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Colombia: Suspected drug lord will be sent to Venezuela, not U.S.

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • The suspect, a Venezuelan, says he bribed government and military officials
  • The United States also had wanted the extradition of Walid Makled
  • He was indicted in New York last week on cocaine-trafficking charges
  • Venezuela wants him on murder and drug-trafficking charges

(CNN) -- Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Tuesday a high-level drug-trafficking suspect wanted in the United States will be extradited instead to Venezuela, which also has asked that he be turned over to authorities in that country.

Walid Makled Garcia, accused of being one of the world's top drug lords, will be sent to Venezuela once the proper legal requirements are met in Colombia, Santos said in a news conference marking his first 100 days in office.

Venezuela wants Makled on murder and drug-trafficking charges.

Makled was indicted in the United States in September on one count charging him with trafficking tons of cocaine into the country. The United States attorney for the Southern District of New York unsealed the indictment November 4.

But Santos said he received the extradition request from Venezuela first, the state-run National Radio of Colombia reported Tuesday. Santos said he gave his word to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that Makled would be sent to the neighboring South American nation.

"I am a man of my word," Santos said Tuesday.

Makled fled Venezuela and was arrested in Colombia in August. He has said he paid bribes of more than $1 million a month to Venezuelan government authorities and military officials. Chavez has denied those allegations.

In May 2009, the United States designated Makled, also known as "El Turco" and "El Arabe," as one of the world's most significant drug kingpins.

"As the allegations make clear, even among global narcotics traffickers, Makled Garcia is a king among kingpins," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said last month, when the indictment was unsealed.

U.S. officials say Makled operated and controlled airstrips in Venezuela from 2006 until the time of his arrest.

"He used them to facilitate the shipment of multi-ton quantities of cocaine from Venezuela to Central America and Mexico by numerous drug-trafficking organizations, knowing a portion were destined for the United States," the Justice Department said last month. "To secure the safe passage of these cocaine shipments, Makled Garcia bribed Venezuelan officials with fees he extracted from the drug-trafficking organizations."

Makled, who denies U.S. accusations of drug trafficking, said in an October interview with Venezuela's El Nacional newspaper that he paid millions of dollars to government officials and top military brass and has the vouchers and bank account numbers to prove it.

Makled, whose family owned a shipping business, has said he made the payments to be allowed to operate at some of the nation's largest ports.

"On my payroll I had [government] ministers, the siblings of ministers, generals, admirals, rear admirals, colonels and five deputies from the National Assembly, each of whom I gave a late-model car to," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

"If I am a narcotrafficker, the whole Chavez government is a narcotrafficker."

Makled also has said he contributed $2 million to Chavez for a political campaign.

Chavez has strongly denied those accusations and stood up for his government officials.

Makled is wanted in Venezuela on charges that he killed journalist Orel Zambrano, who had been investigating the Makled family businesses, and veterinarian Francisco Larrazabal, linked to horse racing. He is also wanted on drug-trafficking charges.

In addition to the shipping enterprise and other business concerns, Makled and his family owned the Aeropostal airline, which the Venezuelan government said this month it had appropriated.

Makled said the Venezuelan government confiscated many of his businesses after a raid in late 2008, when authoriries say they found large quantities of cocaine on a family farm. Makled escaped across the border to Colombia, but three of his brothers were arrested.

Chavez hinted last week that he was getting impatient with the extradition request, saying Venezuela had submitted it a month earlier.

Colombian government officials have said, though, that the extradition request must be approved by the nation's Supreme Court. Makled's lawyer, Miguel Angel Ramirez , said in an interview with El Universal newspaper last week that process could take 12 to 14 months.

The issue of which nation gets Makled is tricky for Santos, who has started to repair relations with Chavez since assuming office three months ago. Chavez and Santos' predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, had an acrimonious relationship, and Venezuela broke diplomatic ties with Colombia in July. The two nations restored relations in August, after Santos took office.

But Santos also wants to maintain friendly relations with the United States, a key ally in Colombia's battle with Marxist guerrillas who declared war on the government in the 1960s.

Colombia is considered one of the United States' best allies in Latin America and agreed last year to allow the U.S. military access to more bases in the country. That decision proved highly unpopular with Venezuela's Chavez, a leftist president who accuses the United States of trying to destabilize his government and even topple him.