Less cocaine-laden airplanes are reaching Africa since Venezuela installed radars covering the Atlantic coast and its southern border, the South American nation’s drugs czar said.
Drug flights to West African countries such as Guinea Bissau became more common in 2007 and 2008, as traffickers took advantage of weak air control systems in Venezuela.
“We have taken actions and the effectiveness of those actions can be seen because cocaine trafficking from Venezuela to Africa has dropped,” Col. Nestor Reverol, who heads Venezuela’s national anti-drugs office, told Reuters.
Reverol blamed flights of Colombian-made drugs through OPEC nation Venezuela on capacity lost when tension between Washington and President Hugo Chavez led to the removal of three US-owned radars a few years ago.
Venezuela, which has thousands of miles of coastline and a rugged and porous border with Colombia, the world’s top cocaine producer, ended cooperation with the US Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005 after accusing it of spying.
Reverol rejected US accusations that high level former officials in the Chavez government were involved in drug trafficking with Colombia’s FARC guerrillas.
“We have fought against drugs like never before since the DEA went, and we have shown that with actions,” Reverol said.
Venezuela bought 10 radars from China and installed six of them last year. It is also buying Chinese K-8 light attack planes to be used to pursue flights. They replace a purchase of Brazilian Super Tucanos blocked by a US arms embargo.
The United States says Venezuela let 300 tonnes of cocaine through the country in 2008. Chavez blames the multi-billion dollar industry on US consumption.
“If you do the math, you can’t say 200 tonnes, or 100 or 500 are coming through here,” Reverol said, pointing to a US inter-agency report that says less than 10 percent of Colombian cocaine headed north leaves via Venezuela.
The National Guard colonel is a loyal ally of the president and is credited in Venezuela with having made some progress in combating drugs.
He has launched a 4-year plan to fight consumption, increase penalties for traffickers to a maximum 30 years in jail and allow the shooting down of suspected drugs flights.
Tensions have flared between Venezuela and Colombia since July over a deal which gives US soldiers access to more Colombian military bases to fight traffickers and rebels.
The United Nations World Drug Report 2009 estimates that 40 % of all the Colombian cocaine that travels to Europe passed through Venezuela in 2007, but said overall traffic has fallen since then because of a sharp output drop in Colombia.
Reverol said a shift in Colombian coca leaf production from close to the border to the Pacific coast had also reduced the amount of traffic through Venezuela.
The UN reported a substantive decrease in the number of shipments passing through Africa headed for Europe last year.
The new radars are tracking parts of eastern Venezuela, where planes including private jets cross to the Atlantic or Caribbean to West Africa, as well as a southern region close to Colombia and favoured by cartels to land light aircraft.
The Chinese equipment cost $260 million and also replaces two US-made Venezuelan radars that fell into disrepair because of Washington’s arms embargo against the Chavez government. The embargo includes spare parts.
Reverol said Washington took its radars away after a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez that worsened ties.
He said Venezuela cooperated with all countries except the US on combating drug trafficking and did not rule out signing a new deal with Washington.
“You can’t work with a colleague who criticizes you every day,” Reverol said. With an army salute, he added: “the Comandante, the president governs foreign relations, he decides.”
Despite the rhetoric, the two countries often collaborate on interdicting drugs in international waters and Venezuela extradites captured traffickers wanted in the United States.