BOGOTA—The U.S. and its ideological foe Venezuela are in a bitter fight over the extradition of Walid “The Turk” Makled, an alleged cocaine kingpin currently jailed in Colombia. And Venezuela appears to have the upper hand.
Mr. Makled, arrested late last year on a U.S. warrant in Colombia, is alleged to be one of the world’s most important, yet little known, drug lords. He is a “king among kingpins,” says Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
At the height of his power, Mr. Makled, a Venezuelan citizen of Syrian descent, smuggled 10 tons of cocaine a month into the U.S. from Venezuela, according to U.S. officials. He controlled Venezuela’s most important port and allegedly added to his transport empire by, in effect, stealing an entire airline, according to a lawsuit in Venezuela filed by the airline’s former owner.
Late Thursday, a high-ranking U.S. official said Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, told him that Mr. Makled would be extradited to Venezuela. A spokesman for Mr. Santos declined to comment.
The U.S. has been keen to hear Mr. Makled’s secrets. Venezuela has become a huge transshipment hub for Colombian cocaine. U.S. officials say the alleged trafficker has close ties to Venezuelan government officials who are deeply involved in the trade. Mr. Makled himself has told an individual he maintains contact with from prison that he had as many as 40 Venezuelan generals and top officials on his payroll to provide security and distribution, among other things.
“All my business associates are generals. The highest,” Mr. Makled said, according to the person who maintains contact with him in prison. “I’m telling you we dispatched 300,000 kilos of coke. I couldn’t have done it without the top of the government.”
Given Mr. Makled’s allegations that top Venezuelan officials are active in the drug trade, “Makled is like the sword of Damocles hanging over Chavez’s head,” says Bruce Bagley, a Latin America expert at the University of Miami, in reference to Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.
Venezuela says it wants Mr. Makled brought home to face charges of drug trafficking, money laundering and murder. Mr. Chavez has long said that U.S. accusations of drug-related corruption in Venezuela are a plot by Washington to destabilize his government.
The decision on which country—U.S., or Venezuela—gets him has rested in the hands of Mr. Santos, Colombia’s president, who has made improving ties with Venezuela a top priority after several years of bad blood, including talk of a border war. Mr. Santos hosts Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez for a one-day meeting Friday.
We expect the announcement that he will be extradited to Venezuela when Santos and Chavez meet,” says Mr. Makled’s lawyer in Colombia, Miguel Angel Ramirez.
Mr. Makled denies all the charges against him and his companies by both Venezuela and the U.S., according to Mr. Ramirez.
If Mr. Makled is handed over to Venezuela, U.S. officials worry his first-hand information about alleged corruption among Venezuelan officials might never see the light of day. One possibility is that a plea deal might silence him. Some U.S. attorneys who represent drug traffickers also say Mr. Makled’s life could be at risk in Venezuela from drug figures.
Mr. Makled has said he has had conversations with U.S. officials in prison. Still, if he is sent to Venezuela, “The DEA and the DOJ are going to be pissed. They are pissed right now,” says a U.S. official, referring to the Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Justice.
But, the official adds: “Colombia is an ally. We’ll talk it through.”
The Department of Justice, the DEA, and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, where Mr. Makled has been indicted for drug trafficking, declined to comment.
Colombia’s President Santos has worked hard since his election last year to “reset” relations with Venezuela. In November, he promised to hand over Mr. Makled. Mr. Chavez praised the decision and weeks later pulled out his checkbook, paying some $500 million of an estimated $900 million in unpaid bills owed by Venezuela’s government to Colombian firms.
Half the detected maritime shipments of cocaine to Europe between 2006 and 2008 originated in Venezuela, according to the United Nations’ recently released 2010 World Drug Report.
In 2008, the U.S. put three of Mr. Chavez’s top military officers, including military intelligence chief Gen. Hugo Carvajal, on a blacklist for allegedly trafficking cocaine and arms with Colombia’s communist guerrillas, known as the FARC.
One DEA document, submitted in U.S. district court in Puerto Rico in 2009 as part of an effort to freeze one of Mr. Makled’s bank accounts, says Mr. Makled bought some 7,000 kilos, or about 15,000 pounds, of cocaine that Venezuelan military and law-enforcement officials had stolen from major drug traffickers.
Another U.S. intelligence document, dating from 2007, says Mr. Makled engaged in drug-trafficking activities with Gen. Carvajal, who helped Mr. Makled’s alleged drug-running hub. The document details alleged relationships between drug traffickers, FARC and Gen. Carvajal. “The information received…indicated that Walid Makled Garcia had strong ties to high level members of the Venezuelan government,” says the DEA asset-freeze document. That document estimates Mr. Makled smuggled as much as 10,000 kilos of cocaine a month into the U.S.
Although Mr. Makled denies the charges against him, he has given a number of incendiary interviews to Venezuelan and Colombian media in which he has said he paid top Venezuelan government officials, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs to get government concessions. “If I’m a drug dealer, then all of them are drug dealers, too,” Mr. Makled told Colombian television last year in an interview from his prison cell.
