“The nation has delivered a historic blow against the mafia,” Aissami said, admitting that the flow of intelligence between Colombia and Venezuela had been “difficult” in the past.
Aissami also said the bust belies U.S. claims that Venezuela isn’t providing enough counter-narcotics cooperation.
“Venezuela is recognized by the entire world in this area [counter narcotics] for its undeniable results,” he said. Venezuela suspended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in 2005, but since then, the country has arrested 91 heads of important criminal gangs, Aissami said.
Sharing a 1,378-mile border, Venezuela has become a hotspot for Colombian drug and guerrilla fugitives. Two months ago, Venezuela caught Diego Pérez, one of the leaders of Colombia’s deadly Rastrojo gang in Barinas state. That followed on the heels of the February arrest of Héctor “Martín Llanos” Buitrago, a paramilitary commander and drug trafficker. Late last year, authorities captured Maximiliano “Valenciano” Bonilla, one of the leaders of the feared Oficina de Envigado cartel.
Also on Tuesday, Venezuelan police got into a shootout with Luis Freddy “El Cojo” Rojas Rincón, a FARC member who was accused of trying to blow up a police station in Bogotá in May. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said Rojas was taken to a hospital but died from his injuries.
Bilateral cooperation hasn’t always been so effective. When Santos took office two years ago, the relationship with Venezuela was in shambles. The nations had severed diplomatic and commercial ties and accused each other of fueling border violence. Colombia denounced Venezuela on the floor of the Organization of American States, accusing it of turning a blind eye to FARC guerrilla encampments.
Santos — a former hard-line minister of defense who was partially responsible for the regional breakdown — went to work rebuilding ties, and irked many here when he called Chávez his “new best friend.”
Along with renewing vital border trade, the nations signed a border security agreement in May. On Wednesday, Defense Minister Pinzón attributed the “intense and extraordinary” cooperation for making Barrera’s arrest possible.
But there are still bones of contention. While Venezuela has handed over some FARC leaders, it has refused to extradite others. And Santos may be putting his friendship to the test after he met Wednesday with Chávez’s election opponent, Henrique Capriles. .
Venezuelan Vice President Elias Jaua said the government “respected” Santos’ decision to have the closed-door meeting, but the high-profile reunion is likely to raise hackles in polarized Venezuela.
Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who has long accused Chávez of being a FARC sympathizer, also joined the fray.
On Wednesday, Uribe suggested that Barrera’s arrest had more to do with election-year politics than cooperation, and that Venezuela could turn over FARC leader Timochenko, who is suspected of taking refuge along the border, if it wanted to.
“What’s the difference between Loco Barrera and Timochenko and co.?” Uribe asked on Twitter. “Barrera got caught during elections, and only after so much impunity.”