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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Questions accompany drug suspect back to Venezuela

The Associated Press

Colombian police officers escort alleged drug trafficker Walid “The Turk” Makled to a waiting plane at the military airport in Bogota, Colombia, Monday May 9, 2011. The Venezuelan citizen of Syrian descent was arrested late last year on a U.S. warrant in Colombia. Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos said the law favored Makled being sent to Venezuela instead of the U.S. because it was the first country to request his extradition.

Colombia's extradition of alleged cocaine kingpin Walid Makled has Venezuelans asking about the huge payments he claims to have made to close associates of President Hugo Chavez and opposition leaders are demanding answers.

The allegations, lingering doubts and inquiries about millions of dollars in payments purportedly made to government officials and military officers has prompted the independent media to nickname him "Venezuela's Deep Throat."

Opposition leaders are asking if Chavez was aware of alleged dirty dealings, how Makled amassed a fortune estimated at roughly $1 billion in a decade, if investigators will try to answer the questions and whether any officials will ever go to trial.

Other Venezuelans want to know if Makled, who denies any wrongdoing, will be permitted to talk publicly about his case. The suspected drug smuggler has repeatedly demanded that his trial be televised and expressed interest in talking to Venezuelan journalists about the allegations against him.

All the Venezuelan officials named by Makled as having taken his money deny his accusations. The claimed payoffs were presumably to let Makled's drugs leave the country, though he has never said this explicitly.

Chavez appeared on television Monday night, but did not refer to Makled's case.

Lawyer Fermin Marmol, a critic of the president, wonders if Makled will be isolated or if authorities will grant him access to the media, lawmakers and opposition leaders. Or maybe Makled will clam up, possibly under pressure from the government or pro-Chavez prosecutors, Marmol said.

"Is Makled coming with an attitude of silence or is he coming with the same attitude of talking and expressing his points of view? That's the big enigma of the next two weeks," Marmol said in an interview.

Colombia extradited Makled, a man the White House has called a major drug kingpin, to Venezuela under strict security and Venezuela's secret police quickly escorted him from the Caracas airport to the headquarters of Venezuela's intelligence service.

He faces drug smuggling and murder charges in Venezuela. Miguel Angel Ramirez, his defense lawyer in Colombia, said by phone that Makled plans to plead not guilty.

Makled has said in multiple interviews that he paid military and civilian officials in Venezuela for government favors, including a major warehouse concession at the port of Puerto Cabello, which is also a key conduit for drug shipments by sea.

According to Makled, he handed out about $1 million in payoffs monthly to approximately 40 senior Venezuelan military officials, including generals, colonels and majors.

Makled said in a recent TV interview that he had videos proving Venezuela's ruling elite is deeply involved in cocaine trafficking. He said he would disclose only to U.S. prosecutors the videos and other "conclusive evidence" of drug corruption in Chavez's inner circle.

Makled would have his first court hearing within 24 hours, and his legal rights will be guaranteed, said Nestor Reverol, a deputy justice minister.

"He also will have the opportunity to be heard, and if anyone is involved, whoever it may be, all the weight of the law will be applied," Reverol told reporters.

Makled was captured in August in the Colombian town of Cucuta, on the border with Venezuela.

Both Venezuela and the United States requested his extradition. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos decided to turn him over to Venezuela, saying Caracas made its request first. Santos also noted Makled was charged with more serious crimes in Venezuela — not only drug trafficking of which U.S. authorities have accused him, but also two counts of murder.

Makled, who is the son of a Syrian immigrant, swiftly accumulated a fortune in Venezuela and was a port mogul and airline owner.

He went underground in November 2008 after his three brothers were arrested at a family ranch on drug-trafficking, money-laundering and conspiracy charges. Authorities said they found nearly 880 pounds (400 kilograms) of cocaine on the property. Makled claimed the drugs were planted there to ensnare him.

A Venezuelan journalist, Orel Sambrano, had been publishing articles suggesting the Makled brothers could have ties to assassins, and he was gunned down in 2009.

Venezuelan authorities have charged Makled in that murder as well as the killing of a veterinarian, Francisco Larrazabal, who they say witnessed the drug raid at the family ranch.

Makled denies involvement in the killings.

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