Venezuela is a major transit country for cocaine usually processed in Colombia. Law enforcement agencies estimate that over 100 metric tons of cocaine transit Venezuela annually. There are some indications that the quantity of drugs transiting Venezuela is increasing and that smuggling of Colombian heroin is a growing problem. Narcotics-related corruption remained a problem in legal and financial systems and within security forces. Moreover, the Venezuelan authorities need to do more to combat diversion of chemical precursors and money laundering and to address the problem of over-flights by drug trafficking aircraft.
Venezuela continued to be a major drug transit country in 1998. Most large scale drug shipments transiting Venezuela originate in Colombia and are smuggled out of major Venezuelan ports in commercial cargo to the U. S. and Europe. Drugs are transported on commercial aircraft (either by drug mules or hidden in air cargo) and small aircraft through Venezuelan airspace. In addition, boats carrying drug shipments from Colombia pass through Venezuela’s territorial waters on their way to Caribbean transshipment points.
Venezuela is a transit country for essential chemicals, which are either exported legally to Colombia and other source countries, diverted for use in cocaine labs, or smuggled out of Venezuela for this purpose. For instance, gasoline and cement are exported legally from Venezuela to Colombia and then diverted for use in cocaine processing. In 1998, Venezuela sustained its efforts to combat narcotics trafficking and consumption. The National Anti-Drug Commission (CNA) played an important coordination role by pressing for better implementation of existing legislation and lobbying for new, tougher counter narcotics legislation.
On the political level, the 1997 joint declaration of “Strategic Alliance Against Drugs” remained the framework for bilateral counter-narcotics cooperation and 1998 saw progress in negotiations for a comprehensive Maritime Cooperation Treaty. Actions by the Government of Venezuela (GOV) to enhance counter narcotics efforts included. programs to implement a major reform of the judicial system due to enter into force in mid-1999, establishment of a central Financial Intelligence Unit, adoption of a unified regulatory system for essential chemicals, and passage of a new customs law.
Efforts to gain passage of a Comprehensive Anti-Organized Crime Bill were ultimately unsuccessful when the Senate failed to pass the bill before Congress adjourned for elections. U. S. -Venezuela bilateral counternarcotics cooperation continued in the political and law enforcement arenas. In 1998, Venezuela established a new regulatory structure to control essential chemicals subject to diversion. The Government has acknowledged that Venezuelan financial institutions and other sectors of the economy are vulnerable to laundering of drug profits. U. S.
Customs Service’s Operation “Casablanca” identified Venezuela as one of the routes by which Colombian narco-traffickers repatriate drug proceeds. In 1998, the Government began to enforce the 1997 currency transaction reporting regulations and began to investigate suspicious financial transactions. Some of these investigations were developed in conjunction with U. S. law enforcement agencies. The Venezuelan military continued an aggressive campaign against small-scale opium cultivation that occurs in area along the northern part of the border with Colombia.
Rivalries and duplication of effort among Venezuelan anti-drug agencies continue to be obstacles to more effective law enforcement action. Moreover, narcotics-related corruption within law enforcement agencies and the judiciary undermined counter-narcotics activities. The volume of drugs crossing the border from Colombia and leaving Venezuela’s ports suggests collusion by officials charged with inspecting cargo. Venezuela’s reform of the judicial system is designed to reduce the opportunities for corruption in the current system.
In 1998 a comprehensive bill to combat organized crime passed through the Lower House of the Venezuelan Congress. It contained provisions to target conspiracy, facilitate asset seizure, and expand money laundering investigations. The Government, with the CNA taking a lead role, overcame some private sector resistance to the bill and kept it among legislative priorities for the year. Despite adoption by the Lower House, the bill was not considered by the Senate before Congress closed early to prepare for legislative and presidential elections.
This key bill remains a priority for Venezuelan policy makers and law enforcement officials and its implementation is vital to enhance the effectiveness of operations against drug trafficking organizations in Venezuela. Addressing inefficiency and corruption in the judicial sector, the Government focused on preparing for a comprehensive reform of the penal code (adopted in late 1997) to change the justice system from the current written, inquisitorial approach to an oral, adversarial system.
This major undertaking has involved construction of new facilities, establishment of new infrastructure, and extensive training programs for judges, prosecutors and police. The centerpiece of the reform, the new Criminal Procedures Code, is due to be implemented fully in July 1999. The CNA took a public stand against corrupt judges in 1998, pressing for investigations of those who released narco-traffickers under suspicious circumstances. Considerable attention led to disciplinary action against some judges by the judicial council responsible for discipline in the judiciary, but much more needs to be done in this area.
In October, the Government moved to reorganize the Customs sector–a major element in controlling narcotics smuggling through ports and airports. The reform addresses all aspects of customs procedures and should provide better control measures. President Hugo Chavez Frias has included fighting corruption and combating drug transit as priorities for his new administration. Chemical control in Venezuela is critical for drug control in this hemisphere because Venezuela is a common transit point for essential chemicals destined for Colombia.
