Venezuelan authorities seize more than 4.4 tons of cocaine allagedly destined for Mexico

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Authorities seized more than 4.4 tons (4 metric tons) of cocaine at a ranch Thursday after F-16 fighter jets intercepted a plane that was flying to pick up the load, Venezuela's top security official said.

Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami called the drug seizure a significant blow to drug traffickers using Venezuela as a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine destined for the United States, Europe and the Caribbean.

"This is the biggest haul in recent years," he said

Soldiers are searching the area surrounding the ranch located in central Guarico state for more cocaine, El Aissami said. "We believe there could be more buried stashes."

Police arrested one suspect at the ranch, but officials did not identify the detainee or provide additional details regarding the arrest.

The cocaine, which was found buried at the ranch, was discovered a day after two Venezuelan air force F-16s intercepted a King-200 commercial aircraft and forced it to land in Guarico, according to state-run AVN news agency.

The plane's crew fled and escaped. The crew members are thought to be Mexicans working for one of their nation's powerful drug cartels, El Aissami said.

Due to its proximity to cocaine-producing gangs in Colombia, Venezuela has become an important hub for drug smuggling in the Americas.

Officials in Washington have strongly criticized Venezuela's anti-drug efforts, saying the government of President Hugo Chavez has not done enough to stem the flow of cocaine. Chavez counters that he's doing everything possible to fight trafficking, and he often blames the drug problem on high demand for cocaine among Americans.

Chavez claims Venezuela is seizing more drugs than ever before, saying authorities don't need help from the United States to fight drug smuggling. Anti-narcotics operations have improved since cooperation ended with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005, he says.

Venezuelan authorities have seized 51 tons (47 metric tons) of illegal drugs so far this year, El Aissami said.