US accuses Venezuela of failing to stamp out drugs trade

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The illegal drug trade has become a new front in the diplomatic war between the Ugo Chavez government in Caracas and the US, after the Bush administration this autumn formally named Venezuela as one of two countries that had failed to meet its obligations under international anti-narcotics agreements.

The verdict came in a White House report that identified Venezuela, along with Myanmar, as having "failed demonstrably to make substantial efforts " to stamp out drug trafficking. The findings were instantly rejected by Caracas, and experts here say they reflect political tensions rather than any sober assessment of the facts.

America has been waging its 'war on drugs' for decades, but the campaign is proving as unwinnable as the war in Iraq. In this 'war,' Venezuela's importance as a transit route for drugs is not disputed. It stands between Colombia, the world's largest producer of cocaine, and the US, the world's largest consumer.

The 1,350-mile-long border is difficult to control, and the large quantity of drugs that cross it was only confirmed by a dramatic $100m drugs bust at Cuidad del Carmen airport in Mexico in April this year, on a flight originating in Caracas. "As Jesse Chacon, Venezuela's Minister of Interior and Justice, stated "We are neither major producers nor major consumers, but our geographic position makes us a country of transit."

The Caracas government did suspend co-operation with the US Drug Enforcement Agency last year - but, it says, not because of any let-up in the 'war on drugs.' Rather, it charges that DEA agents in their operation routinely breached Venezuelan law, and that the DEA was a front for the CIA in its continuing campaign to undermine the Chavez government.

More significant perhaps, the facts belie the assertions of the latest report. A separate 2005 State Department report shows that between 1998 and 2004, drug seizures by Venezuela rose from 8.6 tons to 19.1 tons a year. Caracas claims that last year it intercepted 58.5 tons of cocaine, 18.3 tons of marijuana, 869 pounds of heroin and 0.8 tons of crack cocaine.

This represented an 87 per cent increase from 2004 "hardly the mark of a lackadaisical or uncooperative anti-narcotics effort," the Washington-based Council for Hemispheric Affairs noted earlier this year. Venezuela has accused the US of aiming to isolating it, by a policy of " substituting facts by unfounded statements."

In fact, with more and more countries in Latin America electing leftwign governments, Colombia has emerged as one of Washington's few allies in the region. But Venezuela suspects that an unstated purpose of the huge military aid extended by the US to Colombia is to set up the latter as a proxy, to put pressure on the Chavez regime that Washington so heartily detests.