Caracas, Venezuela, July 27, 2006 – The US House of Representatives voted last Thursday to condemn Venezuela for failing to secure airport facilities that meet international certifications in the prevention of narcotics trafficking and money laundering. The damning legislation, titled, “Expressing Sense of Congress That Venezuela Should Support Strategies for Ensuring Secure Airport Facilities,” sparked a heated debate among U.S. Representatives.
House Resolution 400, introduced by Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana and passed by voice vote, found Venezuela in violation of the 1988 United Nations Drug Convention. The resolution proclaims that the flow of drugs through Venezuela is increasing, that a weak judicial system in Venezuela fails to enforce laws or prosecute corrupt officials, that criminal organizations act with impunity, and that drugs easily pass through Simon Bolivar International Airport because Venezuela fails to utilize security systems provided by the U.S.
Rep. Connie Mack (R) of Florida embraced the resolution, saying, “Over 30 percent of the cocaine that comes into the United States comes through Venezuela.”
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D) of New York, though, staunchly opposed the measure, explaining that it would torpedo an effort to sign a new agreement between the Venezuelan government and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). “While we are here debating the merits of this resolution, the experts are still in Venezuela completing the specifics of an agreement that would reestablish the relationship between the Drug Enforcement Agency and the appropriate Venezuelan authorities,” according to Meeks.
Meeks also contradicted some of the facts in the resolution and Republicans’ claims about Venezuelan drug enforcement. “The resolution states, drug trafficking through Venezuela significantly increased 2005, when in fact over 25 percent of drug seizures occurred at the Simon Bolivar Airport in 2005, and 2005 also witnessed a 58 percent increase in drug seizures compared to the previous year. In addition, drug seizures are up in Venezuela compared to this time last year by as much as 30 percent,” said Meeks.
Similarly, Rep. Delahunt (D) of Massachusetts pointed out that the U.S. State Department had stated that cooperation with Venezuela on drug control was on-going. According to Delahunt, “The State Department INL had this to say. I am quoting from our own State Department. ‘In spite of the political tensions, DEA continued working with its law enforcement contacts, developing information and leads that have contributed to record seizures by Venezuelan law enforcement.’ The DEA is acknowledging that there have been record seizures, according to their own official report.”
Republicans, such as Rep. Burton, said that while this might be true, “There was an agreement that was hammered out between his people and the DEA here in the United States. He asked for more time, we gave them more time. He [Chavez] wouldn’t sign it nor would he give us a date certain when he would sign it. How long do you wait?
Others, such as Rep. Royce joined the Republican chorus chastising Chavez on other issues, saying, “Today, Hugo Chavez, President Chavez, is in Moscow signing a multibillion dollar agreement for advanced fighter jets for attack helicopters, for 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and a license to build a Kalashnikov factory in Venezuela. … Frankly, these weapons are to allow his self-described socialist revolution to become a military force to be reckoned with in Latin America.”
The resolution passed with a majority voice vote and was referred to the Senate.
Origin of the Dispute
Resolution 400 represents only the latest incident between the two countries in the effort to fight drug trafficking. Last year President Chavez suspended cooperation with the DEA (US Drug Enforcement Agency) accusing the agency of espionage, drug trafficking, and operating beyond Venezuelan law. The US ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, denied these accusations, and Caracas left open the possibility of future cooperation. In September of 2005, Venezuela’s top drug enforcement official, Luis Correa, of the National Anti-Drug Office (ONA) said his agency and the DEA were close to reaching an agreement so that cooperation between the two agencies could continue.
However, that same month the US removed Venezuela from its list of allies in the war on drugs, which resulted in limited sanctions being placed on the country. Venezuelan Vice President Vicente Rangel rejected the assertion his country was not doing enough to battle drug trafficking, “what is of importance to the US government is the political decertification of Venezuela in the function of future aggressions.” stated Rangel.
Efforts against the Drug Trade
Over the past few years, Venezuelan authorities have been increasingly successful in intercepting drug shipments. The US State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports (INCSR) gave positive marks for Venezuela’s anti-narcotics efforts. Data from 1998 to 2004 indicates that over that period seizures rose from 8.6 tons to 19.07 tons, and cocaine seizures during the first six months of 2004 equalled the amount seized in Venezuela during all of 2003.
The US Embassy in Venezuela indicated in their 2003 annual report that the interdiction of cannabis more than doubled in the first four years of Chavez’s presidency, relative to the four years prior to his presidency. Also, the interdiction of heroin more than tripled in this time period. Robert Charles, Sub-Secretary of State for International Narco-trafficking Affairs stated in 2003, “Venezuela has achieved notable advances in the interdiction of drug trafficking… The confiscation of illegal drugs has increased drastically.” Additionally, a US report evaluating 195 countries in the fight against narco-trafficking that same year states, “the levels of heroin confiscation have remained the same as those in 2002, in half a ton, the highest level in South America for the fourth consecutive year.”
According to the Venezuelan government’s own sources, 58.5 tons of cocaine, 18.3 tons of marijuana, 869 pounds of heroine and 766.7 pounds of crack were intercepted in 2005, which representing an 87% increase from the previous year.
