Prominent Venezuelan drug trafficking suspect, called kingpin by US, arrested in Colombia

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A prominent Venezuelan drug trafficking suspect who has been branded a major kingpin by the U.S. government was arrested in Colombia, police said Friday.

Venezuelan Walid Makled Garcia was among several alleged smugglers named "significant foreign narcotics traffickers" last year by President Barack Obama. The White House requested sanctions against Makled under a law known as the Kingpin Act, which prohibits all transactions between traffickers and U.S. companies and individuals, and freezes any assets in the U.S.

Makled was arrested Thursday in the city of Cucuta near the Venezuelan border, Colombian national police director Gen. Oscar Naranjo said.

He said Makled accumulated a fortune through an alliance with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Due to Makled's alliance with the FARC, "they managed to introduce more than 10 tons of drugs a month into the United States and Europe," Naranjo said.

Makled is wanted by a New York court and is to be extradited to the United States, Naranjo said at a news conference where police led the handcuffed suspect past reporters.

An irate Makled proclaimed his innocence and said the accusations are a plot against him. Asked about killings in which he is implicated, he said: "Do I have the face of a killer?"

Naranjo called the arrest an important counter-drug victory for Colombian and U.S. authorities, saying the Venezuelan legal system also contributed.

Venezuelan prosecutors, meanwhile, announced they are also asking a court to approve an extradition request. Venezuelan authorities issued an arrest order for Makled last year through Interpol, prosecutors said in a statement Friday.

Makled has been wanted in Venezuela since November 2008, when authorities seized cocaine at a ranch he owned. Three brothers, Abdala, Alex and Basel, were arrested in the case, prosecutors said.

Makled 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.

Venezuelan authorities also suspect Makled had links to the killing of Francisco Larrazabal, a veterinarian involved in horse racing.

Naranjo called the 43-year-old Makled — the son of a Syrian immigrant — a "pseudo businessman," saying his money came from drugs rather than legitimate operations run by him and his family, including the Venezuelan airline Aeropostal. The family also had a warehousing business at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela's biggest port.

Naranjo said Colombian authorities believe Makled also had a role in the 2008 killing of Wilber Varela, alias "Jabon," or "Soap," one of Colombia's 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 said he was in "forced exile" and 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.


Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda and Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.