CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez said Sunday that U.S. officials hoped to use an alleged cocaine kingpin to smear his government with corruption accusations and thanked Colombia's leader for rejecting Washington's extradition request.
Chavez said the decision of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to send Walid Makled to Venezuela instead showed improving ties between neighbors who have often feuded recently.
"Washington wants to use him so he vomits all kinds of accusations against the Bolivarian Revolution, against its political and military leadership," Chavez wrote in a newspaper column, referring to the political movement he named after 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Makled, 41, has claimed close ties to Chavez's inner circle and said he paid indirect bribes to Venezuela's justice minister and high-raking military officers. The U.S. State Department last year called Makled Venezuela's "largest drug trafficker."
Makled has been wanted in Venezuela since November 2008, when authorities seized cocaine at a ranch he owned. He is also implicated in two killings, including that of journalist Orel Zambrano, a newspaper columnist who was slain in January 2009 by two gunmen on a motorcycle.
Zambrano had been covering drug cases in which the Makled family was accused of involvement.
Santos announced last week that Makled would be extradited to Venezuela, saying Colombia's neighbor filed its requested before U.S. authorities.
Chavez hailed the announcement as evidence of increasingly close relations between Venezuela and Colombia.
Santos promised when he took office in August to restore frayed relations with Colombia's neighbor.
Ties between the South American nations were tense under Santos' predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. Uribe accused Chavez of harboring and helping Colombian rebels. Chavez in turn, alleged that Uribe conspired against his government along with U.S. officials.
"This announcement is of major importance and reaffirms the political will of President Santos and I," Chavez wrote.
Court papers supporting a U.S. indictment allege Makled controlled several airstrips in Venezuela that were used to fly U.S.-destined cocaine to Central America. The papers state that he bribed Venezuelan police and soldiers to allow him to fly multiple-ton shipments out of Venezuelan airports.
After his Aug. 19 arrest in Colombia, Makled told a TV network in a jailhouse interview that Venezuela's justice minister, Tareck El Aissami, received a cash payoff that he made through El Aissami's brother. Makled said the money was in exchange for a port warehouse concession.
El Aissami has denied any wrongdoing, calling Makled's claims false.