VALENCIA, Venezuela – By the time the White House designated him an international drug kingpin in May 2009, Walid Makled had risen comet-like from petty smuggler to port mogul and airline owner through the good graces of Venezuelan power brokers.
So closely was the Syrian immigrant's son tied to what Washington has deemed a narcotics-trafficking cabal of military men loyal to leftist President Hugo Chavez that his arrest last year in a Colombian border city had U.S. and Colombian drug agents beaming.
He would be extradited to the United States to stand trial for shipping an estimated 10 tons a month of cocaine to North America and Europe, Colombia's national police director Oscar Naranjo announced. Except now, it appears, he won't be.
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos decided that Makled should instead go to Venezuela, where he faces drug trafficking and murder charges. Privately, U.S. and Colombian officials say the decision could mean forfeiting the opportunity to build criminal cases against some of Venezuela's most powerful figures.
But publicly, none are criticizing Santos. He is well aware that as Washington's closest Latin American ally he can afford to make such a gesture to Chavez.
After years of acrimonious relations over Chavez's clandestine harboring of leftist Colombian rebels, Santos put aside differences when he took office in August just days before Makled was snared.
Chavez responded amicably, ending import restrictions that had cost Colombian exporters hundreds of millions of dollars.
The decision to extradite Makled — which is expected to take months — "seems a small price to pay for improved cooperation," said Arlene Tickner, a political scientist at the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia. But critics say it robs law enforcement of the chance root out the high-level corruption that has made Venezuela the top transit country for U.S. and Europe-bound Colombian cocaine.
"It's a shame he's coming here," Mildred Camero, Venezuela's top anti-drug official until her 2005 falling out with Chavez, told the AP. "Absolutely nothing is going to happen here. He will arrive. They will sentence him. They will isolate him, but we won't find out anything" about the extent of drug corruption in Chavez's inner circle.
In announcing in November that he was spurning the U.S. extradition request in favor of Venezuela's, Santos noted that the paunchy, cherub-faced Makled, 41, faces more serious charges at home. Besides, he added, Chavez asked first.
Rep. Connie Mack, the Florida Republican who now chairs the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, has loudly complained that Washington fumbled the opportunity to bring Makled to justice.
U.S. officials have refused to comment on the case other than to say they "respect the extradition processes" of Colombia. It has extradited more than 1,000 drug suspects to the United States since 2000 though few have been of Makled's alleged criminal heft.
A U.S. indictment unsealed Nov. 4 accused him of operating and controlling airstrips in Venezuela from 2006-2009 from which "numerous drug trafficking organizations" shipped out multi-ton quantities of U.S.-bound cocaine to Central America and Mexico, bribing Venezuelan police and national guard officials with fees extracted from traffickers.
An affidavit from a US. Drug Enforcement Administration agent filed two days later attributed to Makled, among other loads, a 5.6-ton shipment of cocaine flown on a DC-9 from Venezuela's main international airport to Campeche, Mexico.
DEA court documents also say Makled bought cocaine as early as 2005 from Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebels who shelter in Venezuela. That was the year that Chavez accused the DEA of espionage and severely restricted its operations in Venezuela.
U.S. officials say senior Venezuelan military officials have enriched themselves off the cocaine trade. In 2008, Washington accused Chavez's two intelligence chiefs of helping the FARC traffic drugs.
In jailhouse interviews, Makled has been cagey about his own criminal transgressions while simultaneously alleging he made millions of dollars in regular payments to members of Chavez's inner circle who had helped him obtain lucrative warehouse concessions at Venezuela's most important sea and airports.
"If I'm a drug trafficker, everyone in the Chavez government is drug trafficker," he told the newspaper El Nacional, describing making payments totaling about $1 million a month to high-ranking civilian and military officials and separately paying the brother of Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami $100,000.
Makled threatened to spill all his secrets if extradited to the United States.
"We were always very good friends of Hugo Chavez's government," he told Colombia's RCN TV, "very good friends of Gen. (Luis Felipe) Acosta Carlez."
During a strike against Chavez in 2002 by oil industry workers, Makled made available his fleet of 74 trucks to Acosta Carlez, then the regional military chief, to distribute petroleum and other essentials.
Acosta Carlez, who was later elected governor of the northern state of Carabobo — Valencia is its capital — would help boost Makled's fortunes.
Makled says that thanks to his $2 million gift to a pro-Chavez political campaign, his family obtained warehouse concessions at nearby Puerto Cabello, where 70 percent of Venezuela's imports arrive by sea. Acosta Carlez said the $2 million went to charities and no favors were paid to Makled.
By 2008, the Makleds controlled more than a third of the port's warehouse space and purchased Aeropostal airlines for about $22 million.
"Let's be clear. A lot of people lived off these companies," Makled told RCN. "People from the highest ranks of government ... governors, generals, vice admirals." He said he has the documents to prove it.
Chavez has belittled Makled's allegations that so many in the ruling elite were on his payroll, and El Aissami denied his brother took money from Makled.
"I'm sure that he's talking a lot of trash," Chavez said in an Oct. 31 TV appearance.
Makled, who refused an AP interview request, fled underground in November 2008 after his three brothers were arrested at a family ranch outside of Valencia on money laundering charges.
Authorities said they found nearly 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of cocaine on the property. Makled claimed the drugs were planted by a pair of generals loyal to Chavez.
His brother Abdala — Makled is the oldest of the four — had been running for mayor of Valencia but without Chavez's blessing. The Makleds' insistence on getting involved in politics without the Chavez government's blessing may have turned out to be their undoing, Camero said.
Makled's rise had begun in the 1990s in Valencia, a city of 2 million where his father had an appliance store. He befriended National Guard members who seized merchandise that was later sold illegally and began dealing as well in food stolen from tractor-trailers, according to police reports.
Makled's military pals gained clout with the 1999 election of Chavez, a retired army officer, and it wasn't long before he and his brothers obtained a monopoly on the distribution of the fertilizer urea, which was produced by the state-run Pequiven company.
In 2008, a local reporter, Orel Sambrano, began publishing articles suggesting the Makled brothers could have ties to assassins and reporting that drug traffickers had infiltrated the local police. Sambrano was gunned down the following year.
Venezuelan authorities have charged Makled in that murder as well as the killing of a veterinarian who they say witnessed the drug raid at the family ranch.
Makled is also a suspect in the January 2008 killing of top Colombian drug trafficker Wilber Varela, alias "Jabon," or "Soap." Colombian police said Varela had lived in Venezuela for most of a decade. He was gunned down in unclear circumstances.
Makled denies involvement in murders.
People in Valencia who have closely followed the Makled saga say the brothers' decision to run Abdala for mayor was their undoing. They spent millions on the campaign, including distributing free appliances and food in poor neighborhoods.
Two weeks before the mayoral election, authorities raided the Makled ranch and Walid fled into hiding.
Makled says he hid out for a time in a military-owned home in the exclusive Caracas neighborhood of Lagunita, protected by officers he would not name, driving around in military vehicles and carrying an ID card issued by a military prosecutor.
In his interview with RCN, Makled uttered what might be interpreted as blackmail: Return me to Venezuela or I tell the Americans everything.
"With what I have, I've got enough for them to intervene in Venezuela," Makled, his face betraying the hint of a smirk, told the interviewer.
"With the corruption that exists in Venezuela, the drug trafficking from the corruption that exists. All it would take is for me to show the U.S. government what I've got in my hands — and they could intervene in Venezuela immediately."
AP writer Ian James contributed from Caracas, Venezuela. Frank Bajak reported from Bogota, Colombia.