Venezuela deports 6 suspected drug traffickers

September 19, 2011 - 7:30 PM
Venezuela Drug Suspects

US citizen Scott Harris is escorted by a police officer during his deportation to the US at the Simon Bolivar airport in Maiquetia, near Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Sept. 19, 2011. Harris is suspected of smuggling illegal drugs to the United States and Europe.(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela deported six suspected drug traffickers wanted in Colombia and the United States on Monday, touting the action as proof the government is making strides in fighting smuggling.

Those deported included two accused of belonging to Colombia's largest leftist rebel group.

They also included a U.S. citizen, Lionel Scott Harris, who is suspected of smuggling drugs to the United States, Asia and Europe. Harris, 67, was captured in March on Margarita Island, a popular tourist destination.

Venezuela is a major hub for gangs that smuggle Colombian cocaine, and U.S. officials have accused President Hugo Chavez's government of being lax in anti-drug efforts. Last week, President Barack Obama's administration classified Venezuela as a country that has "failed demonstrably" to effectively fight drug trafficking.

Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami dismissed that accusation, saying the U.S. has been spreading "pure lies" about Venezuela's counter-drug efforts.

"We're winning this battle and we're going to keep winning," El Aissami told reporters at a later event Monday.

El Aissami oversaw the deportations at Simon Bolivar International Airport as the handcuffed men were led to a waiting vehicle. He said that in recent years Venezuela has captured and handed over to other countries 69 drug trafficking suspects, including about 15 who have been sent to the United States.

The U.S. Embassy welcomed the deportation of Harris, saying he has been wanted in the United States since 1991 for various felony charges.

"We desire and hope to resume a full and cooperative relationship on counter-narcotics, which represents a threat to the U.S. as well as Venezuela," the U.S. Embassy said in an emailed statement.

U.S.-Venezuelan counter-drug cooperation has been sharply scaled back since 2005, when Chavez suspended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and accused it of being a front for espionage.

Besides Harris, Venezuela deported five Colombians wanted on drug-related charges: Jose Reyes Galarza, Jorge Santaella Ayala, Rubernei Vergara, Yesid Rios Suarez and Didier Rios Galindo, said El Aissami.

He said Rios Suarez and Rios Galindo are guerrillas who belong to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Another Colombian wanted on murder and extortion charges but not drug charges, Raul Pena Buitriago, was also deported, he said.