By Joel D. Hirst
Last Wednesday night the Colombian television channel RCN ran an interview with Walid Makled Garcia
Venezuela's most wanted drug "kingpin", from his holding cell in a maximum security prison in Boyaca, Colombia. Makled was arrested by Colombian authorities
on Wednesday, August 18th in the border town of Cucuta. In the interview, Makled implicated high level officials, from both civilian and military branches of Hugo Chavez' government as being complicit in the drug trade. "...with what I have, with what I have, I have enough for them (the United States) to intervene Venezuela (...) immediately" Makled said. Makled has insisted that upon his extradition to the United States, he will reveal, "all he knows" about alleged drug activity by officials in the Chavez government.
Washington is very interested in the extradition of Makled. In May of 2009 the White House designated Makled as a "Significant Foreign Narcotics Trafficker" under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.
On November 5, 2010 Makled was indicted by the US
Attorney for the southern district of New York, for trafficking tons of cocaine into the United States. "Makled is behind bars awaiting extradition to the United States for his crimes..." said DEA agent Michele Leonhart.
For its part, the Venezuelan government has also solicited Makled's extradition to Caracas for drug trafficking and the alleged murder of journalist Orel Sambrano.
"...Over there is a bandit who is a Venezuelan drug trafficker and I am waiting, Nicolas (Maduro, Venezuela's Foreign Minister), that the government of Colombia - like President Santos told me via telephone - he told me they were going to send him here..." said President Chavez during a televised program, "...and now he's (Makled) saying that he paid I don't know how many millions to a general and another (...) so all the more reason, Nicolas, we have to ask our brothers in Colombia that they send him back here." President Chavez is referring to a supposed agreement between himself and President Manuel Santos of Colombia to extradite Makled to Venezuela.
President Santos is in a difficult spot. Since taking office earlier this year, Santos has made overtures to Chavez. They restored diplomatic relations in August, relations ruptured during the last months of Alvaro Uribe's administration. They have also renewed bi-lateral trade and signed various new trade agreements. Santos is undoubtedly under significant pressure by the Chavez administration - which could be worried about possible fallout from evidence that would be made public should Makled go to trial in New York - to extradite Makled instead to Venezuela.
On Sunday, November 7th well placed sources indicated that the Colombian Supreme Court had decided to extradite Makled to Venezuela. The court is alleged to have made this decision due to the gravity of the crime for which he is being requested by Venezuela - murder - is more serious than the crime of drug trafficking. It appears that this decision is being made solely on jurisprudence and with the underlying assumption of the independence of the Venezuelan judicial system. This independence has been seriously questioned recently as President Chavez has extended control over all branches of government.
It is in both Colombia and Washington's interest that Makled be tried for his alleged crimes in New York. The information that Makled claims he is willing to provide to the Drug Enforcement Administration will serve invaluable in the ongoing fight against drug trafficking across the region. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, over the last years Venezuela has become an important drug transit country, especially for cocaine transiting from Colombia through Venezuela to West Africa and on to Europe.
President Santos might be inclined to allow the extradition of Makled back to his home country of Venezuela, in order to extend the current thaw with the Chavez administration. This would not be wise. The Obama administration must firmly and resolutely demand that Makled be extradited post-haste to the United States. A newly Republican House of Representatives might also remind President Santos that approval of his coveted Free Trade Agreement is now a more distinct possibility, but only if Santos does not let regional politics interfere with his commitment to end the scourge of drug trafficking.Joel D. Hirst is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington where he is researching Venezuela and the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA). He was USAID Acting Country Representative in Venezuela from 2004 to 2008. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.joelhirst.com, www.twitter.com/joelhirst or his public facebook page