Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez compared his Colombian counterpart Alvaro Uribe to a Mafia boss and accused him of being a “sad pawn of US imperialism,” in response to what he called a “Colombian media offensive” and the recent visit of top US authorities to Colombia, such as Pentagon Joint Chief of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen and head of the US’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, John Walters. Walters had accused Chavez of “making Venezuela a haven” for drug smuggling.
Relations between Venezuela and Colombia deteriorated in November last year after Uribe abruptly terminated Chavez’s mediating role in negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for the release of 45 hostages. Despite Chavez’s success in securing the release of two hostages, Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez de Perdomo on January 10, tensions heightened again last week after Chavez said the FARC should be removed from the list of terrorist organizations of Colombia, the US, and the EU, upon which Colombia accused Chavez of “interference.”
While he criticized Venezuela, Walters praised Colombia – the world’s number one cocaine exporter, producing 60% of all cocaine – for its efforts to combat drug trafficking.
Walters’ comments are part of an international campaign “against Venezuela, against the revolution, against the Venezuelan people,” Chavez said during his weekly Sunday TV program Alo Presidente.
“They attack me, they accuse me of being a narco-trafficker and they are repeating this to the whole world, but such is life, one that goes around fighting for peace they accuse of being a threat,” he added.
In reality, Chavez argued, it is President Uribe who is linked with drug trafficking paramilitary groups, “He has strong connections with paramilitaries, only the gringos protect him because he is their pawn.”
Thirty-five Colombian legislators, including many of Uribe’s political supporters and family members are currently under investigation by the Colombian Supreme Court for links to the paramilitaries and in 1991 Uribe himself appeared on the US State Department’s list of the top 100 drug traffickers.
US criticism of Venezuelan drug interdiction efforts have increased ever since Venezuela suspended cooperation with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2005, saying DEA operatives were carrying out illegal political espionage.
However, Venezuela has repeatedly ratified its determination to combat drug trafficking and in 2007 intercepted and decommissioned 57.5 tons of drugs and destroyed 13 illegal cocaine laboratories near the border region with Colombia.
Vice President RamÃ³n Carrizalez also announced a plan on Saturday to increase National Guard operations in collaboration with Justice and Interior Minister RodrÃguez ChacÃn and the governors of Merida, Apure, Tachira, Zulia and Barinas to combat crime and insecurity along the border region with Colombia, a problem which he said is a direct result of the military operations of Plan Colombia in the neighboring country.
“We are working…to combat insecurity in the frontier that translates into hired assassinations, smuggling, the presence of paramilitaries, homicides…an effect of the implementation of Plan Colombia.”
The announcement comes after 145 tons of contraband food items headed for Colombia were found in San Cristobal, Tachira last week in an anti-smuggling operation by Venezuelan intelligence services. The items included a number of basic food products that are regulated by the government such as powdered milk, rice, sugar, cooking oil, cereal and canned fish. The government says that speculation and hoarding by private producers has contributed food shortages of basic products.
The regional daily, Panorama, reported that every night 50 to 60 trucks load up with Venezuelan food products such as rice and milk, leave the Las Pulgas market in Maracaibo in the opposition controlled state of Zulia and cross over the Colombian border illegally where they sell the products at up to five times the regulated price in Venezuela.
“No one says anything because the business is very big,” said an anonymous vendor in the Las Pulgas market to Panorama. “In order to not have any problems in transporting it is necessary to pay what they ask [the border guards], but in the end they earn a lot more there than here because of the regulation of prices implemented by the government,” he added.
As part of the measures adopted to combat smuggling and crime in the frontier zone a further 500 tons of food loaded onto 18 semi-trailers that were destined for Colombia were intercepted today and a clandestine landing strip near the border, along with a camp thought to be used for narco-trafficking logistics were uncovered.
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This post was written by Kiraz Janicke