In extradition of Walid Makled, Colombia weighs ties with US, Venezuela

Both Venezuela and the US seek the extradition of suspected drug kingpin Walid Makled from Colombia. President Santos must decide whether to placate Chávez or Washington.

Months of rapprochement between Colombia and Venezuela hang on the fate of a suspected Venezuelan drug kingpin being held in a maximum-security prison in Colombia.

Colombia’s Supreme Court announced Friday that Walid Makled can be extradited. But the thorny question of whether he should be sent to the United States or to Venezuela now rests with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, forcing the recently elected leader to choose between pacifying an unpredictable neighbor or satisfying its most important military ally.

Washington branded Mr. Makled a “Significant Foreign Narcotics Trafficker” in May 2009 and he is wanted in New York for allegedly smuggling tons of cocaine into the US. Arrested in Colombia last August, he quickly made it clear he was not going down alone, accusing high-level government and military officials in Venezuela of complicity with the drug trade.

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“With what I have, I have enough for them [the US] to intervene [in] Venezuela ... immediately,” Makled told a Colombian news station, making it clear he would reveal “all he knows” to American officials if he is extradited to the US.

US drug officials have in the past accused the Venezuelan government of being complicit with the regional drug trade, while the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says Venezuela has become a major transit point for cocaine being smuggled from Colombia to West Africa, where it is then trafficked into European markets.

Makled, the son of Syrian immigrants, said his family’s fortune was legitimately earned through businesses including the Venezuelan airline Aeropostal (which is sometimes referred to locally as Aeromortal for its shoddy record) and a warehousing business in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela’s largest port.

In Venezuela, Makled stands accused of ordering the murder of a journalist that had been investigating his family’s ties to the drug trade and has been wanted since 2008 when cocaine was seized at one of his ranches.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez insists Makled should be tried in Venezuela but international and domestic critics say the case won’t get a full airing here and would deny the US Drug Enforcement Administration crucial information toward fighting the regional drug trade.

Venezuela's former Ambassador to the United Nations Diego Arria, a frequent critic of the Caracas government, on Monday called on President Santos to ignore President Chávez's request to extradite Makled to Venezuela.

"The best thing that you could do to make a lasting friendship between Colombia and Venezuela (two nations whose interests and destinies go far beyond politics and the economy) would be to give this suspect transparent justice trial guarantees – conditions that the Venezuelan justice system is not currently capable of providing," Mr. Arria wrote in an open letter to Santos.

Santos is sure to get slammed no matter what he decides. Sworn in last August, he immediately adopted a conciliatory approach with his testy neighbor, resuscitating billions of dollars worth of trade and calming simmering military tensions.

If he sends Makled to the US, Chávez will no doubt resume attacking Colombia as a lackey for US imperialist aims in the region. Chávez has in the past called Colombia “the Israel” of South America, accusing it of acting as a military base for the US within Latin America, and severed ties with Colombia’s former President Álvaro Uribe.

If Makled ends up in Caracas, US drug warriors are sure to accuse Colombia of putting political calculations ahead of regional drug efforts, the linchpin of Colombia and US ties.

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