Venezuelan interior minister Tareck El Aissami dismissed Mr. Makled’s accusations as politically motivated slander and an attempt to sabotage Venezuelan efforts to fight drug trafficking.
Andres Izarra, Venezuela’s information minister, declined to comment on Mr. Makled’s charges of broad government and military corruption.
The Interior Ministry and Venezuela’s armed forces didn’t respond to telephone calls, emails and faxes requesting comment for this article.
Mr. Makled rose to prominence only in the past several years after a career as a truck hijacker, according to accounts by Mr. Makled himself, as well as details provided by a person who had business dealings with Mr. Makled.
The son of Syrian immigrants who sold electrical appliances, he branched out from commerce into hijacking by stealing cargo leaving the port of Puerto Cabello and selling the proceeds at the wild-west like free-trade zone of Maicao in Colombia, just across the border, according to these accounts.
“I directed the most powerful criminal bands in the country for 10 years,” Mr. Makled recently told the individual with whom he maintains contact. “Every day 300 armed men went out. We stole 30 trucks a week.”
In the course of that exchange, Mr. Makled said his theft was protected by Venezuelan police and national guard. “It was a great partnership of the government and organized crime,” he said, according to the person with whom Mr. Makled has communicated from prison.
Asked about Mr. Makled’s comments regarding hijacking and alleged drug activities, his lawyer said: “I don’t have any information that would allow me to either confirm or deny that statement.”
Mr. Makled and his family created a network of shipping and export companies between 2000 and 2004, according to Venezuelan Supreme Court documents related to his possible extradition. The companies included a fleet of fuel trucks and nine warehouses in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela’s most important port. Mr. Makled also had a government concession to run the airport in Valencia, Venezuela’s third largest city and industrial hub.
Mr. Makled’s rise got a boost from a 2002 general strike against Mr. Chavez. As the Venezuelan economy ground to a halt, Mr. Makled made his fleet of fuel trucks available to Gen. Luis Felipe Acosta Carlez, who was then in charge of the military region of Valencia. “They were able to solve their fuel-distribution problems, and we developed close ties,” he told Casto Ocando, a reporter for U.S. Hispanic network Univision last month.
U.S. officials and legal documents say Mr. Makled first popped up on the radar of U.S. law enforcement around 2004. “He was an arriviste. He wasn’t part of the narco elite,” says a U.S. official. “There opened up a lot of space to operate, and he filled it. He was very big in transshipping drugs out of Puerto Cabello.”
In 2004, Venezuelan officials with the help of the DEA seized tons of urea, potassium chloride and ammonium sulfate, chemicals used both to process cocaine and to make explosives, in a warehouse belonging to one of Mr. Makled’s companies in a town by the Brazilian border. The officials concluded that the chemicals were being diverted for criminal ends.
But in 2005, relations between Washington and Caracas deteriorated to the point where Mr. Chavez suspended most cooperation between Venezuela and the DEA. The case on Mr. Makled was closed that year “due to a lack of cooperation” with the “Venezuelan law enforcement officials investigating the diversion of the chemicals,” according to a DEA affidavit.
In 2005, Mr. Makled’s main source of cocaine was a Colombian dealer named Jose Corredor, known as Boyaco, according to the DEA asset-freeze document. Mr. Corredor was also one of FARC’s major arms dealers: He provided “AK-47 and AR-15 assault type weapons, and ammunition” to the Colombian guerilla group in exchange for cocaine, which was flown from airstrips in Colombia and Venezuela, according to Mr. Corredor’s 2006 indictment in district court in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Corredor is in custody in the U.S. pending trial, according to his lawyer, who says Mr. Corredor has no connection with Mr. Makled. Mr. Corredor faces charges of helping terrorists obtain weapons and communications gear.
In 2006, Mr. Makled’s transport empire continued to grow. In interviews in local media, he has said that he paid off three officers—Gen. Acosta Carlez, who was then a state governor; Gen. Carvajal, the head of military intelligence; and Admiral Carlos Aniasi Turchio, the head of the Venezuelan navy—to obtain a concession to buy and operate about half the warehouses and loading docks in Puerto Cabello. According to DEA officials, that port is at the heart of Mr. Makled’s alleged drug operations.
Venezuela’s army and navy didn’t respond to emails, faxes and phone calls seeking comment. Gen. Acosta Carlez didn’t return messages seeking comment left on his cellphone. In an interview with a Venezuelan newspaper earlier this week, Gen. Acosta Carlez denied accepting any payments from Mr. Makled in exchange for the concessions.
In 2008, Mr. Makled bought a controlling interest in Aeropostal SA, then the country’s largest privately owned airline, for $23 million. Nelson Ramiz, a Cuban-born, Miami-based businessman who sold the airline, says Mr. Makled took control but failed to pay. Mr. Ramiz has filed a lawsuit against Mr. Makled in Venezuelan court, seeking the return of the airline.
Mr. Makled’s lawyer said, “I don’t know whether he made a payment or not to gain control of the airline.”