ELORZA (Reuters) - The Venezuelan air force bombed a landing strip used to bring cocaine across the border from Colombia on Friday, several weeks after the United States criticized President Hugo Chavez’s drug-fighting record.
A Reuters witness watched two fighter jets and a helicopter fire rockets and strafe the runway close to the border with machine gun fire to detect and destroy equipment and infrastructure used by drug cartels.
Venezuela was heavily criticized earlier this month in the U.S. State Department’s annual narcotics report, which described the South American nation as “a major drug transit country with rampant high level corruption.”
Venezuela shares a long border with Colombia, the world’s top cocaine producer. The left-wing government of Chavez cut off cooperation with the United States in 2005 over accusations of espionage.
Traffickers often use illegal runaways to land aircraft packed with drugs en route to the United States or Europe. The army plans to destroy dozens of border runways in coming days.
Chavez says U.S. accusations about his country’s drugs record are untrue and aimed at discrediting him.
Although he refuses to sign an anti-drug cooperation agreement with Washington, Venezuela frequently extradites Colombians accused of drug crimes to the United States.
The government points to the arrest of suspected Colombian kingpin Hermagoras Gonzalez on March 9 as evidence of its progress in the drugs fight.
The State Department had offered a $5 million (2.5 million pound) reward for information leading to the capture of Gonzalez, who is also accused of having links to Colombia’s ultra right-wing paramilitary groups.
The bullet-riddled body of Colombia’s top capo, Wilber Varela, known as “Soap,” was found in a Venezuelan hotel in February. Varela also had a $5 million reward on his head.
Seizures of cocaine in Venezuela fell to 32 tonnes in 2007 from 39 tonnes in 2006, according to government figures. So far this year, 5.3 tonnes have been captured.
The State Department report says captures of drugs coming out of Venezuela by other countries, including the United States and Britain, rose sharply last year.
Venezuela plans to buy a radar system from China to increase its control of the 1,400 mile (2,200 km) long border.
Additional reporting and writing by Frank Jack Daniel, editing by Alan Elsner