIP, Venezuela's intelligence service, and the National Guard, which is omnipresent on the border.

Mr. ISAIAS RODRIGUEZ (Attorney General, Venezuela): (Through translator) There is complacency or even participation in drug trafficking, and not just them, but civil authorities in airports too.

FORERO: Indeed, one key jumping off point for Colombian cocaine is the airport in Venezuela's capital. American and Colombian officials say bribes are regularly paid out to airport workers.

FORERO: They then look the other way as up to a ton of cocaine is shipped out each month to the Caribbean in small planes or on the many commercial flights to Europe.

Washington has pumped billions of dollars into Colombia's battle against narco-trafficking, but it hasn't won such cooperation from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who regularly blast the Bush administration on his weekly television program.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: His government says the Americans are tarnishing Venezuela by accusing it of being soft on traffickers.

Chavez long ago stopped American anti-drug flights over Venezuelan air space. He also ended cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration, accusing its agents of spying.

John Walters, the White House drug czar, denies such charges. He says the lack of cooperation has been a boon to the drug trade.

Mr. JOHN WALTERS (Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy): If you don't keep the pressure on, it dwells like a cancer where it is not effectively challenged. Right now that cancer is growing in Venezuela.

FORERO: Walters says the pressure by Colombian authorities on Colombian traffickers has been fierce, leading to the recent arrest of Diego Montoya, who was on the FBI's top ten most wanted list.

Such raids have forced other traffickers to seek refuge in Venezuela. Among those here, Colombian intelligence shows, is Wilber Varela, perhaps the top trafficker in South America.

Mildred Camero was until 2005 the drug czar for Chavez's government. She now is a consultant on drug issues to the United Nations, the United State, and private business.

Ms. MILDRED CAMERO (Consultant): (Through translator) The problem of drugs has gotten out of the hands of Venezuela. Now the big deals aren't done in Bogota; they're done in Caracas, because there's an open door. Since Colombia has a defined policy of fighting drug trafficking and the guerrillas, well, they come to Venezuela and do business here in Caracas.

Since his capture last year, Farid Feris Dominguez has become a major fount of information about other traffickers in Venezuela.

Authorities allowed me to talk with Dominguez at Combito Prison near the Colombian capital. He spoke of traffickers being in league with Venezuelan authorities. He recalled how he once operated with a Venezuelan diplomatic passport.

Dominguez's disclosures have prompted some ousters in Venezuela. The most significant has been Luis Correa, drug czar until Chavez removed him earlier this year.

Mildred Camero says she still sees little commitment in the fight against trafficking.

Ms. CAMERO: (Through translator) At some moment, we're going to collapse.

FORERO: Venezuelan officials counter that they work closely with their British and Dutch counterparts. They say Farid Feris Dominguez, after all, was captured on Venezuelan soil.

What everyone does seem to agree on is that drugs and violence have whipsawed Venezuela's urban centers, making some neighborhoods in Caracas among Latin America's most dangerous.

El Valle in Caracas is one of the toughest. By day, vendors crowd streets. Music wafts from boom boxes. By night, 15 violent gangs take over, vying for control of the drug trade.

Mercedes Eloisa Caraballo lost a son on a recent night.

Ms. MERCEDES ELOISA CARABALLO (Caracas Resident): (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: She recalls with anguish how Deivi Alexander Batista had hoped to play professional baseball. Then gunmen pumped eight bullets into him.

Ms. CARABALLO: (Through translator) I ran out to where he was. I said, don't kill him. Don't kill him. He tried to get up with the first shot, and one kid said he has to die. And so they killed him.

FORERO: Colombian officials say there's a lesson in the violence.

Before recently extraditing a leading trafficker, Luis Hernando Gomez, to the United States, Colombian investigators interrogated him about drug operations through Venezuela. He called Venezuela a temple of narco-trafficking, and he said that the Venezuelans had no idea how bad it was going to get.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas, Venezuela.

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