In the coming days, President Santos is expected to extradite alleged drug trafficker Walid Makled to Venezuela, instead of the U.S. With him not only goes Colombia’s traditional foreign policy but a vital source of information on the drug trade in Venezuela.
The Colombian government has said it will extradite Makled to Venezuela because the government of Hugo Chavez put in an extradition request some 20 days before that preceded one filed by the U.S. However, there is speculation that there is far more behind the decision of President Juan Manuel Santos to favor the Venezuelan request, including the recent extradition of Colombian guerrillas from Venezuela and the payment of $800 million of trade debt. Bearing in mind that less than eight months ago, Venezuela had no diplomatic links with Santos’ predecessor Alvaro Uribe and had moved troops to the border, current relations between the neighbors is little short of idyllic.
Makled, alias "El Turco," is believed to have the crown jewels in terms of information on drug trafficking in Venezuela: the involvement of the security forces and part of the political establishment. He claims to have six “extremely compromising” videos showing the involvement of members of the Chavez government in drug trafficking activity.
The 41-year-old Venezuelan, of Syrian extraction, has spoken of paying off as many as 40 generals of the military, as well as having business with the state oil company -- known by its acronym PDVSA -- the National Assembly, and Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unida de Venezuela - PSUV). Makled also claims to have five members of the assembly on his payroll and that he had bankrolled the PSUV with more than two million dollars in campaign cash.
There have long been accusations of military involvement in drug trafficking. The "Cartel of the Suns," corrupt elements in the armed forces, are named after the gold stars Venezuelan generals wear on their epaulettes. The military control much of the border region where cocaine crosses from Colombia and the international airport of Maiquetia.
Serving or former members of the military named by Makled include army chief General Henry Rangel Silva, former Director of Military Intelligence Hugo Carvajal, National Guard General Dalal Burgos, and former captain Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, who was also the Minister of Interior and Justice. Makled, for instance, stated that he used to pay General Carvajal $50,000 a week.
Makled said that up to six drug flights a day left the border state of Apure, taking cocaine to Honduras, from where it was shipped to Mexico and into the U.S. He insisted there were drug laboratories in Apure and Maracaibo, and that they were “guarded by the government.” While Makled admits he has not directly dealt with President Chavez, he has spoken of “very close relatives of his.”
Much of this posturing by Makled may have been simply to avoid extradition to Venezuela, preferring to take his chances with the more efficient – and possibly more lenient in this case – justice system in the US. President Chavez has a firm grip on the Venezuelan justice system, and Makled’s chances of receiving a fair trial there are slim.
However, there is little doubt as to his involvement in the smuggling of cocaine. Three of his siblings – Aldala, Bessel and Alex – were detained in November 2008, at a family ranch with 380 kilos of cocaine. From that moment, Makled became a fugitive from Venezuelan justice, until his capture in the Colombian border city of Cucuta in August 2010.
Makled has also been linked to an emblematic drug smuggling case: the April 2006 incident in which 5.5 tons of cocaine were found in 128 suitcases on a plane that landed in southern Mexico (Ciudad del Carmen), having departed from Maiquetia airport outside Caracas. The captured pilot of the flight spoke of National Guard supervising the loading and departure of the plane. Makled’s companies also operated out of the biggest Venezuelan port, Puerto Cabello, where multi-ton drug consignments are believed to leave for the U.S. and Europe.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) believes Makled and his allies exported up to 10 tons of cocaine a month from Venezuela to the U.S. As well as facing drug trafficking charges, Makled is wanted in Venezuela for murder, including that of journalist Orel Sambrano, who reported on Makled’s business empire.
The likelihood is that once extradited to the Venezuela, little more information on Makled and his activities will emerge. He will be convicted of drug trafficking and perhaps murder, and disappear into a prison cell. And with him will disappear perhaps the most accurate glimpse of the system of drug trafficking in Venezuela, a nation that now handles an estimated 200 tons of cocaine very year.