Venezuela. Not a Cartel of the Suns but the Tentacles of Drug Trade Extend to the Government

In Venezuela the Maduro government is clinging to power no matter the cost: 29 victims in a month; social, economic and political tensions running high and an alienated international community. Here is one reason.

Venezuelan soldiers stand next to packages of seized cocaine in Puerto Cabello. Venezuelan and French authorities have seized 3.6 metric tons of cocaine aboard a vessel in the Caribbean Sea. REUTERS/Alexander Gomez
Venezuelan soldiers stand next to packages of seized cocaine in Puerto Cabello. Venezuelan and French authorities have seized 3.6 metric tons of cocaine aboard a vessel in the Caribbean Sea. REUTERS/Alexander Gomez

Why is a government which so obviously lost the legislative elections and is supported only by a fifth of the population so desperately holding on to power? Why is it clutching at straws imposing anti-constitutional measures, and repressing the opposition so violently to be condemned by democratic nations?

One explanation lies in the risks that many personalities of the government and its entourage would face if the government was ousted: criminal charges and prison in Venezuela and abroad for drug trafficking, money laundering and human rights violations.

Venezuela is not a cocaine producer, but its location is strategic — a coastline on the Caribbean Sea uninhabited for long stretches, islands, a flight time of less than two hours to Honduras and Santo Domingo, international ports and airports... To make it the perfect drug route from nearby Colombia, the world's first cocaine producer, the only other needed ingredient was a corrupt environment, and that always was abundant in Venezuela, like oil.

It all started in 1982 when the Colombian guerrilla (which was initially Marxist) changed its structure into an army. For FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) the easiest way to buy weapons was selling cocaine to the traffickers who would bring it across Venezuela (up to 90% of the Colombian cocaine output) before shipping it to the US and Europe. FARC paid in kind, and the proceeds, that is cocaine, could be resold to Central American and Mexican cartels, in particular. Initially, those who looked the other way or protected cargos bound for the small Southwestern Venezuela airports were initially a few low rank military wearing a single star/sun.

There is mention of a Cartel of the Sun already around 1999, when General Hugo Chávez came to power. Shortly thereafter other military wearing a higher number of stars/suns, grasped the potential of the business "flowing down" from Colombia, and decided to handle it firsthand. Now there was talk of a Cartel of the Suns.

That some military at all rank levels were and are benefitting from drug trafficking became apparent with the Makled case involving a powerful Syrian family that owns warehouses throughout the country and at ports and airports. Upon his arrest on charges of possessing 855 pounds of cocaine in 2010, Walid Makled immediately stated that he had been set up since he was paying “a monthly $1 million” to “governors, generals, counter admirals, admirals and brothers of ministers.” According to DEA, the US Drug Enforcement Agency, Mr. Makled personally conducted operations that channelled to the US up to 10 t of cocaine every month.

“It is not correct to speak of a Cartel," said speaking to Eastwest Héctor Landaeta, a journalist and author of the book “Chavismo, narcotráfico y militares,” already at its 3rd printing, "but yes, there was a group of generals who realized that Makled’s empire was the deal of the century: they sold him out to get hold of the trade. It is a small group whose names are well known, and all are included in the OFAC list."

The US Treasury OFAC list only includes major offenders for illegal trafficking and money laundering. Offenders can no longer obtain a visa, have interactions with US banking institutions or dispose of their assets in the US.

Many among the 70 Venezuelans included in the OFAC list are senior military personnel with ties to the Chavista regime — like former Minister of Homeland Affairs and Justice Captain Ramón Chacín, Strategic Defense Commander Antonio Benavides, former Army Intelligence Director Brigadier General Manuel Bernal, the Director of the Bolivarian Police Manuel Pérez, Former Defense Minister General Henry Rangel, the Inspector of the Bolivarian Army Miguel Vivas, former General Commander of the Bolivarian Guard Justo Noguera and General Cliver Alcalá, whose son–in-law is allegedly the head of Guajira Cartel, and who is believed to have shipped out cocaine on state oil company Pdvsa’s vessels for an extended period of time.