New legislation has corresponded with the increased vigilance. In 2005, Venezuela passed the Organic Law Against Illicit Traffic and Consumption of Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, as well as the Organic Law Against Organized Crime. These laws stipulated that those who traffic drugs will be subject to six to eight years in prison. The punishment will be increased if the offender is a government official, a member of the National Guard, or a judicial authority. Under the new laws, 60 anti-drug officers were fired this year, after charges of mishandling or losing confiscated drug supplies. Luis Correa reported that, “they ordered a complete cleanup of the CICP anti-drug squad.”
Last year, as cooperation was suspended with the DEA, Venezuela signed multilateral agreements with France, Spain, and Colombia to develop more effective collaboration against drug trafficking. This year, as the US Congress passed Resolution 400, foreign officials from Britain, the Netherlands, and Spain congratulated Caracas for successfully challenging drug smuggling operations.
House Resolution 400 is reproduced below:
The Clerk read as follows:
H. Con. Res. 400
Whereas the United States is strongly committed to working with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that have a shared interest in promoting regional stability;
Whereas the United States is strongly committed to working with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that are combating the scourge of drugs and the violence and social degradation caused by narcotics trafficking;
Whereas the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is a party to the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988 UN Drug Convention);
Whereas Venezuela is a key transit point for drugs leaving Colombia–the world’s primary source of cocaine and South America’s top producer of heroin;
Whereas drug trafficking through Venezuela significantly increased in 2005;
Whereas weak law enforcement, corruption, and a weak judicial system in Venezuela allow criminal organizations to act with impunity;
Whereas the Department of State’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report of 2006 reports that Colombian cartels, guerrilla groups, and paramilitary organizations and Venezuelan criminal organizations (among other smugglers) routinely exploit a variety of routes and methods to move hundreds of tons of illegal drugs into Venezuela every year, and organized crime in Venezuela has begun to set up operations in foreign countries to receive and distribute drugs in addition to providing transportation services;
Whereas in September 2005, the Government of the United States determined that Venezuela had failed demonstrably to meet its counternarcotics obligations and that Venezuela could no longer be certified as an ally in the war on drugs;
Whereas the promulgation by Venezuela of two new laws in October 2005, the “Law against Organized Crime” and the “Law against the Trafficking and Consumption of Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances”, brought Venezuelan law into compliance with the 1988 UN Drug Convention; however, it is not certain, according to the Department of State, whether Venezuela’s political and judicial institutions are up to the task of vigorous and impartial implementation of such new laws;
Whereas on April 11, 2006, a commercial plane originating in Venezuela was seized in Mexico at the airport of Ciudad del Carmen, carrying 5.6 tons of cocaine with an estimated street value of $100 million;
Whereas seizure statistics at the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Caracas are not available because the Government of Venezuela does not publicize such statistics;
Whereas estimates indicate that as much as 90 percent of the cocaine and heroin trafficked through the Simon Bolivar International Airport over the last 12 months was not intercepted;
Whereas the Government of Venezuela continues to fail to effectively utilize several airport security systems provided by the United States specifically aimed at increasing the Simon Bolivar International Airport counternarcotics capabilities;
Whereas the Government of Venezuela has not taken any steps unilaterally to prosecute any corrupt airport officials relating to cases of money laundering or drug trafficking at the airport despite credible intelligence estimates that there is potentially millions of dollars in narcotics proceeds passing through Simon Bolivar International Airport and Venezuela; and
Whereas the Government of Venezuela and the Venezuela National Anti-Drug Office (ONA) have officially reported only two seizures of currency in 2006, one for $13,865 in United States currency and the other for 7,000 euros: Now, therefore, be it
Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That–
(A) strongly condemns the actions and inactions of the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela which have created fertile ground for criminal drug trafficking organizations;
(B) strongly condemns the failures on the part of the Government of Venezuela to stem the flow of illicit narcotics through its territory; and
(C) strongly condemns the complicity of senior Venezuelan Government law enforcement officials and transportation officials who are effectively enabling large scale shipments of both cocaine and heroin at the Simon Bolivar International Airport and other transit points; and
(2) it is the sense of Congress that–
(A) it should continue to be the policy of the United States to support cooperation between Venezuela and partners in the Andean region to combat trafficking in narcotics and other controlled substances;
(B) steps should continue to be taken to restore bilateral law enforcement cooperation between Venezuela and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration;
(C) it should continue to be the policy of the United States to work with the international community, including the Organization of American States (OAS), to assist with a thorough review of the measures in place at the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Caracas;
(D) it should continue to be the policy of the United States to work with other member states of OAS to bring Venezuela into compliance and fully adhere to OAS conventions and comprehensive treaties to prevent, punish, and eliminate narco-terrorism, which constitutes “a serious threat to democratic values and to international peace and security”;
(E) the Secretary of Transportation should provide to Congress not later than 180 days after the date of the adoption of this resolution, on behalf of the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and the Department of Transportation, a report with an assessment of the process undertaken by the Government of Venezuela toward restoring airport security measures and controls that meet international standards of safety; and
(F) the Secretary of State should provide to Congress not later than 180 days after the date of the adoption of this resolution a report on Venezuela’s compliance with its responsibilities under international counternarcotics treaties.