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Venezuelan VP Deflects U.S. Criticism Over Narcotics

Venezuela's vice president said Thursday that the United States was the world's biggest consumer of illegal drugs and had no "moral authority" to criticize Venezuela for failing to control narcotics.

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday in its annual report on drug trafficking that it no longer considers Venezuela an ally in the war on drugs, worsening already tense relations between Caracas and Washington.

In a speech to Venezuela's Congress, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel responded that: "The country with the highest consumption of drugs is precisely the United States. Narcotrafficking and narcotraffickers are in the United States, not in Venezuela."

The U.S. report said that rampant corruption at high levels of law enforcement and a weak judicial system in Venezuela allowed hundreds of tons of Colombian cocaine to cross into the country each year.

Rangel claimed Thursday that high-ranking members of President Bush's administration were involved in drug trafficking and that the U.S. financial system was "clearly infiltrated" by the drug trade.

He accused U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte of links to drug trafficking in Central America to obtain funds to buy arms in Nicaragua during the Iran-Contra scandal — allegations denied by U.S. officials in the past.

Negroponte was U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981-85 at a time when the U.S.-backed Contra rebels were secretly using that country as a base to attack the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Rangel did not provide further details.

President Hugo Chavez suspended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in August, accusing its members of spying. The following month, the U.S. government said Venezuela had failed to effectively fight drug trafficking and removed Venezuela from a list of cooperating nations, though it did not impose formal sanctions.

Venezuela plans to sign a new anti-drug agreement with Washington that will strictly limit the local activities of U.S. drug agents, putting them under control of local authorities and barring joint operations.

U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield tried to defuse the dispute Thursday.

"The question is not what we have done in the past," he told reporters. "The question is what we are going to do in the future."