Following an order of then president Chávez, in 2005 DEA was no longer allowed to investigate in Venezuela. Those who kept doing it, did so at very high risk and even death, like journalist Mauro Marcano whose killers went unpunished. The Makled case judge Alí Paredes got arrested a few hours after Walid Makled’s conviction. The judge who inspired Landaeta’s book “Chavismo, narcotráfico y militares”, Mildred Camero, who acted as coordinator of the British intelligence and DEA was forced to retire. "She is the most knowledgeable person on drugs in Venezuela, a very courageous person," Landaeta said. "And she had evidence on all those generals — who were, as said, just a group."

Javier Mayorca, investigative journalist with El Nacional and one of the best-informed experts in the matter said speaking to Eastwest that "the great difference between the early days and today is that now, because Chávez and Nicolás Maduro so decided, the command of drug enforcement is entirely in the hands of the five Armed Forces bodies. This means that all military is now exposed to the risk of bribery. This is why military are involved in each major drug case. However, keeping a historical perspective, it is highly unlikely that there is a single [military] leader who over the last 15 years decided what could enter or leave Venezuela. There is no such Cartel of the Suns. The reality is more complex," Mayorca said.

"The many ‘tumbes’ events — clashes between military forces to seize the other group’s drug — show that the military involved belong to different groups, each of which is allied to a particular [drug trafficking] faction," Mayorca said.

The only way to reckon how much drug crosses a country is by using seized quantities as a proxy. In the case of Venezuela, over 200 metric tons of pure cocaine might be crossing the country every year.

Washington kept a close eye on Venezuela’s crime scene. In 2015, in order to have Caracas understand that the US would no longer tolerate illicit financial flows and the violence and the abuse of human rights that corruption and drug traffic bring, president Obama identified Venezuela as "an extraordinary threat to the security of the United States".

Following up on the same line, Mr. Trump recently included in the OFAC list Samark López Bello, the Vice President’s figurehead, and the Vice President himself identifying both as “drug kingpins”. Tareck el Aissami, former Interior Minister, personally oversaw cocaine shipments to the US through violent Mexican cartel Los Zetas, US authorities said. This earned him the moniker "the narco of Aragua."

The more Washington accuses key regime perconalities, the more the Venezuelan government advances them — showing to which degree it feels cornered. Now vice presindent El Aissami is just an example. General Néstor Reverol, who made the headlines for having “lost sight” of 2 t of cocaine, is another. The former head of the Agency against... Drugs is now Minister of Homeland Affairs.

A number of defections and the jailing in the US of some regime insiders, including a nephew and a godson of Venezuelas "First Fighter," that is Mr. Maduro's wife Cilia López. Both her relatives are now facing trial in Manhattan for attempting to import 1,764 pounds of cocaine, added to tightening the circle. The two allegedly named a number of regime members involved in the drug trafficking cover-up.

The defection of Leamsy Salazar, a key insider into the trafficking network and the contacts of the regime with FARC (towards which presidents Chávez and Maduro always had an ambiguous stance) was a blow in particular on Diosdado Cabello, the former Congress speaker. Salazar was his security chief. Cabello is by some believed to be the tip of the mili-narcos network. He is one of the three men, with Mr. Maduro and Mr. el Aissami, who contend power over the nation.

Judge Eladio Aponte, a loyalist to Chávez and former president of the Supreme Court, told the US authorities that he was the one assigning cases involving drug traffickers to complainant judges upon calls arriving directly from "the line [of command] right below the president."

Not able to dispose of their conspicuous assets in the US anymore , with ever fewer Latin American countries to consider for refuge should Chavism lose power, the narco-military have their shoulders against the wall. Their abandoning ships shows also in diplomatic circles — meaning that many applied to ambassador posts. With no luck as of now: Canada, Portugal and Belgium already declined having them.

@GuiomarParada

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