Venezuela rejects U.S. criticism of its anti-drug efforts

CARACAS Sun Sep 15, 2013 12:22pm EDT

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela has rejected U.S. criticism over its fight against international drug trafficking after Washington said the South American country had "failed demonstrably" for a fifth year running.

The White House said in an annual report on Friday that Venezuela, along with Bolivia and Myanmar, had not made substantial efforts during the last 12 months to meet its obligations under global counternarcotics agreements.

Drug trafficking has been a thorny issue between Washington and Caracas since at least 2005 when the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez expelled U.S. drug enforcement agents and accused them of spying on his "Bolivarian Revolution."

"We strongly reject the accusation ... The United States is trying to ignore our government's sovereign policies," Alejandro Keleris, the head of Venezuela's national anti-drug office, said late on Saturday in response to the U.S. report.

Since the start of this year, Keleris said, Venezuela had arrested more than 6,400 people for trafficking and seized almost 37,000 kg (80,000 pounds) of various drugs. Since 2006, he added, it had captured more than 100 drug gang bosses and handed over 75 of them to other countries, including the United States.

Drug enforcement experts say Venezuela's location on South America's Caribbean and Atlantic seaboards makes it a preferred route for planes and ships carrying Colombian cocaine to the United States and Europe via Central America and Africa.

Previous U.S. annual reports on trafficking have also denounced Venezuela's "weak judicial system" and its "generally permissive and corrupt environment."

"I hereby designate Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela as countries that have failed demonstrably during the previous 12 months to make substantial efforts to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements," President Barack Obama said in the White House's 2013 report. (1.usa.gov/1bfkrAu)

The three countries appear in the U.S. report on a list of more than 20 countries - including Afghanistan, Colombia and Mexico - that are described as "major drug transit and/or major illicit drug producing countries."

The government of President Nicolas Maduro, who won an election in April that followed Chavez's death from cancer, says anti-narcotics cooperation has actually improved since 2005 when the U.S. drug enforcement agents were kicked out.

Last year, Venezuelan security forces working with Colombian officers and U.S. and British intelligence agencies caught one of the most-wanted Colombian kingpins - Daniel "Crazy" Barrera - during an operation in a Venezuelan border city.

In July, Spanish police arrested Brian Charrington, a Briton they described as one of Europe's top 10 most-wanted criminals, and dismantled a transatlantic cocaine-smuggling ring after a three-year investigation with police in Venezuela and Colombia.

In one possible sign of rapprochement, Venezuela's ambassador to the Organization of American States said earlier this year that the government was considering a U.S. proposal for the return of its anti-drug agents.

(Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Eric Beech)

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