In November, the CNA obtained interagency agreement on new regulatory procedures for major chemicals subject to diversion for use in illegal drug production. This long-awaited agreement provides a framework for chemical control and represents a vital step towards reducing chemical diversion. Under the new regulations, the Ministry of Industry and Commerce will have primary responsibility for controlling precursor and essential chemicals. The regulations will establish a tracking and accounting procedure (and fines for failure to comply with the procedure) for importers of chemicals on the list.
The National Anti-Drug commission (CNA) will serve as a central coordinating and oversight body. The CNA also acted to facilitate the creation of a central Venezuelan Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU). This unit has been established in the government’s body with responsibility for regulating financial institutions. the Superintendency of Banks. The FIU receives and analyzes the currency transaction reports and suspicious financial activity reports being submitted under strict reporting requirements adopted in 1997.
Venezuela’s banks, currency exchange operations and other financial institutions have complied with the new reporting requirements. In 1998, 32 currency exchange businesses were closed in the border region for suspicious activities possibly connected with money laundering. The FIU staff, under the direction of the Venezuelan Attorney General’s office, has also coordinated with U. S. Customs Service and the U. S. Department of Justice under the 1988 UN Drug Convention to analyze transactions connected with laundering of drug proceeds.
The Venezuelan military has continued to focus resources on eradication of opium poppy cultivated in a small area in the mountainous Serrania de Perij region on the northern part of Venezuela’s border with Colombia. In 1998 the military conducted two eradication operations in this area including one in conjunction with spray aircraft from INL. Eradication operations reduced opium cultivation to less than 50 hectares in 1998. The military has established as a priority a program of regular eradication operations against cultivators (who cross over from Colombia) to prevent expansion of cultivation in this area. Working in conjunction with U. S. law enforcement officials at the U. S. Embassy, Venezuela expelled several third-country nationals wanted for drug trafficking or money laundering either to the U. S. or to third countries in 1998.
One prominent case involved a convicted Trinidadian drug smuggler who escaped to Venezuela in late September from a prison in Trinidad. Working with DEA, the Venezuelan authorities captured and expelled the smuggler to Trinidad in less than one week. In another case, an important Dominican narcotics trafficker wanted in the Dominican Republic was arrested and expelled to that country from Venezuela in April in a joint DEA-Venezuelan operation.
These cases demonstrate Venezuela’s readiness to cooperate on the transfer of non-Venezuelan narco-traffickers for trial in other countries. However, no progress was made in updating the 1922 bilateral extradition treaty to allow for the extradition of Venezuelan nationals. The U. S. Customs Service Business Anti-Smuggling Coalition (BASC) Program continued its outreach programs to the private sector in 1998. Venezuelan business response to this program has been extremely strong and the program conducted seminars with more than 100 companies on methods to use to avoid infiltration of drugs in shipments to the U. S. In addition to BASC, Venezuela is one of seven countries participating in the U. S. Customs Americas Counter Smuggling Initiative (ACSI).
This initiative is designed to increase the effectiveness of law enforcement officers in their efforts to deter narcotics smuggling in commercial cargo shipments and conveyances by enhancing private sector security programs at manufacturing and export facilities in high threat narcotics source and transit countries. U. S. Customs officers have been deployed to Venezuela twice during 1998 for periods of 3-5 weeks to assist businesses and government in developing security programs that safeguard the legitimate flow of international trade. Early on in nationwide campaigning for legislative and presidential elections, the CNA initiated a program to sensitize Venezuelan officials and the public to the dangers of narcotics proceeds being used to influence the 1998 legislative and presidential elections.
While no cases were uncovered, the campaign, which included an election campaign finance seminar with USG participation, led to heightened public awareness of this issue. Venezuelan law enforcement authorities seized 7. 3 metric tons of cocaine in 1998. While this figure is lower than the total for seizures in 1997, Venezuelan law enforcement authorities claim that 1998 saw increased focus on traffickers and distribution networks which resulted in the arrest of more than 7,531 individuals for drug related offenses (compared with 6,349 in 1997).
Additionally, the 1997 figures included one unusually large seizure of over 4 metric tons of cocaine from a fishing boat in July. Working closely with cooperation with DEA, Venezuela’s two major anti-drug forces–the Technical Judicial Police and the National Guard arm of the military–dismantled several distribution rings operating in Venezuela and in the U. S. These joint operations led to the arrests of traffickers and drug seizures in both countries. The Venezuelan authorities also participated on several money-laundering investigations with the U. S. Customs Service and DEA.
In July 1998, at the request of the U. S. Customs Service, the National Guard located and arrested Jesus Parra, a Colombian national, residing in Venezuela, who was wanted in the U. S. for the illegal exportation of $11 million in cash hidden in a shipment of auto parts. His extradition to the U. S. is pending. The U. S. Customs Service’s Operation “Casablanca” included investigations targeting Colombian narco-traffickers laundering drug proceeds through Venezuelan banks.
Following the arrests in May of Venezuelan bankers implicated in this case, the Venezuelan government expressed concern over the vulnerability of its financial sector and cooperated with the U. S. on follow-up investigations. The Venezuelan authorities froze several bank accounts identified by the USG and, in addition, froze other accounts as a result of their own investigations. However, some in the Venezuelan Congress and media protested the means by which this operation was conducted and delivered a formal diplomatic protest.
