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Makled's Threat to the Venezuelan Regime

Released on 2012-03-09 04:00 GMT

Email-ID 1327642
Date 2010-11-08 22:46:26
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Makled's Threat to the Venezuelan Regime

November 8, 2010 | 2049 GMT
Makled's Threat to the Venezuelan Regime
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Kiev on Oct. 18

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez issued a broadcast from the Cuban
capital Nov. 8 warning that the United States was launching a massive
disinformation campaign against his regime through captured drug kingpin
Walid Makled. Makled, who is currently being held by Colombia and is
being requested for extradition by the United States, is very valuable
to Bogota and potentially to Washington given the information he
allegedly possesses on money-laundering and drug-trafficking connections
to senior Venezuelan government members. His fate is still undetermined
but could have significant implications for Venezuelan-Colombian
relations, U.S.-Colombian relations and most important, the
sustainability of the Chavez regime.


During a visit to the Cuban capital Nov. 8, Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez made a speech in which he condemned the United States for trying
to manipulate the case of captured drug kingpin Walid Makled. Chavez
said, "The game of the empire is to offer incentives to that man
(Makled), including protection, so that he can start vomiting all he
wants against Venezuela and its president. Then the empire will try to
manipulate all the lies that man can say." Chavez went on to say that
the United States can "pretend" to use Makled to create a list of
narcotrafficking and terrorism charges against Venezuela in an
international criminal court of justice, similar to the U.S. pursuit of
Panamanian military leader Manuel Noriega.

Makled, the man responsible for Chavez's most recent display of anxiety,
is a Lebanese-born Venezuelan national who has earned a reputation as a
global drug kingpin. Upon U.S. President Barack Obama's request, Makled
was added to the U.S. list of most wanted drug traffickers in May 2009
and was arrested on Aug. 19 by Colombian police in Cucuta, Norte de
Santander department.

Cause for Chavez's Concern

Makled is believed to have worked closely with senior members of the
Venezuelan government, possibly including Chavez himself, before his
relationship with the regime went sour around late 2008. According to a
STRATFOR source, Makled had a valuable insurance policy in dealing with
the Venezuelan political and military officials, always taking care to
record his interactions in case he needed to one day negotiate his way
out of a prison sentence, or worse.

That day has come, and Makled is now in high demand in Bogota, Caracas
and Washington. Colombia holds the keys to Makled's fate and understands
well the bargaining power it holds by keeping Makled within its
jurisdiction. When Colombia and Venezuela restored diplomatic and trade
relations in September, shortly after Colombian President Juan Manuel
Santos took office, STRATFOR raised the question of what additional
leverage Bogota might have had. The rapid rapprochement between Bogota
and Caracas was not solely due to Colombia's need to alleviate pressures
on businessmen on the border who depended on trade with Venezuela for
their livelihood, nor was it simply the result of a personal power
struggle between Santos and his more hawkish predecessor, as many
erroneously speculated (Santos and former President Alvaro Uribe Velez,
in fact, have worked very closely together on Venezuela, among other
issues). When STRATFOR began receiving reports of the Venezuelan
military quietly shutting down Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC) camps and flushing FARC members back across the border into
Colombia, it was evident that Bogota was holding something big over
Chavez's head.

Makled appears to be that critical factor. As STRATFOR has covered in
depth, the Venezuelan regime has seen a number of its massive laundering
rackets spiral out of control over recent months, leading to the gradual
decay of critical state sectors including food, electricity, energy and
metals. As the situation deteriorated in recent years and as the cash
flow to state firms was affected more, the intersection between the
money-laundering rackets and drug trafficking has grown deeper. For
example, for those state entities that are running into serious cash
flow problems, local drug dealers can provide local currency and filter
their drug money through the exchange rate regime. The drug revenues
could also be used to finance support for designated terrorist groups
like FARC and the National Liberation Army. Layered on top of these
relationships was Venezuela's growing relationship with Iran and
indications of increased Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force
activity in Venezuela with Chavez's approval.

Makled's testimony, therefore, could be bought by the United States in
exchange for protection, a reduced sentence or other measures in order
to build up a case against the Chavez government on money-laundering,
drug-trafficking and possibly terrorism charges. Indeed, district courts
in Miami and New York are already building such cases against high-level
Venezuelan officials, prompting Chavez to publicly warn in May that a
district court in Miami could indict him and his inner circle on
money-laundering and drug-trafficking charges. It would take a decision
by the U.S. administration to allow these cases involving senior and
active members of the regime to proceed, given the diplomatic crisis
that would ensue, but holding that threat alone, along with the strong
potential for intelligence sharing between Bogota and Washington over
Makled, is enough to generate serious concern within the upper echelons
of the regime.

Domestic Trouble Ahead for Chavez?

As the vulnerability of his government has increased, Chavez has thus
placed greater emphasis on the need to rapidly expand the National
Bolivarian Militia (a way to complicate any coup attempts against him
while he has become increasingly beholden to external supporters like
China, Cuba, Russia and Iran). Doubts over Chavez's ability to hold onto
power and concerns over whether senior political and military leaders
could be sacrificed in a bargain over criminal indictments are likely to
create a great deal of friction within the regime. And the more friction
within the regime, the more likely the unity of the armed forces will be
strained. This may explain why Chavez ally and confidante Gen. Henry
Rangel Silva, Venezuela's chief of Strategic Operational Command of the
armed forces, felt the need to announce Nov. 8 that the military is
"wedded" to Chavez's political project and that the president has the
armed forces' "complete loyalty."

Given the controversy over Makled's capture and the other major stresses
on the regime, that loyalty cannot be assured. Chavez has been pressing
Bogota to extradite Makled to Venezuela - an act that could lead to
Makled's demise or disappearance. The United States is also bargaining
for Makled's extradition; a New York Federal Court formally indicted
Makled on Nov. 4. When Santos traveled to Caracas to meet with Chavez on
Nov. 3, the Venezuelan president urged his Colombian counterpart to hand
Makled over (he has been asking for his extradition since September).
Santos failed to give him any assurances, leading Chavez and Rangel
Silva to warn Nov. 8 that the United States was working to wreck the
Colombian-Venezuelan rapprochement.

The issue of Makled's extradition is likely factoring into Colombia's
current dealings with the United States over the status of their
relationship, including how to proceed with an expanded military basing
agreement. The agreement is in political limbo after Colombia's
Constitutional Court declared it unconstitutional because it was signed
under Uribe without congressional approval, though U.S. forces in the
area appear to be operating with little disruption. Though Colombia
remains interested in maintaining a close defense relationship with the
United States, it is also looking for a more equitable partnership with
Washington - one that will entail technology-sharing rights and free
trade concessions. These broader negotiations are still under way, and
the Makled extradition is one more bargaining chip at Bogota's disposal
as the United States looks to Colombia as its main military foothold in
South America.

As of now, there is no clear answer as to what will become of Makled.
There is no doubt, however, that he is a prize for Bogota and
Washington, and his testimony could pose a significant threat to the
sustainability of the Chavez regime.

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