BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia will extradite a businessman accused of being a drug kingpin back to his native Venezuela, President Juan Manuel Santos said on Tuesday, in a move bound to warm already improving ties between the neighbors.
Walid Makled, known as “The Turk,” was captured in August in Colombia in a joint operation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and was also wanted for extradition to the United States on charges of cocaine trafficking.
Fractious relations with Colombia’s previous president, Alvaro Uribe, led to heated words from Chavez about war before Santos took office in August. In a marked political turnaround, U.S. ally Santos has now met twice with his socialist neighbor, one of the fiercest critics of Washington’s influence in Latin America.
“I gave my word to President Chavez that once the judicial processes are completed ... we would hand this individual over to Venezuelan authorities,” Santos said at a Bogota news conference to mark his first 100 days in office.
“When we captured him, the extradition request from Venezuela came before the extradition request from the United States,” he said.
The Andean neighbors had clashed over a Colombian plan to allow more U.S. troops access to Colombian bases and Chavez cut diplomatic and trade ties complaining the agreement was a threat to his oil-producing nation. The base deal is currently in limbo, which has also helped bilateral ties.
The Makled case has become a major political issue in Venezuela after the businessman alleged in newspaper and TV interviews in prison that he paid millions of dollars for favors and protection from top officials including the nation’s anti-drug chief and one of Chavez’s pilots.
The top anti-drug official, Nestor Reverol, has refuted Makled’s claims. Venezuela often extradites suspected traffickers to Colombia and the United States.
Chavez has said he believed the United States would use Makled to fabricate accusations against his government and justify a military operation like the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama that removed Manuel Noriega from power on drug charges.
Local police in 2008 arrested Makled’s three brothers after finding 300 kg (660 pounds) of cocaine at a family ranch. The Makleds said the arrest was a politically motivated and that the Venezuelan government was trying to scuttle a plan by one of the brothers to run as a local mayor.
Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama put Makled on a list of significant foreign narcotics traffickers and denied him access to the U.S. financial system. U.S. officials described his arrest as a rare blow against trafficking in Venezuela.
U.S. officials have often accused the Chavez government of being lenient on trafficking, a charge the leftist leader dismisses. Despite U.S. tensions, Venezuela has continued joint anti-narcotics operations with other countries.
Even as violence from its long war with leftist rebels eases, Colombia remains the world’s top exporter of cocaine. U.S. officials say Venezuela has increasingly became a major trafficking route through the Caribbean to U.S. and European markets.
Writing by Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Eric Beech
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