World News

U.S. says Venezuelan drug flights pose "challenge"

MIAMI (Reuters) - Venezuela has shown little interest in curbing the number of illegal flights hauling Colombian cocaine from its territory for the United States and Europe, a U.S. official said on Wednesday.

“There’s not a whole lot of evidence that there are strong measures being taken by the Venezuelans to deal with this,” said David Johnson, the assistant secretary of state who heads the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

“We have a challenge in getting any really productive, cooperative drug control efforts with the Venezuelans to address this,” Johnson told Reuters.

Traffickers in Colombia, many of whom are involved with FARC rebels, have long been known to use neighboring Venezuela as a transit route to run drugs through the Caribbean, Africa, Central America and Mexico to the United States and Europe.

But Johnson, who spoke on the sidelines of a meeting in Miami of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, said the problem had grown worse, five years after the government of populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“It’s certainly a factual concern that there are increasing incidences,” he said, referring to radar tracks of suspected drug flights originating just inside Venezuela’s porous border with Colombia, the world’s leading cocaine producer.

Johnson said there was a “significant movement” of cocaine out of Argentina and Brazil destined for Europe as well, adding that it was smuggled either directly or through West Africa.

But most of the Colombian cocaine smuggled out of South America by air for the U.S. market was now moving out of Venezuela, he said.

“Almost none of the air (smuggling) is originating in Colombia,” Johnson said.

Johnson stopped short of repeating past accusations that high level former officials in the government of Chavez, a fierce U.S. critic, were involved in drug trafficking with Colombia’s FARC rebels.

But he said its role in the drug trade marked “a significant challenge” for transshipment countries in West Africa and the Caribbean, especially the Dominican Republic and Haiti, as well as for the United States and Europe.

Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Philip Barbara