Walid Makled's extradition case highlights warming Venezuela-Colombia ties

Colombian President Santos looks likely to announce the extradition of alleged drug kingpin Walid Makled to Venezuela during a meeting Saturday with Chávez.

By , Correspondent

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    Alleged drug kingpin Walid Makled is the subject of a legal tug-of-war between the United States and Venezuela.
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Alleged drug kingpin Walid Makled says he has knowledge that Venezuela’s highest authorities are facilitating narco-trafficking and that the terrorist organization Hezbollah is active within the South American nation.

Yet to the chagrin of US lawmakers and Venezuelan opposition figures, who say justice will not be served unless Mr. Makled is sent to the United States, Colombia appears poised to announce "the Turk's" extradition to Venezuela during tomorrow's presidential summit between the neighbors. Colombia arrested Makled, a Venezuelan citizen of Syrian descent, in August 2010.

It is a sign to many of the emphasis that Colombian President Juan Manual Santos has placed on restoring ties after years of animosity during the term of his predecessor, former President Álvaro Uribe.

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While Makled's fate has topped news headlines leading up to Saturday's presidential summit in the Colombian city of Cartagena de Indias, the meeting is perhaps more significant in demonstrating the success of President Santos’s concerted efforts to reestablish links with Venezuela after President Hugo Chávez severed bilateral relations last summer with Mr. Uribe, costing Colombian exporters hundreds of millions of dollars worth of trade.

President Chávez is expected to push for an economic agreement that would extend preferential trade terms between the neighbors. Colombia is a major exporter of food, textiles, and industrial parts to Venezuela.

President Santos, in an interview this week with Spanish-language broadcast Univision, said that he will extradite Makled to Venezuela because that’s what Colombian law stipulates. “We have an extradition treaty with Venezuela, we do not have an extradition treaty with the United States. This is something people don’t realize,” he said.

Santos also met Thursday with President Obama in Washington, D.C., saying afterward that the US president understood why Makled had to go to Venezuela.

Washington branded Makled a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker” in May 2009 and he is wanted in New York for allegedly smuggling 10 tons of cocaine a month into the US. He has become the subject of a legal tug-of-war between the United States and Venezuela.

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking republican on the Senate foreign relations committee, said if Makled is sent to Venezuela it will deny US law enforcement officials information that could “legally dismantle some of the most important drug networks in the world.” This was reiterated recently by Venezuela's former Ambassador to the United Nations, Diego Arria, who said his nation's "justice system is not currently capable of providing" a fair and transparent trial.

Makled himself has corroborated these allegations. During a jailhouse interview that aired Sunday on Univision, Makled said Venezuela is involved both in the production and distribution of cocaine, working closely with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to transport up to five small planes a day filled with cocaine from southern Venezuela to Central America.

Makled did not directly address allegations that he is a drug lord, as US prosecutors claim, but said that he regularly paid millions of dollars in bribes to Venezuelan government and military officials to gain lucrative business concessions.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration has said Makled bought cocaine from the FARC and was responsible for sending small planes, one of which crashed in 2009, to Honduras and Mexico from Venezuela.

Makled says that if he was involved in such activities it would have only been possible with government authorization.

“What I’ve said is this: that supposing I sent the plane, I couldn’t have sent it by myself, okay? I couldn’t have loaded it, I couldn’t have run the control tower. Come on, it’s the international airport, the country’s entryway to Venezuela," he told Univision.

He claims at one time to have had as many as 40 generals on his payroll, though he says he didn’t have to recruit any of them. “It was more like they recruited me,” he told the interviewer with a laugh.

In the interview, Makled also says Hezbollah is “absolutely” active in Venezuela but is saving the details for the court. “They make money and then send all that money to the Middle East.”

The son of Syrian immigrants says he never met Chávez during the years he was paying off Venezuelan government officials but that he did meet the president’s relatives and others who were very close to him.

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