CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The smuggling of 1.4 tons of cocaine in 31 suitcases on an Air France flight to Paris has led to nine arrests on two continents, and Venezuela's top police official said Monday that more arrests were expected.
The case, kept quiet for nearly two weeks by authorities, lends credence to Washington's accusations that Venezuela has become a major drug transit country due to high-level corruption in its military.
France's interior minister, Manuel Valls, on Monday praised the investigation that led to six arrests in France and three in Venezuela. But he questioned how nearly three dozen suitcases stuffed with illicit drugs could go through security at a major airport in getting aboard a single commercial flight.
"It's not normal that you can carry more than a ton of cocaine on an Air France plane," he said on Europe-1 radio. "The fight against drugs requires all the players, notably transport companies, to participate in this cooperation."
Valls said police knew where and to whom the drugs were heading but wouldn't divulge the information or provide details on who was arrested.
His Venezuelan counterpart, Miguel Rodriguez, told reporters that "mafias comprised of Italian and English citizens" were involved and that French police had been tracking them since July.
The Paris prosecutor's office said the six people in custody were to appear before a judge Tuesday to determine whether they would be charged. A spokeswoman said none were French but would not discuss their nationality. Britain's Foreign Office said three Britons were among those arrested.
Rodriquez said Venezuelan authorities had already interviewed more than 15 people and "in the coming hours we will surely be announcing more arrests." On Sunday, police arrested two National Guard sergeants and one lieutenant.
Rodriguez said authorities "presume there is complicity at the airline." The Colombian cocaine was placed on Flight 368, which departed Caracas on Sept. 10 and seized the following morning at Charles de Gaulle Airport, he said.
Air France said it was working with police and conducting an internal investigation, and increasing baggage checks at some "sensitive" locations.
There was no explanation given for why authorities waited nearly two weeks to announce the seizure.
Rodriguez said the National Guard soldiers arrested were assigned to the counterdrugs command at Simon Bolivar International Airport, from which the flight departed.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, said the case supports U.S. accusations of high-level support for drug trafficking in Venezuela's military as it was unlikely two sergeants and a lieutenant acted alone.
"The quick arrests were not surprising — (President Nicolas) Maduro understands this is a real problem for him," Shifter said. "But it is doubtful that any higher-ups in the military who might have been involved will be held to account."
Shifter said it is "hard to escape the conclusion that at least parts of the Venezuelan military are involved in drug trafficking."
Under President Hugo Chavez, who died in March of cancer, Venezuela became a major transit country for Colombian cocaine headed for the United States and Europe, including via new routes to West Africa.
The U.S. government has repeatedly decertified Venezuela as a partner in the drug war. The White House issued its most recent annual rebuke Sept. 13, listing Venezuela with Burma and Bolivia as "failing demonstrably" to meet counterdrug obligations under international treaties.
Venezuelan officials deny the allegations, saying they have stepped up arrests of drug traffickers and seizure of drugs. The head of Venezuela's anti-drug office, Alejandro Keleris, says Venezuela has captured more than 100 kingpins since 2006 and extradited most of them, including to the United States.
U.S. and Colombian counterdrug officials acknowledge Venezuela has cooperated in several key cases. However, they say that has not purged drug corruption from the top ranks of Venezuela's military, which long provided Chavez with a backbone of loyal support and continues to play a dominant role in the country.
Among Venezuelan officials on the U.S. Treasury Department's list of designated drug kingpins are Hugo Carvajal, the chief of the country's National Office Against Terrorism and Organized Crime, and Henry Rangel, the director of the DISIP intelligence service.
Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez reported this story in Caracas and Frank Bajak reported from Lima, Peru. AP writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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