The trial of alleged drug lord Walid Makled on charges of money-laundering, trafficking and murder has opened behind closed doors under strict security at a court in Venezuela's capital city of Caracas, local reports citing lawyers and court officials said Tuesday.
Colombia had extradited Makled to Venezuela in May 2011, signaling a distinct improvement in relations between the two neighboring South American countries after years of accusations and mutual distrust
Colombia had agreed in 2010 to return Makled to Venezuela instead of extraditing him to the United States to face drug smuggling charges. Makled is accused by the United States of smuggling tonnes of cocaine into the country.
Before his arrest in Colombia in August 2010, Makled was a successful businessman in Venezuela. He went into hiding in 2008 when his brothers were arrested after large quantities of cocaine were recovered from a family ranch.
In addition to drug and money-laundering charges, Makled has also been charged with the murder of a journalist and a Colombian drug lord. He has denied the charges, alleging it a plot by the Venezuelan authorities to seize his businesses.
After his arrest in Colombia, Makled alleged that he was supported in his drug smuggling operations by Venezuelan officials. Makled claimed in interviews given from his prison cell in Colombia that he had paid millions of dollars in bribe to senior Venezuelan officials. However, Caracas rejected the allegations, insisting that they were aimed at avoiding prosecution.
Colombia agreed to extradite Makled to Venezuela after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez expressed fears that the US might use his trial for implicating the Venezuelan government in drug trafficking. Moreover, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos said that his government had received the Venezuelan extradition request before the one from the United States.
Soon after Bogota announced its decision to return Makled to Venezuela instead of extraditing him to the United States, Caracas responded by deporting three suspected leftist rebels, one from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group and the other two from the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN), to Colombia.
The ties between Venezuela and Colombia were strained when Alvaro Uribe was Colombia's president. However, bilateral relations seem to have improved considerably after Juan Manuel Santos succeeded Uribe as the Colombian president in August 2010.
by RTT Staff Writer
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