BOGOTA, Colombia – Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos spurned a U.S. request to extradite an alleged cocaine kingpin from Venezuela, saying Tuesday that the suspect will be sent back to face charges in his home country.
Walid Makled, 41, has claimed close ties with Venezuela's socialist government and the U.S. State Department last year called him that country's "largest drug trafficker."
The announcement drew fierce criticism from U.S. Rep. Connie Mack. The Florida Republican accused the Obama administration of "a complete dropping of the ball" in a case that would have "shined the light on a lot of bad behavior by Hugo Chavez and his government."
Once Makled is sent to Venezuela, "I think that we will lose vital information," Mack said by phone from Washington.
Arrested Aug. 19 in the border city of Cucuta, Makled later alleged that he had made an indirect payoff to Venezuela's justice minister in exchange for favors.
At the time of Makled's arrest, Colombia's police director called him a "pseudo businessman" who got rich through a drug-trafficking alliance with the leftist rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The Makled family at one time owned Venezuela's Aeropostal airlines and a warehousing business at Puerto Cabello, the country's main cargo port.
Police Gen. Oscar Naranjo had said in August that Makled's syndicate smuggled more than 10 metric tons a month of drugs to the United States and Europe and that he would be extradited to New York City to stand trial.
Court papers supporting the U.S. indictment and unsealed on Nov. 4 allege Makled — known as "The Turk," or "The Arab" due to his Middle Eastern origin — controlled several airstrips in Venezuela that were used to fly U.S.-destined cocaine to Central America.
The papers allege he bribed Venezuelan police and national guardsmen to let him fly multiple-ton shipments from Venezuelan airports.
In one case, a DC-9 operated by Makled's gang flew 5.6 metric tons of cocaine from Venezuela's main airport — Simon Bolivar International — to Campeche, Mexico, on April 10, 2006, according to an affidavit filed in support of the extradition request. It said Mexican authorities found the cocaine "in 128 identical suitcases inside the passenger compartment,"
Santos told reporters on Tuesday that he was extraditing Makled to Venezuela because he had given his word to that country's leftist president, Hugo Chavez. He said the extradition could take weeks or months.
Santos has called Chavez his "new best friend" and promised when he took office in August to restore frayed relations with Colombia's neighbor — though as defense minister in the previous government he had accused Venezuela of harboring FARC rebel leaders.
Santos has made fortifying commerce between the two nations, which mostly benefits Colombian farmers, paramount in his administration. He told reporters Tuesday that Venezuela was in the process of repaying some $800 million owed to Colombian exporters.
The U.S. government, whose drug agents helped capture Makled, would not say whether it was disappointed by the decision in Colombia, which is the United States' main ally in South America.
"The Makled case is important, but it is just one of many issues on which we collaborate with the government of Colombia every day," a State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity.
Makled has been wanted in Venezuela since November 2008, when authorities seized cocaine at a ranch he owned.
He is implicated in Venezuela in two killings, including that of journalist Orel Zambrano, a newspaper columnist who was slain in January 2009 by two gunmen on a motorcycle.
Venezuelan police have accused Makled of being behind the slaying. Zambrano had been covering drug cases in which the Makled family was accused of involvement.
Colombian authorities have said they believe Makled also had a role in the 2008 killing of Wilber Varela, one of its most-wanted traffickers. Varela was found shot to death in the Venezuelan city of Merida.
In a letter published in Venezuelan newspapers in March 2009, Makled denied involvement in Zambrano's killing. "I'm not a murderer, and I'm not a thief, I'm not a cheater, I'm not a drug trafficker," he wrote.
After his arrest in Colombia, he 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.
In the previous administration of President Alvaro Uribe, Colombia extradited 1,214 people, the vast majority to the United States to stand trial for drug trafficking.
Since Santos took office it has extradited 59, most of them also to the United States.
Associated Press writers Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.