Venezuela rounds up 17 suspects after cocaine haul

Sept. 26, 2013 at 8:15 AM
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CARACAS, Venezuela, Sept. 26 (UPI) -- Arrests involving a cocaine haul in France are mounting in Venezuela, drawing President Nicolas Maduro's government into a bruising political confrontation with the opposition.

At least 17 suspects are in custody and include eight officers of the Bolivarian National Guard and the assistant manager of Air France, El Universal reported.

Caracas police said the 1.3 tons of cocaine found aboard an Air France flight to Paris were destined for Italy's 'Ndrangeta mafia, which is said to control about 80 percent of Europe's cocaine imports.

French authorities found the drugs -- worth about $270 million -- inside 30 suitcases after the flight from Caracas touched down in Paris Sept. 11.

Miranda state governor Henrique Caprices said the drug haul was a sign of Venezuela's decline and corruption in the government.

The former presidential candidate and Maduro's chief opposition rival called the drug haul "a sign of the government's decay and corruption. ... Is this a narco-state? Some people say we are in a narco-state.

"Everybody knows that there is a drug trafficking party going on here," Capriles said.

Before the seizure of the cocaine shipment, Venezuela was seen to be out of the regional networks believed responsible for a multibillion-dollar narcotics trail to the United States and Canada.

Capriles said he could predict the government's handling of the drug haul would end "with bombastic announcements by top officials saying that there will be an inquiry, but only the fools will fall, not the big fish. They are untouchable."

El Universal said those responsible for putting the cocaine aboard the Air France flight had passed through at least three security checks at the airport.

The security checks were conducted by the anti-drugs special unit of the Bolivarian National Guard Division assigned to the capital's Simon Bolivar airport.

Venezuelan police sources said the drugs had gone through baggage screening and physical checks and apparently had been exposed to police dogs trained to find drugs in baggage, El Universal said.

Interior and Justice Minister Miguel Rodriguez said standard procedures were not followed when the suitcases containing the drugs were handled and removed for loading on the aircraft.

A special team appointed by the National Anti-Drugs Office, the Attorney General's Office and national security agencies is conducting an inquiry.

More than 6,400 people suspected of drug-trafficking offenses have been arrested and more than 37 tons of narcotics have been seized in the country this year, Prensa Latina reported, citing data from Venezuela's National Anti-drug Office.

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