Venezuelan Drug Trafficking Threatens U.S.

Monday, July 20, 2009
According to a recently released GAO report requested by U.S. Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana, Venezuelan drug trafficking threatens U.S. gains in counternarcotics.

Venezuela's cooperation on counternarcotics has deteriorated according to a report released today by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report, requested by U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar in February 2008, is an effort by Lugar to ensure that funding for United States Government policies designed to interdict narcotics being trafficked through Venezuela in transit to the United States are being used effectively.

Lugar asked the GAO to determine (1) what is known about cocaine trafficking through Venezuela, (2) what is known about Venezuelan support for Colombian illegal armed groups, and (3) the status of U.S. Venezuelan counternarcotics cooperation since 2002.

In March 2009, the Department of State reported that Venezuela had become a major transit route for cocaine out of Colombia, with more than a fourfold increase in cocaine flow between 2004 and 2007, from about 60 metric tons in 2004 to 260 metric tons in 2007.

"The findings of this report have heightened my concern that Venezuela's failure to cooperate with the United States on drug interdiction is related to corruption in that country's government," Lugar (R-IN) said.

According to the report, hundreds of metric tons of cocaine flow annually from South America toward the United States, threatening the security and well being of U.S. citizens. The report found that Venezuela's National Guard provides an important "lifeline" to cross border Colombian drug traffickers, and that President Hugo Chavez has decreased counternarcotics cooperation. Since 2000, the United States has provided more than $8 billion to countries in the region to disrupt drug trafficking.

"I would hope that the Government of Venezuela understands that the findings of this report merit serious corrective action. I encourage expeditious action in this regard," Lugar said. "President Chavez has recently approved the reestablishment of our respective Ambassadors. I hope he sees this as an opportunity to further dialogue in areas of common interest, but also in matters of sharp differences. The fight against drugs must be won through full cooperation among producing, transit and consuming nations," Lugar said.

The report is the first comprehensive overview of U.S – Venezuela counternarcotics efforts since the break in U.S.–Venezuelan relations in 2002. The report demonstrates that the resulting decline in counternarcotics cooperation is a significant impediment to the U.S. capacity to interdict drugs en route to the United States.

The GAO report was a result of a thorough review of U.S. counternarcotics reports, assessments, and other documents regarding illicit drugs transiting Venezuela. GAO officials also traveled to Venezuela and Colombia to discuss these matters with U.S. and foreign government officials. In addition to substantive analysis, the report GAO consolidates significant data into charts and summaries of trafficking routes into Venezuela from Colombia and from Venezuela to the United States, Western Europe and Western Africa.

GAO findings of note:

- Venezuela's military and law enforcement officials that report directly to President Chavez, notably Venezuela's National Guard, provide support and weapons to illegally armed groups crossing the border, providing a "lifeline" to these groups who are involved in the drug trade.

- Venezuela is a major drug transit country. While the final destination of cocaine transiting Venezuela is primarily the United States, there has been an increase in cocaine flowing directly towards Europe and to West Africa from Colombia through Venezuela, according to U.S. and foreign government officials.

- The U.S. Department of State reported that corruption is rampant within the Venezuelan government and military and has fueled a permissive operating environment for drug traffickers. The 2008 Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated three top officials who report directly to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as "drug kingpins," clearly demonstrating that corruption has reached the highest level of the Venezuelan government.

- The United States and Venezuela cooperated closely on counternarcotics between 2002 and 2005, but this cooperation has declined rapidly since.

- Despite the desire of some entities within Venezuela to reestablish cooperation with U.S. law enforcement agencies, some of Venezuela's most senior government officials do not share that view.