Venezuela arrests seven in cocaine case of Berlusconi's ex-aide

CARACAS Wed Mar 19, 2014 12:24pm EDT

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan authorities have detained seven people, including four young workers at an airport cafe, in connection with the cocaine smuggling arrest of an ex-secretary to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Federica Gagliardi, dubbed the "white lady" by Italy's media, was detained last week by police at Rome's Fiumicino airport who found 24 kg (53 lbs) of cocaine in her carry-on luggage after she stepped off a flight from Caracas.

Venezuela's state prosecutor said on Wednesday a policeman, a National Guard soldier, and a junior official were arrested at the Simon Bolivar International Airport, as well as the four cafe workers.

"Their presumed connection with the trafficking of the drugs seized in Italy was determined by various investigations," the prosecutor said in a statement.

Gagliardi, who is in her early 30s, piqued the curiosity of Italian media when she appeared unexpectedly as Berlusconi's secretary at two summits in Canada during 2010.

Her arrest, and the discovery of cocaine with an estimated street value of more than $13 million, was the highest-profile drugs case to involve Venezuela in six months.

Last September, local authorities arrested several National Guard soldiers and airport baggage handlers after 1.3 tonnes of cocaine worth as much as $270 million was found on an Air France plane arriving in Paris from Caracas.

Three Italians and three Britons were also detained in Paris in what was France's biggest ever cocaine seizure.

As in this week's case, the vast majority of National Guard members accused by the Venezuelan authorities over that alleged smuggling were low-ranking soldiers.

Washington says Venezuela has "failed demonstrably" to meet its obligations under global counter-narcotics agreements.

The country'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.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro says anti-drugs cooperation has actually improved since 2005, when his late mentor Hugo Chavez kicked out U.S. drug enforcement agents whom he accused of spying on his "Bolivarian Revolution".

(Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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