By David Abel | The Boston Globe | 9/13/1999
CARACAS -- For years, the long, mountainous border separating Colombia and Venezuela has offered drug traffickers ample opportunity to ferry their cargo.
And smugglers have taken advantage of the easy route to Venezuela's porous ports. Last year, more than 110 tons of Colombian heroin and cocaine passed through Venezuela before it was shipped to the United States and Europe, representing nearly one-sixth of all illegal drugs produced in Latin America, US officials said.
But now traffickers have a faster and more secure route, which before carried the risk of interception by US military jets: air.
At the end of May, President Hugo Chavez announced that US military jets could no longer enter his country's airspace. To do so, he said, would violate Venezuela's sovereignty.
The rejection drew pleas from the United States, which has been increasingly challenged in fighting the flow of drugs from South America since May, when Howard Air Force Base, Panama, shut down to comply with the Panama Canal Treaties.
Chavez, a leader of a failed coup who was denied a US visa before he was elected by a sweeping majority in December, has hampered US interdiction efforts at a critical time. The denial of Venezuelan airspace considerably reduces the effectiveness of the new US antidrug bases in the Dutch islands of Aruba and Curacao, which lie about 50 miles off Venezuela's coast.
"Our challenge is to absolutely defer to Venezuelan sovereignty while doing everything we can to support their ability to cover their airspace," said retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, the US drug policy adviser. "We don't expect a change in Venezuela's position. But we give them the facts. And we hope they reconsider."
These are McCaffrey's points, as described to Chavez in a 90-minute meeting in July: From January to July 20, 29 suspect flights flying from Colombia to Venezuela were tracked by US radar and jets. Since May 28, Chavez's government denied all nine requests by the United States to chase likely drug flights in hot pursuit. And it now takes US planes an additional hour and a half to circumvent Venezuelan airspace, precious time during interdiction missions.
"As traffickers become aware that Venezuelan air space is not being monitored, they're going to be attracted to the weak link," said Brad Hittle, an aide to McCaffrey at the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy. "You are just opening the window wider to the bad guys."
Chavez's government disagrees. Venezuelan officials say they are more than capable of guarding the nation's airspace. And they say they have a strong record of fighting drugs, seizing more than 2,600 kilograms of cocaine and heroin in the first six months of this year, twice the quantity confiscated in 1998.
"With adequate coordination, Venezuela can handle this," said Alfredo Toro Hardy, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States. Hardy taught Chavez political science at the University of Simon Bolivar in Caracas. "We have plenty of F-16s capable of taking a handoff from US planes. It's just like what happens between police forces when a criminal crosses a state in the United States."
But US officials cast doubt on Venezuela's ability to monitor effectively and pursue traffickers sneaking through its airspace. Since Chavez's reversal of Venezuela's policy in May, his air force has only intercepted one of at least 11 suspect planes, Hittle said.
And many US officials are increasingly wary of Chavez, who, his critics said, is moving to impose a military dictatorship in one of Latin America's oldest democracies.
"It's very unfortunate that the Venezuelan government has taken these recent decisions," said Otto Reich, a former US ambassador to Venezuela in the late 1980s. "The denial of overflights is a significant negative development. Both nations stand to lose."
The anger has reached Congress, where officials have warned that if Chavez's position does not change, the United States may respond by refusing to certify that Venezuela is collaborating fully in the drug war. That would deprive the country of vital trade and aid. The $12 million in antidrug money the United States now gives Venezuela, however, would not be affected.
"Of course, Venezuela's decision should be factored into the president's certification decision process," said Lester Munson, spokesman for the House International Relations Committee. "The United States right now is at its lowest ebb at covering the drug-transiting region. The lack of overflights is part of the problem."
During his recent visit to Venezuela, McCaffrey, the drug policy leader, said he had tried to impress upon Chavez that more than US planes flying over Venezuelan airspace, drug traffickers were violating his country's sovereignty.
This nation of more than 23 million people, moreover, has increasingly become the victim of drug trafficking and use. A surging crime rate between 1986 and this past June claimed 45,009 recorded homicides, which peaked at 4,961 in 1996 and may top that number this year.
Most of the crime results from an economy that has left more than 80 percent of the people living in poverty, police said. In the same time, police said, there were 415,000 violent drug-related crimes.
While McCaffrey and his staff hope Chavez will change his mind, they are not optimistic. And they predict data will soon show drug traffickers are exploiting their new freedom to fly through Venezuelan airspace unimpeded by US jets.
"The jury is still out on how much of a difference this will make," Hittle said. "But the general number of transits are going in the wrong direction. And the simple fact is it will now be easier for traffickers to carry drugs by air."
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com.
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