Venezuela graft aid­ing co­caine surge

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY NI­COLE AULT

Cor­rup­tion in Venezuela is a key fac­tor in the surge in co­caine pro­duc­tion in neigh­bor­ing Colom­bia, com­pli­cat­ing U.S. ef­forts to aid Bo­gota as it strug­gles to re­cover from a half-cen­tury of civil war, the State De­part­ment’s point man on il­le­gal drug traf­fick­ing told a Se­nate hear­ing Tues­day.

Wil­liam Brown­field, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for the U.S. Bureau of In­ter­na­tional Nar­cotics and Law En­force­ment Af­fairs, spoke at a Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee hear­ing on the state of anti-drug ef­forts in Colom­bia, where coca pro­duc­tion has soared to record lev­els even as the gov­ern­ment in Bo­gota im­ple­ments the peace deal with left­ist rebels. The po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic cri­sis en­gulf­ing Venezuela, he said, is only com­pli­cat­ing the prob­lem.

“A sub­stan­tial amount [of co­caine] goes through Venezuela,” Mr. Brown­field told law­mak­ers. “It does not hap­pen un­less the drug traf­fick­ers have a net­work in Venezuela, a net­work of of­fi­cials who will look the other way.”

“By the end of the last decade, there was al­most no in­sti­tu­tion in Venezuela in­volved in se­cu­rity or law en­force­ment af­fairs that had not been pen­e­trated by pro­fes­sional drug traf­fick­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions,” he added.

De­spite com­bined ef­forts by the U.S. and the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment, Colom­bia re­mains the world’s largest pro­ducer of co­caine and the big­gest source of the il­le­gal drug in the U.S. Coca cul­ti­va­tion surged 18 per­cent be­tween 2015 and 2016, ac­cord­ing to a White House re­port re­leased in the spring.

Crit­ics in the U.S. and Colom­bia, in­clud­ing con­ser­va­tive for­mer Pres­i­dent Al­varo Uribe, say the terms of the peace ac­cord with FARC rebels are in part to blame, giv­ing per­verse in­cen­tives for Colom­bian farm­ers to plant more coca at least in the short term. Cit­ing health con­cerns, the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment also banned ae­rial fu­mi­ga­tion of coca plants in 2015, a de­ci­sion that Mr. Brown­field said has in­hib­ited erad­i­ca­tion ef­forts.

Though the U.S. has sanc­tioned Venezue­lan of­fi­cials in­volved in drug crimes — adding sev­eral more to the list just last week — Mr. Brown­field con­firmed that there are still Venezue­lan of­fi­cials in­volved in drug crimes who have not been sanc­tioned.

“I deeply believe there are in­di­vid­u­als in the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment who will one day be ex­tra­dited to the U.S. and face charges for their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the drug trade,” Mr. Ru­bio said, adding that “they have played a role in desta­bi­liz­ing Colom­bia.”

Jose Car­de­nas, for­mer act­ing as­sis­tant ad­min­is­tra­tor who dealt with Latin Amer­ica at the U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional Devel­op­ment, told the hear­ing that “Venezuela is a dis­as­ter for Colom­bia, not only re­gard­ing the nar­co­traf­fick­ing … but also the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis of Venezue­lans pour­ing over the bor­der into the ar­eas of Colom­bia that [we] are set­ting out to pacify and sta­bi­lize.”

The U.S. has an “es­sen­tial com­ple­men­tary role” in help­ing Colom­bia and should fo­cus on find­ing il­le­gally ac­quired as­sets that one­time FARC fighters have kept hid­den, Mr. Car­de­nas said. The U.S. should pro­vide in­tel­li­gence and tech­ni­cal sup­port for sur­veil­lance of FARC mem­bers as well as ap­point of­fi­cials who will en­sure that the U.S. agenda is met, he added.

Though the U.S. has pro­vided more than $10 bil­lion in aid to Colom­bia since 2000, Pres­i­dent Trump pro­posed slash­ing last year’s $391 mil­lion aid pack­age by $140 mil­lion for the com­ing fis­cal year.

Sen. Robert Me­nen­dez, New Jersey Demo­crat, said that in or­der to jus­tify its use of U.S. tax­payer funds, Colom­bia must up­hold sev­eral con­di­tions, in­clud­ing suf­fi­cient erad­i­ca­tion of coca, ex­tra­di­tion of crim­i­nal FARC mem­bers and pro­tec­tion of hu­man rights.

“I have a prob­lem [with] U.S. tax­payer money con­tin­u­ing to flow to Colom­bia if ex­tra­di­tion isn’t go­ing to be con­tin­u­ally dealt with … and if [coca pro­duc­tion] is just a ter­tiary con­sid­er­a­tion as we move for­ward,” Mr. Me­nen­dez said. “I strongly sup­port our ef­forts to sup­port Colom­bia, but Colom­bia has to be re­cip­ro­cal.”

Mr. Palmieri said the U.S. should en­sure the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and pros­e­cu­tion of crim­i­nals too. Many FARC mem­bers, who still hide as­sets and money ac­quired il­le­gally be­fore the peace deal, have been granted amnesty — which should be given to as few peo­ple as pos­si­ble, Mr. Brown­field said.

What­ever ef­forts are made, Mr. Brown­field em­pha­sized, sta­bil­ity in Colom­bia will not hap­pen overnight.

“I’ve learned that it takes many years to get into these crises, and it’s go­ing to take us a good num­ber of years to get out of them,” he said. “Hold me ac­count­able for long-term ob­jec­tives, but I’m not go­ing to have a so­lu­tion to the prob­lem for you by lunch to­day or lunch to­mor­row.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers shout “fraud, fraud” dur­ing a ses­sion of Venezue­lan Na­tional As­sem­bly in Caracas, Venezuela, on Wed­nes­day,. The CEO of Smart­matic said that re­sults of Venezuela’s elec­tion for an as­sem­bly were off by at least 1 mil­lion votes.

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