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Is Venezuela's military playing role in drug trafficking?

President Hugo Chavez's new defense minister has been accused of drug trafficking, suggesting a level of institutional corruption that could surpass Chavez's control and impact neighboring Colombia.

By Geoffrey RamseyGuest blogger, Jeremy McDermottGuest blogger / January 31, 2012

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez speaks with the media after a meeting with Peru's Defense Minister Alberto Otalora at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday.

Fernando Llano/AP

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Allegations that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez knew of drug trafficking charges against his new defense minister not only suggest institutional corruption in the security forces, but that the president is unwilling, or unable, to take action.

In 2008, the US Treasury included Henry Rangel Silva on its list of Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers (SDNT), claiming that the general helped the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) smuggle cocaine into Venezuela. When Chavez appointed Rangel as minister of defense, the Bolivarian leader laughed off the accusations, saying that attacks against Rangel were propaganda designed to delegitimize the Venezuelan military.

As evidence, US officials had pointed to files found on computers and disks belonging to FARC commander Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias “Raul Reyes” after Colombian forces assassinated him in 2008. Rangel is mentioned by name in the files, allegedly meeting with Rodrigo Londoño, alias "Timochenko," among others. Timochenko is now commander-in-chief of the FARC, after taking over the leadership of the Colombian rebel group in November last year when his predecessor Guillermo Leon Saenz, alias "Alfonso Cano," was killed by troops.

But while Chavez dismisses these allegations, recent evidence suggests that officials in his government notified him of them long before the US government added Rangel to its list of international drug traffickers. According to El Nuevo Herald, Chavez promoted him several times despite having been informed about his alleged links to drug trafficking. The Herald cites an “internal government report” dating back to 2007 which voices concern over Rangel’s connection to an earlier incident in which army officials were arrested while transporting 2.2 tons of cocaine. The document claims there was sufficient evidence linking Rangel to the case, and recommended that officials open an investigation into the matter, including an audit of his income.

It is likely that Rangel was promoted despite these claims due to his unquestioning loyalty to Chavez and the “Bolivarian Revolution.” In late 2010 the general declared that the armed forces were “married to the socialist political project,” (in Spanish) adding that the military would not accept an opposition victory in this year’s presidential elections, “much less the people.”

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