CARACAS Venezuela's role in the global drugs trade is growing fast with traffickers stashing cocaine under shrimp hauls on fishing boats and beneath the leather seats of luxury jets passing through Caracas.
International anti-drug specialists say corruption inside Venezuela's security forces has turned the country into a major route for smugglers moving cocaine from neighbouring Colombia, the world's top producer, to the European and U.S. markets.
The United States pins much of the blame on President Hugo Chavez, a firebrand socialist who is Washington's fiercest critic and rival in Latin America.
Washington accuses Chavez of fanning the drug trade by cutting ties with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005, and of doing little to flush out corrupt police chiefs or arrest Colombian kingpins it says are hiding in Venezuela.
"Venezuela's permissive and corrupt environment led to more trafficking, fewer seizures and an increase in suspected drug flights in the past 12 months," U.S. assistant secretary of state Anne Patterson said in March.
In a sign of how comfortable traffickers feel exporting through Venezuela, smugglers last month loaded cocaine bales onto a private plane headed for Africa -- out in the open on the tarmac at the resort island of Margarita's main airport.
They were not expecting to be nabbed because the operation -- run by Colombian and Mexican cartels to smuggle more than two tonnes to Congo -- also involved senior police and the regional anti-drugs chief.
They were all arrested, however, and the government says that shows Venezuela is serious about tackling the cartels.
Still, the brazen tactics also highlighted why Western authorities say Venezuelan drug-runners are forging stronger ties with powerful Mexican cartels and making the OPEC nation an increasingly significant cocaine route.
"What you find now in Venezuela is they do not bother to hide the drugs in coffee or cocoa anymore, they just put it in carrier bags," a European diplomat said.
Jet planes and fishing boats with powerful engines run huge cocaine loads from Venezuela to Haiti, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in the Caribbean en route to Europe.
Other shipments head north on the world's biggest cocaine corridor through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. market.
Washington says some 200 tonnes of cocaine, or about a quarter of the world's annual supply, now transits through here every year, up tenfold in the last decade. It also complains that international seizures of drugs coming from Venezuela more than tripled in 2006.
Much of the cocaine is first spirited into Venezuela from Colombia across a 1,400-mile (2,200-km) border where armed groups hold sway in large areas of jungle.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says Venezuela was the most frequently cited transit country for shipments to Europe in 2005. Italy traced 41 percent of its cocaine back to Venezuela, up from 22 percent in 2004.
Chavez insists that drug trafficking is nothing new and rejects the charges of widespread corruption.
"We have been a victim and a bridge of drug trafficking for many years but here, in the few places where they have tried to set up (opium) poppy plantations, the soldiers of our glorious armed forces have destroyed them by hand," Chavez said.
His government, whose main foreign policy is its opposition to what it sees as U.S. imperialism, says it expelled the DEA for espionage and running its own smuggling operations.
Interior Minister Pedro Carreno said the United States uses anti-drug cooperation deals to gain military footholds in Latin America, and that Venezuela refused to be caught in that trap. "They establish a treaty to cooperate financially so that they can later impose military bases."
While European experts agree smuggling volumes have jumped, some question the higher estimates of U.S. officials and say Venezuela cooperates with European navies in the Caribbean.
Some also say the DEA had ruffled feathers by conducting operations without informing Venezuelan authorities.
"The Americans were cowboys," said one European security source.
He said the operations included allowing consignments of drugs to leave the country in order to trap dealers at the port of delivery. This infuriated the Venezuelans and led to charges that the DEA was smuggling on its own account.
"Huge quantities of drugs would leave our country so that it could be monitored as it was handed over, but then we never got any more information on it," Carreno said.
British and Dutch navy vessels pay a key role in patrolling the Caribbean, particularly in intercepting Venezuelan fishing boats racing from coves along the coast to the Netherlands Antilles, a rich source of drug couriers with EU passports.
Although Chavez's government is clearly more interested in working with European governments than the United States, one security source said trafficking groups are very efficient at moving cocaine through the Caribbean.
"There is co-operation but these fishing boats have three outboard motors," he said. "They travel by night and they are quick."