RIO CARIBE, Venezuela (Reuters) - Powering through Caribbean swell in a heavy gray patrol boat and toting new Kalashnikov guns, soldiers scouring the craggy coves of Paria peninsula for cocaine smugglers look like they mean business.
Yet the five Venezuelan National Guard soldiers led by Sub-Lieutenant Douglas Maldonado are outnumbered and outpaced. Their work is mainly preventative, they patrol only three times a week, and they almost never capture any drugs, despite Paria being one of the world’s trafficking hotspots.
“They have faster craft than us,” Maldonado, 23, said from the recently refitted boat on the coast of Paria which juts out from Venezuela to just 11 km (6.8 miles) from Trinidad and Tobago.
Washington accuses Venezuela of leniency in the drugs fight and collusion with Colombian rebels financed by smuggling. Hurt by a blockade on sales of U.S. military equipment and spare parts to Caracas, the government of President Hugo Chavez recently bought millions of dollars worth of radar and other gear from China. Authorities have also captured a significant number of alleged traffickers and “capos.”
“Venezuela has a PR interest — it does not want to be seen as a country that facilitates the drugs trade. New purchases and new initiatives are part of this trend,” said Anna Gilmour, crime expert at Jane’s Intelligence Review.
Chavez may also be worried the corrosive power of cartels could weaken his anti-U.S. socialist revolution.
Venezuela’s drug-fighting capacity took a big blow when relations between the United States and Chavez soured. In 2005, after the U.S. withdrew its radar systems and imposed an embargo on arms sales, Chavez stopped cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“We had no radars — we were left blind,” Venezuela’s anti-drugs chief Nestor Reverol told Reuters.
The United Nations estimates 40 percent of cocaine that reaches Europe now passes through Venezuela, much of it shipped first to Africa. A big drop in traffic to Africa and Europe in 2008 is largely due to a small Colombian coca crop that year.
Drugs experts also talk about a bubble effect, as a Colombian clampdown backed by $8 billion in U.S. aid pushes traffickers to seek new routes and locations for laboratories.
Chavez is trying to claw back lost ground against the smugglers, some say belatedly, with new Chinese radars and jets, proposed laws to shoot down suspected drug flights, a tax on companies for funds, and plans for special drugs tribunals.
Some European diplomats in Venezuela praise Reverol, but he has a long way to go before the traffickers are suppressed.
Venezuela’s reputation as a key link on the global drugs trade was enhanced in November with the discovery of a burned out Boeing 727 jet containing traces of cocaine on a patch of Mali’s desert frequented by militants with links to al Qaeda. The United Nations says the jet hopscotched around Latin America and stopped to pick up fuel in Venezuela.
Wedged between the world’s top cocaine producer Colombia and the islands of the Caribbean, Venezuela has long been a conduit for the drug. How much now gets through is hotly disputed, with the United States saying shipments rose five-fold from 2004, to 250 tonnes in 2007. Reverol puts the annual number below 50 tonnes.
Venezuela said it seized 28 tonnes of cocaine last year, down from 34 in 2008. In 2005 it confiscated 58 tonnes.
The U.S. blockade on selling Venezuela military equipment led to the cancellation of a deal to buy a fleet of Tucan renaissance jets from Brazil as they featured U.S. electronics. Two dozen Chinese planes with similar specifications arrive in January and 10 Chinese radars are now mostly up and running.
Reverol says radar coverage will reach Paria in January, but apart from a small navy camp and a handful of patrols like Maldonado’s, traffickers are for now mostly free to move drugs for shipment to Europe and the United States.
Nearby tourist island Margarita has frequent flights to Europe which drug gangs use to ship cocaine and has also been used by at least two aircraft flying or attempting to fly cocaine to Africa. Last year police nabbed a British couple traveling with their four children after finding over 20 kilos of the drug in their luggage.
At night, fishing boats and high speed launches take Colombian cocaine from roadless fishing villages in Paria to islands like Trinidad and Venezuela’s Margarita.
