REPORTING FROM CARACAS,VENEZUELA AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Monday thanked Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez for the arrest a day earlier of an alleged high-ranking drug trafficker suspected of shipping tons of cocaine to the United States.
In a brief televised appearance with Chavez after their summit at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Santos hailed Venezuela’s arrest of suspected Colombian trafficker Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias “El Valenciano,” calling Orozco a “high value” target of counter-narcotics authorities.
A 39-year-old native of Medellin, Orozco is on the U.S. State Department’s most-wanted list. He was indicted in 2008 by a U.S. District Court for New York's eastern district on drug-trafficking charges. The U.S. government had posted a $5-million reward for information leading to his arrest.
Chavez said the alleged trafficker was captured at the time of Santos' visit “by happy coincidence” in the central city of Valencia and will be extradited to the U.S.
On Nov. 16, Colombia's largest rebel force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as FARC, its Spanish initials), named a new commander to replace one known as Alfonso Cano, who was killed in a military operation Nov. 4. The new commander, known as Timochenko, allegedly has hidden in Venezuela to escape Colombian military pursuit.
Additionally, Santos was criticized by former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe last week for his pursuit of better relations with Chavez, with whom Uribe frequently jousted. Uribe, who regularly hinted that Chavez was at the very least turning a blind eye to the presence of FARC guerrillas in Venezuela, said Santos was "sacrificing democratic values" in seeking to ease tensions with Chavez.
After their brief meeting with reporters, Chavez said Venezuela would not tolerate the presence of any illegal group in its territory, “be it narco, paramilitary or any armed entity.”
“We’ve been following the subject for a long time because as you [Santos] say, they do much damage to Colombia and also to us, because they bring networks of espionage, drug trafficking and corrupt influences,” Chavez said.
Less than four years ago, the two nations almost went to war after Colombian forces briefly invaded Ecuador in March 2008 to kill a FARC leader and Chavez mobilized troops along the common border in response.
But Monday, the two leaders emphasized a new spirit of cooperation, and announced they had signed several accords covering trade, science, electric power, technology, housing and food.
-- Mery Mogollon in Caracas and Chris Kraul in Bogota
Photo: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the presidential palace in Caracas on Monday. Credit: Jorge Silva / Reuters