CARACAS An accused drug lord sitting in a high-security jail outside Bogota has become an unlikely symbol of friendship for Colombia and Venezuela whose rivalry for years mirrored Latin America's deep ideological fissures.
Walid Makled, a Venezuelan also known as "The Turk", is suspected of being one of the world's biggest traffickers, helping ship tones of Colombian cocaine to the United States.
He boasts of a $1.2 billion fortune -- and alleges members of President Hugo Chavez's socialist government helped him make that.
Sought for extradition by both the United States and Venezuela, Colombia's conservative President Juan Manuel Santos has decided to hand Makled over to his new friend Chavez.
Makled could be sent to Venezuela in the next few weeks, sealing a turnaround that few foresaw in relations between Colombia, a firm U.S. ally, and Venezuela, Washington's most ferocious critic in Latin America.
The Andean neighbors had been at each other's throats for years, arguing over U.S. influence in the region and accusations of Venezuelan support for Colombian rebels, but ties improved sharply after Santos took power last August.
"Santos knows it makes a lot of sense to calm the waters with Venezuela," said U.S. analyst Michael Shifter, noting potential trade and regional security benefits as well as Santos' wider standing in Latin America.
The Makled case also underscores Colombia's new degree of independence from Washington compared to the very close ties under former president Alvaro Uribe.
That plays well around Latin America for Santos but it also gives U.S. politicians more ammunition to slow a free trade deal Colombia wants with the United States. Two Republican congressmen have sent Santos a letter pushing that point.
ACCUSATIONS AGAINST VENEZUELA
From jail, Makled has been telling anyone who will listen that for eight years he worked with a network of Venezuelan army and government officials managing trafficking rings.
In a TV interview with the Univision network, he spoke of having 40 army officers on his payroll and a half dozen cocaine-laden planes leaving one Venezuelan town each day en route for Honduras then Mexico and the United States.
He has vowed to make more revelations in court and even asked for a hearing in Venezuela's parliament.
Chavez has scoffed at the claims as the ravings of a "drug-trafficking bandit" and said Washington wanted Makled to help build a false case against Venezuela.
"It is a bit of a hot potato for Venezuela. There will be a lot of attention on how Chavez deals with him," Shifter said.
Sensing a chance to embarrass Chavez ahead of next year's presidential election, opponents are calling for an open trial of Makled and saying they fear Chavez will try to gag him.
Venezuela is now a major shipment route, moving Colombian cocaine to Europe and the United States, U.N. reports show.
"It's obvious some of the operations Walid Makled undertook were not possible without the authorization of senior state officials," leading Chavez critic Teodoro Petkoff said.
U.S. INTEREST IN MAKLED
The challenge for Chavez, who since coming to power in 1999 has repeatedly denied allegations his government turns a blind eye to drug trafficking in Venezuela, will be how to ensure Makled faces justice but does not stir up a media storm.
"Makled is believed to have the crown jewels in terms of information on drug trafficking in Venezuela: the involvement of security forces and part of the political establishment," said Jeremy McDermott of security consultancy InSight.
Colombia-based McDermott, whose organization analyzes crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, predicted Makled's secrets might never come out.
"He will be convicted of drug trafficking and perhaps murder, and disappear into a prison cell. And with him will disappear perhaps the most accurate glimpse of the system of drug trafficking in Venezuela, a nation that now handles an estimated 200 tons of cocaine every year," McDermott added.
Though its decision has clear political motivations too, Colombia says Venezuela's extradition request takes preference over the U.S. bid because it came first.
A spokesman for Makled's legal team, Juan Carlos Giraldo, told Reuters he would probably be sent to Venezuela in a month to six weeks' time. "He wants to continue collaborating and making denunciations," Giraldo said in a phone interview.
Prior to his extradition, U.S. investigators are being given access to Makled, whom President Barack Obama put on a list of important foreign traffickers in 2009.
Makled had multiple interests in Venezuela including owning an airline and running the nation's largest port.
He was arrested in Colombia in August. Prior to that, his three brothers were snatched in 2008 after police found 300 kg (660 pounds) of cocaine at a family ranch.
"Even among global narcotics traffickers, Makled is a king among kingpins," a U.S. indictment said, accusing him of bribing Venezuelan officials to run airstrips between 2006-10.
(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga in Caracas and Jack Kimball in Bogota; Editing by Jack Kimball and Kieran Murray)