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U.S. accuses Venezuela of negligence in drug war

Wed 27 Aug 2008, 17:08 GMT
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By Kieran Murray

WASHINGTON, Aug 27 (Reuters) - The United States accused Venezuela's socialist government on Wednesday of failing to fight back against drug gangs moving huge amounts of cocaine through the South American country.

Angered by what he says is Venezuela's refusal to work with Washington in the war on drugs, White House drug czar John Walters said President Hugo Chavez's government has not done enough to stop Venezuela being overrun by drug gangs.

Walters told Reuters that traffickers now move about 250 tonnes of cocaine a year through Venezuela, almost a five-fold increase in the last four years, mainly for shipping to the growing European market.

"You don't see anyone arrested, you don't see an active effort against corruption," said Walters, who leads the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Chavez, the leader of a growing left-wing bloc in Latin America and a fierce critic of the United States, suspended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005, accusing its agents of spying on him.

He has dragged his feet on signing a new agreement but has given some signals that cooperation could be renewed once U.S. President George W. Bush, his bitter enemy, leaves office in January 2009 after November's election.

Chavez's government says it is worried about the rise in trafficking and is working with European and other Latin American countries to stop it.

So far this year, Venezuela's anti-drugs agency has seized about 20 tonnes of cocaine, sometimes working offshore in cooperation with U.S. authorities.

Most of the cocaine that moves through Venezuela is produced in neighboring Colombia. Western governments say it is smuggled from Venezuela first to Haiti, the Dominican Republic or other Caribbean countries and then on to Europe, sometimes via Africa.

As in other Latin American countries, corrupt officials are in the pay of traffickers. They turn a blind eye despite the purchase of new radar systems to monitor flights over Venezuela's remote borders.

Private Venezuelan jets allegedly used in the smuggling runs have been captured in West Africa in recent months.

While Walters stressed that Washington has no interest in bickering with Venezuela, he said its government should do more to stop the cocaine gangs because U.S. officials have passed on detailed intelligence showing trafficking routes and even some of the planes involved.

"Venezuela has an air force, it has radar, it has a trained military," he said. "It can stop contraband air flights. That's what they need to do."

Walters said he had offered to meet senior Venezuelan officials this month in a bid to improve cooperation but that Venezuela had declined to issue him a visa.

Venezuela's government denied the claim and said Chavez was just too busy to meet Walters on the suggested dates. (Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Venezuela; Editing by John O'Callaghan)

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