Customs officers at Venezuela’s port of Maracaibo opened two suspicious crates arriving from the United States on Feb. 29, 2004. They were curious about the shipment destined for a rural police station in Cojede, a remote town near the border with Colombia. They discovered hundreds of state-of-the-art AK-90 and M-16 assault rifles attached with grenade launchers, as well as night vision scopes and Glock automatic pistols.
Instead of retaining the shipment, superiors ordered the arms turned over to an individual badged as an officer of Venezuela’s state security service, DISIP, Hermagora Gonzales Polanco. He had appeared together with his brother, complaining they were “untouchable,” because President Hugo Chavez owed them “favors.”
Gonzales has been identified through Colombian authorities as a dual Colombian-Venezuelan national and a known narco trafficker linked with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The incident, which was reported to the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, triggered an investigation that may have been among the factors leading to Chavez’s decision to expel the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) from Venezuela. For years, U.S. law enforcement agencies have been locked in a secret war with Venezuela’s president, who accuses the anti-drug unit of attempting to “destabilize” his government and of “promoting” narco traffic. The DEA has been getting uncomfortably close to exposing the extensive arms-for-drugs trade now moving through Venezuela.
“Venezuela has become the main route for Colombian drugs moving to the U.S. and Europe and for arms coming back for FARC,” said Col. Jesus Manuel Carpio Manrique, who, until recently, headed anti-drug investigations for Venezuela’s gendarmerie or National Guard. According to sources in the Venezuelan security services, tons of cocaine and heroin being produced in guerrilla-controlled areas of Colombia are being smuggled out on tankers of the Venezuelan state-managed PDVSA oil company.
Chavez’s efforts to protect narco traffic date back to his first days in office. Shortly after becoming president in 2000, he banned U.S. anti-drug surveillance flights from Venezuelan air space. According to former high-level officials of Venezuela’s interior ministry, he also ordered the shredding of sensitive files involving Hezbollah-linked Arab financiers requested by the FBI following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Reeling from accusations of involvement in a 2002 failed coup to oust Chavez, the U.S. State Department bent over backwards to paper over the allegations. An official audit concluded there was no evidence of money laundering by a group of Arab businessmen who intelligence documents otherwise indicated were making cash transfers to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
DEA clandestine operations persisted. But the hostile environment, which U.S. agents now found themselves operating, doomed them to failure. U.S. intelligence agencies had been ordered to cut off relations with dissident military officers who had helped out American operations in the past, according to a U.S.-trained Venezuelan navy captain speaking on condition of anonymity.
Further proof of terrorist-related drugs-for-arms traffic cannot be ignored. A small plane taking off from Cojede crashed in Venezuela’s border province of Tachira in 2004. It was overloaded and several Venezuelan army officers were killed. The plane’s license number, YV1060P, was traced to previous gun-running operations.
Then, in Febuary 2005, a highly professional undercover team snatched FARC executive committee member Rodrigo Granda from his safehouse in Venezuela and bundled him across the border to Colombia to face terrorist and trafficking charges.
Possibly fearing further snatches, Chavez moved to close down the DEA office in Caracas, which had put six high-ranking officers of Venezuela’s National Guard under surveillance. The State Department responded by revoking the visas of three of the officials and expressing “regret.”