Similar tactics are used along the 1,739 mile Caribbean coast. Large shipments also leave Venezuela’s sea and air ports, despite new body scanning equipment.
“They use silent motors and travel at night,” Maldonado said, ordering a small fishing boat to halt over a crackling radio. His men boarded with guns cocked, demanding papers from the scared crew and searching the hold. Nothing was found.
The lawlessness is increasingly evident in Paria.
Charismatic kingpins, gory executions and crooked cops have pushed the peninsula and the surrounding region toward the type of violence and corruption found in Colombia and other cocaine corridors such as Central America and Mexico.
In October, police found the decapitated head of a man in an icebox in the coastal town of Carupano, along with a note linking the crime to drug gangs. It was just the latest mafia-style murder in the town, where suspected capo Aurelio “Yeyo” Labrador was killed by 15 bullets in 2007.
Labrador, a former member of the National Guard, became a notorious figure in the east of Venezuela and was rumored to be planning to run for mayor in Carupano. In typical capo style, he handed out cash and washing machines in poor neighborhoods and had a folk ballad dedicated to him and his deeds.
“Obviously it affects us, a big part of our town is involved in this,” said Jose Guerra, mayor of neighboring Rio Caribe. “There are many fishermen who prefer to act in the darkness of the night to earn more money, rather than spending their whole lives fishing.”
Guerra, a Chavez ally, says he received death threats for opposing local smugglers. His patch includes San Juan de Las Galdonas, a scruffy village with idyllic beaches backed by cocoa plantations. Officials say it is a trafficking center.
San Juan is guarded by just one full time cop armed with a rusty shotgun. He said it was not safe to talk about drugs.
“What is needed is a greater amount of land and maritime monitoring — more human resources,” Guerra said at his headquarters in Rio Caribe, a small town of pastel colored houses. He says tourism to nearby powder sand beaches is depressed by the reputation for smuggling
The government’s investments so far have brought some results. Body-scanning equipment at airports means more low level traffickers are caught, although corruption is almost certainly responsible for larger shipments getting through.
In the last year, police arrested 15 mid and high level traffickers, including a senior member of the Sicilian mafia and a former associate of Pablo Escobar with a $5 million U.S. reward on his head. Most of these men were deported to Colombia, Italy or the United States.
Police in 2008 broke up a major trafficking organization with links to a Chavez-allied governor which U.S. authorities say shipped 10 tonnes of cocaine a month to the United States.
But in the same year, based on Colombian intelligence, the U.S. Treasury named two senior Venezuelan government officials and an ex-interior minister as “Tier II Kingpins” for helping narcotics trafficking by Colombia’s FARC rebels.
Venezuela, which says the charges are politically based, has ended millions of dollars of trade with Colombia over U.S. access to military bases for operations against drugs and rebels.
This month, Chavez said he scrambled two F16 fighter jets to intercept an American P3 aircraft — a plane used to seek and track drug traffickers — which he said had twice violated Venezuelan airspace. He says the United States and Colombia are using anti-drug operations as a cover for a planned invasion of his oil-rich country. Washington and Bogota deny the charge.
Violence linked to the international drugs trade is nowhere near the levels seen in Colombia and Mexico, but Venezuela has one of the world’s highest murder rates and most killings are linked to fights between low level drug gangs.
The bloodshed and mayhem consistently register as Venezuelans’ most serious concern, and Chavez’s failure to solve the problem is a weak spot. The government says police commit a fifth of crime.
“The problem of violence converges with the problem of illicit drug trafficking,” Reverol said.
Chavez ended cooperation with the DEA in 2005, accusing agents of spying. Venezuela has cooperation deals with dozens of nations and still works with U.S. forces in international seas but defiantly says it can do without the DEA.
“Since the DEA left we have fought against drugs like never before,” Reverol said.
But it seems that for traffickers, tense relations with neighbor Colombia and the lack of cooperation with the United States mean Venezuela is still an attractive place to work.
Editing by Claudia Parsons