U.S. accuses Venezuela officials of drug ties
By Hugh Bronstein
CARACAS (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday accused four Venezuelan officials of helping to provide arms to drug-running Colombian guerrillas, a charge Venezuela's left-wing government dismissed as "abusive."
The flap is the latest in a long series between OPEC-member Venezuela and its main oil client, the United States.
The U.S. Treasury Department issued a statement in Washington saying American citizens were prohibited from doing business with the four close allies of President Hugo Chavez.
They are Amilcar Figueroa, a prominent member of the ruling Socialist Party; Army General Cliver Alcala; congressman Freddy Bernal; and intelligence officer Ramon Madriz, who was accused of providing security for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
"Today's action exposes four Venezuelan government officials as key facilitators of arms, security, training and other assistance in support of the FARC's operations in Venezuela," the statement said.
The Treasury Department "will continue to aggressively target the FARC's support structures in Venezuela and throughout the region."
The Chavez government has long bristled at and denied accusations from Washington and Bogota that it has been soft on the FARC, both allowing rebels refuge in Venezuela and providing some concrete help.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told state television the United States was "trying to turn into a kind of world police force, judging the decent citizens of our country. ... We don't hesitate in calling this abusive."
Venezuela's foreign ministry later issued a statement saying the move by the Treasury Department was part of "a permanent campaign of defamation orchestrated by the centers of U.S. imperial power."
Henry Rangel, the head of Venezuela's military forces, was put on the Treasury Department's list of suspects in 2008.
Venezuela, which shares a long, largely unpoliced border with Colombia, has become a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine on its way to consumer nations in Africa and Europe.
Chavez had more than one falling out with former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe over accusations that Venezuela was doing little to help combat outlawed FARC guerrillas.
But since Uribe was succeeded by Juan Manuel Santos last year, relations between the neighboring countries have improved greatly. Santos, while just as conservative as Uribe, is known for being more diplomatic than his predecessor.
Colombia, backed by billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, pushed the FARC out of major cities and off the main highways under eight years of Uribe. Santos served as Uribe's defense minister and has carried on many of his policies.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Sandra Maler)