May 26, 2011
by Jaime Daremblum
Imprisoned drug lord Walid Makled is a symbol of the narco-corruption that has infected Venezuela under Hugo Chávez. He is also a symbol of declining U.S. influence in Latin America.
Arrested last August in Colombia, Makled allegedly spent years sending gigantic cocaine loads to the United States. At one point, his U.S.-bound shipments amounted to ten tons each month. Since his incarceration, Makled has revealed that "he had as many as 40 Venezuelan generals and top officials on his payroll to provide security and distribution, among other things," according to the Wall Street Journal. This revelation was explosive but not altogether surprising, given what U.S. officials already knew about the Chávez regime and its role in the drug business.
A few years ago, the Treasury Department formally accused Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, now serving as Venezuela's "general in chief," of trafficking with FARC, Colombia's prominent narco-terrorist organization. The Government Accountability Office subsequently reported (in 2009) that the volume of cocaine moving through Venezuela had increased "significantly." Indeed, the oil-rich country is now a major hub in the global drug trade: The United Nations reports that Venezuela was the departure point for more than half of all maritime drug shipments from South America to Europe between 2006 and 2008.
The close relationship between Chávez and FARC helps explain Venezuela's growing importance to international cocaine trafficking. In March 2008, Colombian armed forces launched an operation that wound up killing FARC leader Raúl Reyes just across the border in Ecuador. They subsequently discovered documents that revealed extensive Venezuelan links to FARC. After these documents were publicized, Chávez responded by branding Colombia "a terrorist state," sending military personnel to the Venezuelan-Colombian border, and banging the war drum. In July 2009, Colombian troops raided a FARC training camp and found anti-tank rocket launchers that were originally made in Sweden and then sold to Venezuela. In March 2010, Spanish National Court judge Eloy Velasco charged the Venezuelan government with conspiring to assassinate then Colombian president Álvaro Uribe with terrorists from FARC and the Spanish terror group ETA.
During the 2010 campaign for the Colombian presidency, Chávez described conservative candidate Juan Manuel Santos as a "threat to the region" and "a wolf sent to bomb and invade Ecuador." The Venezuelan radical further warned that Santos "could cause a war in this part of the world, upon instructions from the Yankees." In the end, his incendiary rhetoric backfired. Santos cruised to election with 69 percent of the vote in the second-round runoff.
The current Colombian president is a former defense minister and strongly pro-American leader who has pushed for Congress to ratify a bilateral free-trade pact, and has supported a larger U.S. military presence in his country — all of which makes it even more interesting that Santos has chosen to extradite Walid Makled to Venezuela rather than the United States.
What explains this decision?
For starters, according to Santos, President Obama assured him that the extradition destination was not a significant concern for the United States. (National Security Council official Dan Restrepo insists that Obama expressed a clear interest in the matter.) Regardless of what exactly the two presidents discussed, Santos recognizes that Obama has treated Latin America as an afterthought. "While the rest of the world, while Europe and Asia, are strengthening their ties to our region, the U.S. is passive, is disengaged," Santos said in a speech at Brown University last month.
Washington's passivity has created a leadership vacuum, now being filled by the likes of Iran, Russia, and China — much to the delight of Hugo Chávez, who has established a strategic partnership with Tehran, purchased massive quantities of advanced weaponry from Moscow, and received generous financial assistance from Beijing. In the absence of U.S. leadership, governments around the region will naturally seek some type of accommodation with Venezuela, which is busy flexing its muscles and bullying its neighbors.
When it came to Makled's extradition destination, Chávez probably tempted Bogotá with economic concessions and promises to dismantle any FARC camps that are discovered in Venezuela. But had Obama been a better manager of the U.S.-Colombia relationship, and had he shown a greater commitment to Latin America, it's likely that Santos would have sent Makled to United States. His decision to placate Chávez cannot be separated from his perception of U.S. disengagement.
With the drug kingpin now sitting in a Venezuelan jail, we don't know what vital intelligence information may be lost to U.S. authorities. But we do know that Colombia has delivered a powerful message about Obama's neglect of Latin America.
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and directs the Center for Latin American Studies.
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