The Venezuelan government has trumpeted one major blow after another against drug traffickers, showing off barrels of liquid cocaine seized, drug planes recovered, cocaine labs raided and airstrips destroyed.
But a visit this month to a remote region of Venezuela’s
vast western plains, which a Colombian guerrilla group has turned into one of
the world’s busiest transit hubs for the movement of cocaine to the United
States, has shown that the government’s triumphant claims are vastly
Deep in the broad savanna, one remote airstrip the
government said it had disabled in a recent army raid appeared to be back in
business. The remains of two small aircraft set on fire by the army had been
cleared away. Traffickers working with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, which operates with surprising latitude on this side of the border,
appeared to have reclaimed the strip to continue their secret drug flights
shuttling Colombian cocaine toward users in the United States.
There were no signs that soldiers had blasted holes in
the runway or taken other steps to prevent it from being used again.
For years, the United States has been working with
friendly governments in Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and other
countries in Latin America, spending billions of dollars to disrupt the flow of
drugs northward. But because of antagonistic relations with President Hugo
Chávez of Venezuela, the reach of American drug agents, and the aid that comes
with them, does not extend here.
“Our airspace has been taken over,” said Luis Lippa, a
former governor of Apure State who plans to run again as an opposition
candidate in elections in December. Referring to the grip of traffickers on the
border region, he said, “Our national territory has been reduced.”
A map of flight tracks made by a United States government
task force using data from long-range radar makes the point vividly: a thick
tangle of squiggly lines, representing drug flights, originates in Apure, on
Venezuela’s border with Colombia; heads north to the Caribbean; and then takes
a sharp left toward Central America. From there, the drugs are moved north by
Mexico’s well-established traffickers.
President Obama signed a memorandum in September that
designated Venezuela, for the seventh time, as a country that failed to meet
international obligations to fight drug trafficking. He cited a federal report
that concluded that the country was “one of the preferred trafficking routes
out of South America” and had a “generally permissive and corrupt environment.”
Venezuela says that it is caught in the middle — Colombia
produces the drugs and the United States consumes them — and that it is doing
all it can to fight back. In May, the government announced that the number of
illicit flights it detected had been cut in half this year, although it
declined to provide data to back up the claim.
“We are hitting drug trafficking hard all the time,” said
Ramón Carrizalez, the governor of Apure, the border state where the drug
flights originate, speaking in May at a news conference to announce the
destruction of 36 hidden airfields. “Very few countries are carrying out a
policy like ours.”
But the United States says Venezuela’s efforts are deeply
hobbled by corruption, particularly by ties between the government and the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, which controls much
of the cocaine traffic in the region.
Since 2008, the Treasury Department has accused at least
seven high-level military officers and current and former officials in Mr.
Chávez’s government of aiding the FARC, and sometimes exchanging weapons for
drugs. Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva was one of those singled out by
Treasury officials. Venezuela dismissed the accusations as imperialist
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy
estimates that as much as 24 percent of the cocaine shipped out of South
America in 2010 passed through Venezuela, accounting for more than 200 tons.
More than half of that left from the hidden airfields in
Apure, analysts say. They say that Venezuela’s central role as a transit point
for drug shipments began after Mr. Chávez halted cooperation with the United
States Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005, accusing its agents of spying.
Around the same time, Colombia, with assistance from the
United States, began to tighten control of its airspace.
As a result, the traffickers jumped across the border to
Apure, where an airstrip can be fashioned on the flat prairie in a few hours by
dragging a log behind a pickup truck to smooth the ground.
“You can blow up an airfield here and it doesn’t matter,”
said one resident, standing beside an eight-foot-deep hole that soldiers had
blown in a runway near the Cinaruco River, the plains stretching out for miles.
“They can make another one right next to it.”
But perhaps the main attraction for traffickers is that
the federal government’s hold on large parts of Apure, the poorest state in the
country, is tentative at best.
In many areas, residents say, the real power is held by
the FARC, which they describe as moving around the state with alarming
One resident living in Santos Luzardo National Park, a
picturesque preserve abounding in wildlife, said that last month two FARC
members patrolled the remote area on motorcycles, asking farmers if they had
heard any airplanes, apparently concerned that traffickers were using a nearby
airstrip without paying.
The guerrillas also collect protection money from local
businesses, ranchers and fishing camps along some parts of Venezuela’s long
border with Colombia. One resident said that a small group of FARC members
showed up at a homestead in December and set up camp for a week, using it as a
base to patrol the area and possibly protecting drug flights. He said the owner
had no choice about whether to accept, although the guerrillas brought their
The residents also expressed fear and mistrust of
government authorities. Most said they believed that local officials and
soldiers were in league with the traffickers and that passing along information
about the traffickers’ activities would result in reprisals. Residents said
they had learned to coexist with the traffickers just as they had gotten used
to the frequent sound of low-flying aircraft at night. But many said they were
fearful and felt intimidated.
“We all knew what was going on, but no one said
anything,” a man said of the smugglers who used a local airstrip. “What were we
going to do about it? The one that should be doing something is the government.
They should be constantly patrolling the area.”
Kohut contributed reporting from La Macanilla; María Eugenia Díaz from Caracas,
Venezuela; and Jenny Carolina González from Bogotá, Colombia.