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Venezuela Becomes Major Transit Point For Drugs

February 14, 1992

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Venezuela, long popular among drug traffickers for money-laundering, has become Latin America’s major transshipment center for Colombian-produced drugs, narcotics experts say.

Several high-profile drug scandals involving senior politicians have tarnished the credibility of Venezuela’s leadership, adding to the mounting political woes of President Carlos Andres Perez.

A coup attempt on Feb. 4 touched a sympathetic public nerve when the rebel soldiers promised to root out widespread corruption.

Venezuela and Colombia share a 1,300-mile border of dense, sparsely patrolled jungle, through which pass huge amounts of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and drug-processing chemicals, officials say.

Up to 500 tons of cocaine a year come into Venezuela from Colombia, which has cracked down on the drug trade, said a U.S. official on condition of anonymity.

Venezuela is enticing for several reasons to traffickers shipping drugs to the United States:

-Its location at the northeastern tip of South America is convenient, just 1,200 miles from Miami. In December and January alone, 20 tons of cocaine from Venezuela were confiscated in the United States.

-The country has a well-developed array of highways and landing strips and an extensive and elaborate river network - all largely unpatrolled.

-And then there is the vast jungle that is hard enough for sunlight to penetrate, much less drug agents.

The recent discovery in Colombia of large fields of poppies, the raw material for heroin, has led some officials to suspect the involvement of Italian gangsters based in Caracas.

According to an account in the book ″Octopus,″ by writer Claire Sterling, two Sicilian families have long used Venezuela as a way station for smuggling Middle Eastern heroin.

″The heroin trade in Colombia, for me, is confirmation that there’s been a deal with the Sicilians. It’s better for business to grow it in the region,″ said John Sweeney, an American-born economist who edits a business newsletter Veneconomy.

The government seized a record nine tons of cocaine in 1991, compared to six tons in 1990. But the seizures represent a tiny portion of the narcotics which officials believe are being transported through dense Venezuelan jungles.

President Perez has said the anti-drug fight will become a national priority. He elevated the head of the anti-drug commission to Cabinet status, and the police and National Guard have won credit for more aggressive raids.

But U.S. Ambassador Michael Skol said the government ″is still coming to terms with the notion that narcotrafficking is a major problem for Venezuela.″ Traffickers bribe local security forces and government functionaries, most of whom earn miserably low salaries. The corrupting influence of the drug trade has also reached the ruling elite.

Several congressmen, a Catholic priest, and the ex-president of Venezuela’s highest military court have been charged with drug-related offenses.

Money-laundering - legal in Venezuela - increased ″1,000 to 2,000 percent in the past four years,″ said Congressman Jose Davila of the New Generation Party. He heads the anti-drug commission in the Chamber of Deputies.

In their quest to disguise the origin of millions of illicitly earned dollars, drug traffickers have poured money into cash-intensive businesses such as travel agencies, casinos, restaurants, hotels and exchange houses.

Congress is expected to pass a new law this year imposing stiff reporting requirements for large cash transactions.

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