Venezuela Becoming Center for Drug Traffic

August 22, 1993|By BEN BARBER

Caracas. -- So much international heat and attention has been focused on neighboring drug producers -- Colombia, Peru and Bolivia -- that drug cartels now funnel possibly half their cocaine through Venezuela. And since the U.S. invasion of Panama tarnished its attractive and secretive banking system, drug traffickers now launder tens of billions of dollars here every year.

The forest of luxury apartment towers growing taller and thicker each week is silent testimony, say U.S. and Venezuelan drug officials, to this nation's newest role as a laundry for drug dollars. And the seizure of 2,000 kilos of cocaine in Belgium aboard a boat coming from Venezuela June 30 was the latest evidence of the growth of drug exports.

The two million barrels of oil Venezuela sells abroad each day, mostly to the United States, creates a lot of wealth that "masks drug money laundering," said a U.S. drug official here.

"Fifty percent of Colombia's exports of cocaine could be via Venezuela," which also serves as a transit route for the chemicals needed to manufacture cocaine, said the official.

The U.S. official estimated that "tens of billions of dollars are laundered in Venezuela each year -- between 10 and 50 billion dollars." But little has been done to prevent it, perhaps because thus far there has been little violence overtly tied to the drug trade, which remains relatively low key.

Colombians run the drug business here, according to one police official. But a leading anti-drug legislator said that Venezuelan drug organizations have already been formed but the police have not identified them publicly.

Whereas in Colombia the narcotics trade has elevated uneducated peasants to be millionaires -- sporting the gold chains, flashy clothes and showy cars of the nouveau riche -- Venezuela's drug merchants and money launderers tend to be well-educated upper class people who melt in to the well-dressed crowds of businessmen chattering into cellular phones on downtown streets.

So Venezuela, with the fine ports, airports and banking infrastructure that serviced the oil boom, was a logical alternative for the cartels after international police pressure on Colombia, Peru and Bolivia and the invasion of Panama.

"Venezuela is one of the principal countries of South America that serves as a transit country for cocaine and heroin from Colombia towards the United States and Europe," wrote a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration attache here in a letter to Vladimir Gessen, a former president of the anti-drug commission of the Venezuelan Congress.

Some 200 metric tons of cocaine transit Venezuela annually, three quarters of it bound for the United States and the rest to Europe, according to the letter, a copy of which was supplied by Mr. Gessen.

The total annual cocaine production by Colombia, Peru and Bolivia was 1,170 metric tons in 1991 according to the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report of 1992. But Mr. Gessen said production is now closer to 1,700 metric tons.

Interviews with General Orlando Hernandez Villegas, head of the National Guard's anti-drug activities, Mr. Gessen and other Venezuelan and foreign officials have outlined the path of drugs, cash and chemicals through Venezuela.

They say that some of the more than 500 private landing strips in the large farms of the flat heartland of Venezuela are used to ferry drugs out of Colombia and then on to Bermuda and the Bahamas, where speedboats take them to the Florida coast. And the large trucks crossing the border each day between Colombia and Venezuela are rarely searched for the tons of cocaine or millions of dollars or bolivars they may carry.

Some shipments have been too large for aircraft. U.S. officials seized in Dec. 1991 more than 16 metric tons of cocaine hidden in cement posts that had been shipped from Venezuela to Texas, Miami and New York.

A few Venezuelans have said that since there is little drug violence here there is no reason to try and stop the transfer of drugs and money laundering. Others oppose changes in the banking laws that would end secret accounts and establish the paper trails used to track down money launderers.

An official at the attorney general's office who asked not to be identified said that "we have just discovered money laundering in this country. Police investigations have just begun. But the law gives no paper trail."

Indeed, there is little expectation that the congress will approve a new, more stringent law that would make money laundering a crime and empower government investigators to examine secret accounts.

But General Hernandez Villegas warns that rising consumption of the cheap "bazooko" form of cocaine here in the slums is a warning that Venezuela will not remain untouched by drugs passing through here. The deadly crime wave engulfing the country, with 20 or more murders each weekend in Caracas slums, is said to be increasingly tied to drug use and marketing.

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