Venezuela Refuses to Extradite Man Wanted in the US for Drug Trafficking

Venezuela has set free Mateo Holguin Ovalle, wanted in the US for drug trafficking, on the grounds that the US cannot guarantee that he will not receive an excessive prison sentence.

Caracas, March 29, 2006—In a move likely further increase friction in the already tense relations between Venezuela and the US, Venezuela released Mateo Holguin Ovalle, a Dominican wanted by the US for drug trafficking.

The decision was based on a Venezuelan law which requires extradition for those wanted for organized crime, except in cases where the receiving country does not guarantee not to apply the death penalty, life imprisonment, or a sentence that exceeds 30 years, according to a release by Supreme Court Judge Héctor Coronado Flores.

The move comes exactly a week after Venezuela’s embassy in the US put out a strongly worded statement asking the US to either extradite or prosecute Posada Carriles, an anti-Castro terrorism suspect. Previously, a US judge had ruled that Carriles could not be extradited to Venezuela, on the grounds that he may be tortured here.

The Holguin Ovalle case had been noted as one of the few successes in US-Venezuelan relations. While the US had taken Venezuela off its list of allies in the war on drugs, which resulted in limited sanctions being placed on the country, it had praised Venezuela’s efforts to help detain Holguin Ovalle. Special Agent in Charge Laura Nagel of the Washington Division Office of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) said in a 2003 press release that without the cooperation of agencies in Venezuela, among others, the successful outcome of the investigation involving Holguin Ovalle and seven others would not be possible.

The initial ruling was made with the condition that the US would guarantee that Holguin Ovalle would receive no more than 30 years in prison. However, according to the Supreme Court release, in two diplomatic notes, US authorities had said that they did not have the ability to guarantee that his sentence would be less than 30 years.

The U.S. Embassy in Caracas and the DEA in Washington did not immediately comment on the decision, according to the Associated Press.

In a speech yesterday, Venezuelan President Chávez praised the much maligned anti-drug trafficking efforts in the South American country, saying that a new program was in place to destroy poppy fields—which grow plants used to make heroine—along the border with Columbia. “We will go on destroying [poppy] farms, and what’s more, we’re using helicopter gunships because these camps almost always are run by illegal armed groups, which almost always respond,” he said.

Even as the relationship between the DEA and Caracas was strained, amid Venezuelan government allegations that the DEA was engaged in espionage, according to Venezuelan government officials the country doubled the amount of drugs confiscated over previous years.

The Venezuelan President’s speech yesterday also highlighted the tension in US-Venezuelan relations. “We know the tricks of empire and its strategy to bring us to a new unstable situation, and the attack has already begun. And our attack has begun too. It’s a confrontation…Who hopes to…bring to the forefront a project of transformation, which inevitably sooner or later will clash with American empire. And the clash is necessary because the clash defines,” he said.

Chávez also said the US had a dictatorship within the United Nations.

In another ongoing dispute between the two countries, there has been no resolution as of yet as to whether or not flights between Venezuela and the US will be greatly reduced at the end of the month. US officials had prematurely said that their had been a resolution, which the INAC, the Venezuelan airline authority denied. According to news reports, Tuesday, US ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield said this conflict was based on security, not politics, and that it was on its way satisfactory resolution. Today, FAA officials said they had not yet made a decision as to whether or not to upgrade Venezuela’s 10 year old category 2 rating, which, among other restrictions, limits Venezuelan airlines flights to the US.