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Joel D. Hirst Headshot

Will a Drug Kingpin Escape Justice?

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It reads like the plot of a Hollywood movie. On August 19, 2010 Walid Makled Garcia, a Venezuelan national of Syrian origin was arrested in the Colombian border down of Cucuta by Colombian intelligence agents supported by the DEA.

Makled, either 41, 43 or 47 years of age, was born to a family of poor Syrian immigrants in the small town of Tinaco, in Cojedes state in the interior of Venezuela. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to the important city of Valencia, capital of Carabobo state. In the 1990s when Makled was in his early twenties he began to become involved in small time crime. He sold stolen merchandise. He robbed cars and trucks on the highway. His band was conformed of his brothers, Adel, Alex Jose, Al Chiar Abdala, Basel and Ander. During this time, they had some run-ins with the law and made friends with some of the more unscrupulous local military officials -- among them Luis Felipe Acosta Carles. Acosta Carles had been one of the military men who, in 1983, had sworn an oath with President Chavez under the "Saman de Guere". Under this famous tree in Maracay, where the liberator Simon Bolivar was said to have rested, Hugo Chavez and a small group of other military men created the "Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement - 200 (MBR-200)" and swore to free Venezuela from the rich. The Makleds had linked themselves to one of the inner circle.

The Makleds' rapid rise came in 2002 when a national strike threatened to topple President Hugo Chavez. The Makleds decided to take sides, and supported President Chavez through those difficult months. Finally, the national strike ended in a whimper, with a weakened Chavez clinging desperately onto power. Much to the Makleds' satisfaction, a hero of the strike had been General Luis Felipe Acosta Carles who had delivered "the burp that saved the republic" (no, I am not kidding here) after drinking a soda taken from a private warehouse he had militarily raided with the media in tow.

The Makleds sealed their place within Chavismo when, according to Makled's own words, he gave $2 million to General Acosta Carles to support Chavez during the attempted recall referendum in 2004. Chavez won, and Acosta Carles -- who ran for governor shortly afterward -- had also won. In gratitude, Governor Carles awarded Makled the administration of Puerto Cabello, the most important port in the country. From there, the Makleds ran drugs through the port, supplying weapons to the FARC in exchange for cocaine which they then trafficked through Central America and even West Africa. Walid Makled, head of the "mafia of the port" became one of the most important drug traffickers in the world. He purchased the Venezuelan airline Aeropostal, a newspaper in Carabobo, ranches and other goods. According to Makled, at the height of his power his net worth is over $1.4 billion. In 2008, perhaps confident of their power, Makled's younger brother Abdala ran for mayor of Valencia.

Makled, Venezuela's Pablo Escobar had reached the pinnacle of wealth and power. It was short lived.

In the summer of 2008 President Chavez broke with General Luis Felipe Acosta Carles. Saying, "...the regional governor's office was too big for him", Chavez accused Acosta Carles of setting up a network of extortion rings and of trafficking in drugs. In societies as closed as these, it is sometimes hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the rupture of relationships. Perhaps Acosta Carles had gotten too greedy. Perhaps he had crossed other, more powerful people inside Chavez' inner circle. Whatever the case, General and former Governor Acosta Carles was out.

This spelled doom for the Makleds. On November 13, 2008 Venezuelan intelligence raided one of Makled's fincas and found 400 kilos of cocaine. Basel and Alex Makled were arrested and jailed (where they remain today), and Walid chose to go into hiding -- keeping his drug network intact.

On August 19, 2010 Walid Makled was arrested in Cucuta, Colombia on a warrant from a Federal Court in New York for trafficking 10 tons of drugs a month into the United States and Europe (if this is true, he could have been responsible for 10% of global cocaine supply). In May of 2009 he had been designated a "drug kingpin", and was referred to by the White House as the third most important drug trafficker in the world.

Since his arrest, Makled has made very controversial claims, especially about the involvement of high level officials in the government of Hugo Chavez in the drug trade. He claims to have paid the brother of interior minister Tarek Al-Aissami $100,000. He has said he has the names of 15 generals he supported with monthly deposits. He has named Military Intelligence Chief Hugo Carvajal and General in Chief Rangel Silva as major drug players. This is not hard to believe, OFAC listed Carvajal and Silva a full year before it listed Makled. He claims to have paper (and video) proof of all this, which he was able to smuggle out of Venezuela into safekeeping.

While he was arrested on US drug trafficking charges, President Chavez has demanded his extradition to Venezuela on the charge of murder. "Over there is a bandit who is a Venezuelan drug trafficker and I am waiting, Nicolas (Maduro, Venezuela's Foreign Minister), that the government of Colombia -- like President Santos told me via telephone -- he told me they were going to send him here" said President Chavez during a televised program, "and now he's (Makled) saying that he paid I don't know how many millions to a general and another... so all the more reason, Nicolas, we have to ask our brothers in Colombia that they send him back here." The United States also insisted that Makled be to New York to face his day in court.

President Santos is in a difficult position. Last Friday, the courts approved his extradition - to either country. Now Santos must make a choice. Does he send Makled to Venezuela, knowing that he will probably be killed or disappear and will never tell the world his incredible story and knowing that he will risk upsetting the United States? Or does he send him to the United States, an important ally that continues to give his country billions of dollars in aid, knowing that it will mark an end to a thaw with President Chavez which has seen greater cooperation and lessened rhetoric as Chavez waits expectantly for his prize? It is an unenviable decision -- but being President of any country is a difficult job. Nevertheless it is a job that Juan Manuel Santos asked for, and which the Colombian people support with a 77% favorability rating.

I, for one, hope that President Santos will do the right thing. Sending Makled to Venezuela is wrong on humanitarian grounds - he may be killed. It is wrong on legal grounds - Venezuela's judiciary is controlled by the executive. And it's wrong on security grounds - Makled can help us dismantle what Santos' own police chief Oscar Naranjo called, "one of the most powerful mafia organizations in South America." President Santos understands this, but will he act accordingly?