The government of Colombia has made it official that it intends to send drug trafficking kingpin Walid Makled to Venezuela rather than the United States. It is a disappointing decision by a close ally in the international effort to combat illicit drugs and transnational crime. A major crime catch has slipped though the hands of the Obama Administration.
Arrested last August, Makled claims to have videotapes and other evidence documenting his collaboration with military officials and other civilian members of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuelan government—including congressional representatives, governors, and cabinet secretaries—about their involvement in the drug trade and aid to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups in the Middle East.
The Colombians argue that Venezuela was the first party to file an extradition request and that its charge sheet against Makled includes homicide, whereas the U.S. request, filed weeks later, is base on conspiracy to export cocaine. Unaddressed is clearly the question of the fairness of a trial in Venezuela’s politically controlled justice system.
From a strategic standpoint, the Colombian decision is a calculated gamble. Venezuela is a neighbor and major trade partner. Colombia hopes sending Makled to Venezuela will open the door to unimpeded trade and buy Venezuelan assistance in closing off Venezuelan territory to the narco-terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The ability to make peace with Chavez fits in closer with Colombia’s desire to be seen as a team member in South America rather than a pro-American outlier. It also demonstrates that President Juan Manuel Santos is his own boss, not a continuation of the presidency of Alvaro Uribe. Finally, Santos feels he can finesse U.S. criticism.
Sadly, the decision sacrifices Uribe’s uncompromising readiness to fight criminality in all forms and to work with the U.S. for a diplomatically and economically expedient outcome. It rewards Chavez’s bullying on commercial ties and threats of use of force.
The Makled decision will eventually return to haunt Colombia and President Santos. It is an act of appeasement to Chavez and will allow Chavez to further cloak the deep rot of drug corruption that reaches the upper echelons of his government. It will enable Chavez to employ drug money to reward corrupt senior officials, shore up his ailing economy, and strengthen his authoritarian grip on executive power prior to the 2012 presidential elections.