This case remains a politically sensitive issue in Venezuela. The Venezuelan military continued to enhance its capabilities to combat drug trafficking in 1998. In addition to enforcement work by the National Guard in the areas of drug interdiction, money-laundering investigations, and precursor chemical control, the armed forces participated in 19 counterdrug training exercises and mounted two major combined counterdrug operations with U. S. assistance, in the Delta Amacuro region and the Gulf of Venezuela.
Under section 506(a)(2) of the Foreign Assistance Act, the Venezuelan military received two 82-foot patrol craft and six riverine patrol boats this year to support counternarcotics programs. The military plans to use these vessels for drug interdiction operations off the coast of Venezuela and in the Orinoco Delta area. The Venezuelan military continued to work with the U. S. in accordance with the 1994 hot pursuit agreement to enable U. S. assets to track suspect aircraft flying known narcotics routes to the Caribbean.
In 1998, Venezuela gave clearance to 30 USG aircraft conducting hot pursuits of suspect aircraft. However, the armed forces continue to lack an effective strategy to deter drug traffickers from using Venezuelan airspace for transporting drugs. Law enforcement agencies and the Ministry of Defense received adequate resources to carry out counternarcotics activities in 1998. Both the Technical Judicial Police and the National Guard expanded their anti-drug activities in 1998 in accordance with the government’s four-year counternarcotics strategy. Training and acquisition of equipment were a particular emphasis.
Although the CNA continues to work to coordinate law enforcement actions, rivalry and lack of cooperation have continued to hamper counternarcotics activities. Other law enforcement agencies, including the metropolitan and state police forces, receive more limited resources for counternarcotics related activities. The Government of Venezuela does not as a matter of policy or practice encourage or facilitate drug trafficking or money laundering, nor do its senior officials engage in, encourage, or facilitate such activities. However, corruption continues to be a major problem in law enforcement and the judicial system.
In 1998, Venezuelan authorities moved against corruption in the Customs Service and prosecuted several officials for narcotics-related corruption. The Judicial Reform Program is designed to reduce the opportunities for corruption in the judicial sector. CNA Minister Carlos Tablante spot-lighted this issue in 1998, when he publicly called for punishment of specific judges suspected of corruption in narcotics cases. To reduce corruption, the names of Venezuelan officials suspected of involvement in narcotics-related and other criminal activity will be included in a new centralized database.
Because of the prevalence of corruption in the lower levels of law enforcement and the judiciary, this database should improve the ability to screen carefully all participants in counternarcotics operations. Venezuela is a party to the 1988 UN Drug Convention. Key bilateral agreements with the U. S. include a ship-boarding agreement from 1991, updated with a new protocol in 1997, 1995 Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, ratified by the U. S. Congress in January 1999, an agreement on chemical precursor control (1992) and an equivalent on aerial hot pursuit (1994).
In March 1998, Venezuela signed agreements with Colombia to share information on chemical precursor control and exchange information on drug movements. Venezuela has also signed drug control agreements with European countries focusing on the area of drug demand reduction in Venezuela. Venezuela is a partner in the OAS/CICAD (Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission) telecommunications system designed to control traffic in drugs and precursors on the Orinoco river in the tri-border region of Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela.
The three countries are working together to establish secure exchange of information on narcotics-related activity in this favorite area for narcotics traffickers. The USG has concluded a Customs Mutual Assistance Agreement (CMAA) with the GOV. The Venezuelan government is allocating some resources to improve the ability of the National Guard to conduct cargo inspections on the Colombian border and at the major port of Puerto Cabello. The National Guard participated in training programs given by the U. S. Customs Service in 1998 and has moved to reorganize the structure of interdiction units to optimize interdiction capabilities.
However, drug shipments continue to leave from Venezuela’s ports and more needs to be done to improve cargo inspection procedures. The new Customs law adopted at the end of 1998 mandated improved procedures to counteract low-level corruption and better training and equipment. The law also authorizes the Government to allow private contractors to be used to scan cargo for hidden drugs and other contraband using high-tech machinery. Several companies have expressed interest in providing this service to the Venezuelan government. Twenty-two direct daily flights from Venezuela to the U. S. are tempting vehicles for drug smuggling.
In 1998, the USG continued to make seizures of illegal drugs arriving from Venezuela. The CNA continued to make demand reduction a priority in 1998. Programs included a nationwide school awareness program, TV spots and youth oriented events. In addition to a nationwide program of regional alliances led by the Governors of each of Venezuela’s states, the CNA established alliances with NGOs, the private sector, and unions to promote demand reduction programs. The CNA worked with NGOs on drug treatment, education and rehabilitation programs.
In November, the CNA announced that it had signed an agreement with the European community to establish a demand reduction information center in its headquarters in Caracas. The CNA organized a nationwide study of drug abuse trends by a leading demand reduction NGO. Several influential non-governmental organizations function in Venezuela including the highly successful, private sector initiative “Alliance for a Drug-Free Venezuela. ” These organizations work independently and in conjunction with the CNA to raise public awareness on the dangers of drug consumption.