Venezuelan Anti-Drug Official Fights His Foes From a Prison Cell

Evidence suggests Thor Halvorssen was framed by Colombian drug lords and their Caracas `friends'

IT'S visiting hours at ``El Junquito'' prison. In clumps of three or four, the inmates lean against the concrete walls draped with drying socks, jeans, and T-shirts. Others pace the narrow yard. Sitting at a battered card table at one end, Thor Halvorssen sips a cola and declares his innocence.

``I can't tell you now who framed me,'' states the tall, green-eyed Venezuelan businessman of Norwegian descent. ``But Colombian narcotraffickers are behind this, and their ties go deep into the Venezuelan government.''

Guilty or not, most inmates assert their innocence. But Mr. Halvorssen's story is not typical of the genre. Until Oct. 8, he was Venezuela's ambassador for Narcotics Affairs, appointed by former President Carlos Andres Perez. Halvorssen acted as Venezuela's confidential liason between law enforcement agencies around the world, working on money laundering and drug cases.

Now both Venezuela's justice minister and the chief of the judicial police have publicly branded Halvorssen a crook who abused his position. They say he is the mastermind of the ``Yuppie bombers.''

Halvorssen, once head of Venezuela's state telephone company, is one of 12 people charged in a series of bombings in Caracas in July and August. Police here say the motive was profit - to capitalize on stock market fluctuations caused by the bombs. One of the alleged members of the bombers, Caracas businessman Ramiro Helmeyer, told police that Halvorssen was the leader.

Halvorssen denies the charges. He counters that he had met only one of the alleged bombers before they landed in jail together. He says his last contact with Mr. Helmeyer was more than two years ago, when Helmeyer's wife was hired to decorate a room in Halvorssen's home. He has made no stock or bond transactions in the Venzuelan stock market for two decades, he says. His chief accuser, Helmeyer, has since recanted his confession, telling journalists (and reportedly the judge) that the police ``tortured me so that I would accuse Thor Halvorssen.''

Venezuelan officials refused comment while the case is before a judge. A congressman who requested anonymity says, ``Halvorssen was set up because he was investigating Medellin cartel finances and links to Venezuelan businessmen and officials.''

Mr. Perez, who was impeached and is standing trial for misuse of government funds, denied Oct. 18 that he had appointed Halvorssen as Venezuela's money-laundering czar. He later retracted his statement when presented with Halvorssen's letters of appointment sent from the government to the US Secretary of State; directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation; and the Japanese National Police.

Halvorssen claims he's providing evidence on several major cases in hopes of exposing the person he says framed him. Two weeks before his arrest, he met with District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in New York. Mr. Morgenthau's office won't discuss specifics of his role in pending cases. But Morgenthau wrote a letter after his arrest stating that Halvorssen ``has assisted this office in the fight against the international narcotics business'' and ``has assisted the federal law enforcement officials of the United States as well.''

A Miami-based DEA official quoted in the Miami Herald called Halvorssen's drug information ``unreliable, manipulative, and planted.'' Halvorssen denies ever working with Florida law enforcement agencies.

Amnesty International confirms Halvorssen's claim that he was beaten by police interrogators. Halvorssen says attempts were made on his life twice before his arrest, and he informed the interior minister. He also says an attempt was made in El Reten de Catia, a maximum security prison. ``De Catia makes the prison in `Midnight Express' look like a kindergarten playground,'' he says. ``In the pit were rats, snakes, cockroaches. If they were trying to scare me, it was the perfect place to do it. If I had stayed there longer, they would have broken me - not psychologically, but physically.''

Halvorssen is appealing his detention. A judge is expected to rule on his request for release from prison this week.

Letters of support have been sent to Venezuelan officials from the International Society for Human Rights, Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, and British Member of Parliament David Atkinson. Mr. Atkinson called the accusations against him ``fabricated'' and ``false.''

Luis Tovar, director of the International Society of Human Rights in Venezuela, says, ``I have known and worked with Halvorssen for seven years. I don't believe the accusations against him. But they're not surprising, given his fight against narcotrafficking and the extent to which this evil has seeped into the strata of Venezuelan society.''

Halvorssen describes Venezuela as the ``Casablanca'' of the 1990s - a safe haven for fugitives and criminals. US law enforcement officials confirm that Venezuelan banks are used frequently by Colombian drug traffickers to launder money.

Two weeks after Halvorssen's arrest, interim President Ramon Velasquez inadvertently signed a full pardon for Larry Tovar, widely recognized as the Medellin drug cartel's top man in Venezuela. Observers consider President Velasquez honest, but circumstances around Tovar's release are suspicious. Release papers, stamped ``urgent,'' were slipped into a stack being signed by Velasquez. Tovar was quickly let out and fled the country.

President-elect Rafael Caldera, who takes office in February, campaigned on an anti-corruption platform. Halvorssen thinks Caldera will ``clean house. He'll have a terrific job to do, but I believe he's capable of it.'' Until Caldera takes office, Halvorssen believes his life is in jeopardy.

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