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Drug extradition could help reveal Venezuelan military involvement in cocaine trade

CARACAS, VENEZUELA - APRIL 11: National guard troops block off streets around the presidential palace April 11, 2003 in Caracas, Venezuela. Today marks the year anniversary of a brief coup attempt against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that left 19 people dead in clashes. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images)

CARACAS, VENEZUELA - APRIL 11: National guard troops block off streets around the presidential palace April 11, 2003 in Caracas, Venezuela. Today marks the year anniversary of a brief coup attempt against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that left 19 people dead in clashes. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images)  (Getty Images)

Law enforcement officials say a border region butcher with a bad headlight might help shed light on the scope of Venezuelan military involvement in the cocaine trade.

A drug trafficking indictment against Gersain Viáfara-Mina was unsealed Oct. 16 by a judge in the Southern District of New York, a day after Colombia extradited the 49-year-old to the U.S.

Law enforcement officials say the Colombian native was a low-level but key conduit between drug traffickers from several nations and members of Venezuela's military in that country's wild west, the state of Apure, which the U.S. says is home to hundreds of clandestine airstrips.

In his first court appearance in the U.S., Viáfara-Mina pleaded not guilty to charges of importing more than 5 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S. A Drug Enforcement Administration official alleged in an affidavit supporting the indictment that Viáfara-Mina helped arrange numerous drug flights, some carrying as much as 1.6 tons of cocaine, since 2010.

In intercepted phone calls and text messages, Viáfara-Mina can be heard allegedly negotiating the illegal sale of transponder codes normally assigned by Venezuelan authorities to authorized flights, according to the not-yet-public affidavit, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. It says he's also heard boasting of unnamed "high-level political contacts" that can ensure safe passage for drug flights as well as efforts to win release of a plane seized by the military nine days earlier.

One witness, according to the affidavit, also saw him help load 750 kilograms (1,650 pounds) of cocaine onto a Honduras-bound flight as armed guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia stood guard.

Investigators allege Viáfara-Mina charged at least $100,000 per flight, proceeds of which would be paid in the form of bribes higher up the chain so military officers wouldn't scramble fighter jets if they suspected drugs were aboard.

U.S. law enforcement officials and prosecutors, as well as Viáfara-Mina's lawyers, declined to comment when contacted by the AP.

Born in Colombia, Viáfara-Mina owned a butcher's shop in Apure, a sparsely populated region of sweltering plains where an airstrip can be built in a few hours.

Brazilian prosecutors indicted him in 2003 on charges of trying to smuggle Colombian cocaine to Africa, but the charges were later dropped because the evidence was gathered illegally.

U.S. and Colombian officials had been tracking him for at least two years, but he appears to have been done in by Venezuela's economic crisis, which has led to shortages of all sorts. Investigators caught him when he crossed the border to the Colombian town of Puerto Carreño to pick up a spare headlamp for his truck, said a Colombian official assigned to the case who, like others interviewed, agreed to discuss it only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about a continuing investigation.

The U.S. government says that more than 200 tons a year of cocaine flows through Venezuela, about a third of Colombia's estimated production. Much of it is believed to pass through Apure.

The U.S has been steadily stepping up pressure on high-ranking members of Venezuela's military, police and government officials for their role in making the country an important transit zone for narcotics heading to the U.S. and Europe.

But while several Venezuelan officials, including a former defense minister and head of military intelligence, have been indicted or sanctioned in the U.S., and many more are under investigation, much of the evidence remains unseen as prosecutors build their cases.

Venezuelan officials have strongly rejected claims that their country has become a haven for drug trafficking. They blame Colombia's well-oiled criminal gangs for corrupting officials and spreading violence across the border, and say U.S.-led investigations against prominent officials are an attempt to destabilize President Nicolás Maduro's strongly anti-Washington government.

They also trumpet their record seizure last year of 46 metric tons of illegal drugs and the shooting down of more than 100 suspected drug flights in recent years.

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