BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombia on Monday extradited to Venezuela a man the White House has called an important drug kingpin, sending him to face trial in the very country where he says close associates of President Hugo Chavez were his business partners.
Walid Makled was led handcuffed aboard a waiting Venezuelan Learjet at an air base in the Colombian capital of Bogota and was flown to Caracas. State television showed images of him getting into a vehicle escorted by police.
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 was captured in August in the Colombian town of Cucuta, on the border with Venezuela.
Both Venezuela and the United States had requested his extradition. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos decided to turn him over to Venezuela, saying Caracas had made its request first.
Santos also noted that Makled was charged with more serious crimes in Venezuela -- not only the drug trafficking of which U.S. authorities have accused him, but also two counts of murder.
Santos' decision to spurn the U.S. request in favor of Venezuela's also came as he was working to improve badly frayed relations with Chavez that had harmed trade between the countries.
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.
All of the Venezuelan officials Makled has named as having taken his money have denied his accusations. The payoffs were presumably to let Makled's drugs leave the country, though he has never said this explicitly.
Venezuelan Defense Minister Carlos Mata Figueroa said recently that authorities will thoroughly investigate all of Makled's claims and that "nothing is going to be hidden here."
Makled said in a TV interview broadcast last month 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.
Chavez dismissed Makled's claims in October, saying, "I'm sure that he's talking a lot of trash."
When asked whether his client had hoped to be sent to Venezuela or the United States, Ramirez, the defense lawyer, answered: "Definitely Venezuela."
He said he expects Makled's legal rights will be respected and that his defense has prepared "an international strategy ... in the event they don't permit him to exercise his defense and his rights are violated."
Makled, who has been called "The Turk" and is the son of a Syrian immigrant, swiftly accumulated a fortune in Venezuela and was a port mogul and airline owner. He and his brothers also secured deals to distribute the fertilizer urea, which was produced by the state-run Pequiven company.
He fled 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 of cocaine on the property. Makled claimed the drugs had been planted there to ensnare him.
In 2008, a local journalist, Orel Sambrano, published articles suggesting the Makled brothers could have ties to assassins and reporting that drug traffickers had infiltrated the local police. Sambrano 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 is also a suspect in the 2008 killing of prominent Colombian drug trafficker Wilber Varela in southwestern Venezuela.
Makled denies involvement in the killings.
U.S. and Colombian officials say the leftist guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was one of Makled's major cocaine suppliers.
In 2009, President Barack Obama designated Makled an international drug kingpin.
Colombia's police director, Gen. Oscar Naranjo, has said Makled's syndicate smuggled more than 11 tons a month of drugs to the United States and Europe.
Some U.S. lawmakers, including Rep. Connie Mack, a Republican from Florida, have expressed concern that Makled will be silenced in Venezuela, and will no longer be able to shed light on alleged high-level drug corruption in Chavez's government.
U.S. State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said last month that while it's U.S. policy not to discuss extradition requests, "we would just say that the Venezuelan government will have a special responsibility to ensure that he receives a prompt and fair trial."