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Arrest of ELN Arms Dealer in Colombia Reveals Global Network

The detention of a powerful Colombian arms dealer accused of supplying weapons to the ELN has revealed the details of an intricate international arms trade extending from the United States to Colombia. José Alexander Peláez Mejía, known as “Zeus” or “Mono,” was arrested March 8 at the Bogotá International Airport after being deported from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, where he resided, according to Colombian police.

SEE ALSO: Colombia Organized Crime and News

Zeus was wanted, including by Interpol, for “manufacturing and trafficking or possession of firearms, accessories, parts or ammunition, and restricted use ammunition, of exclusive use by armed forces or explosives.” He is accused of being the top arms dealer for members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) in the Colombian department of Antioquia. According to Colombian police, Zeus acquired arms in the United States, brought them to Central America and, through courier companies, sent them to Colombia. There, he used cargo trucks and buses to reach multiple ELN structures in Antioquia department as well as other criminal groups. The capture took place as part of an international operation carried out by Interpol, which concluded with 560 arrests in eight countries of Latin America.

InSight Crime Analysis

The arrest of Zeus reveals the modus operandi of arms suppliers to the most powerful criminal groups in Colombia, who had largely remained below the radar. Using a car repair company as a front, Zeus built up his profile as a businessman, allowing him to profit from the illicit arms trade without attracting unwanted attention. His ELN contact was known as “Mauricio,” who received the weaponry and distributed them concealed inside public buses.

SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile

Zeus’ neutral position was crucial for carrying out these business transactions. His clients also included dissident members of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), according to local media reports. The range of weapons Zeus offered was also very attractive for his buyers. His array of weapons included the Barret .50 caliber rifle, used for penetrating armored vehicles and reaching targets up to two kilometers away, Glock and Beretta handguns, assault rifles and hand grenades However, these arms dealers masquerading as legitimate businessmen are not the only dealers supplying weapons to criminal structures in the country. Members of Colombia and Ecuador’s armed forces have increasingly been linked to the illicit arms trade. In 2017, Major Héctor Murillo was arrested for his ties with the Urabeños and sentenced for corruption and selling weapons to this organization.

Southern Venezuela: A ‘Gold Mine’ for Organized Crime

Drug trafficking, battles between state forces and armed groups, extortion and illegal gold mining have transformed southern Venezuela into a region where citizens live in a parallel state ruled by organized crime.  Criminal gangs, members of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), Colombia’s National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and dissident factions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) are behind extortion rackets, contract killings, illegal gold mining and other illicit activities involving contraband and drug trafficking, according to a recent International Crisis Group report. These armed groups — entrenched in Venezuela’s border states of Amazonas and Bolívar –have stoked a climate of violence between rival criminal groups and civil society.

SEE ALSO: ELN in Venezuela

The ELN continues to be the strongest criminal actor operating across 13 of Venezuela’s 24 states, according to the report. In particular, the guerrillas earn some 60 percent of their illicit profits in southern Venezuela. Much of the profit comes from illegal mining, where the group controls an east-west corridor that runs across the main mineral regions. In the state of Bolivar, the ELN has seized a number of illegal gold mines from criminal gangs, known as sindicatos. While the ELN seems to be winning the battle there, the guerrillas have entered into a kind of alliance with the GNB and FARC dissidents to share illegal mining sites in neighboring Amazonas state. Groups of FARC dissidents are also financing at least 50 percent of their criminal activities through illegal mining. According to the report, the Acacio Medina Front — reportedly led by Géner García Molina Géner García Molina, alias “Jhon 40,” and comprised of former members from nine FARC fronts — controls some 40 dredging boats on the Río Negro in southeastern Guainía department, which borders Venezuela. The dissidents tax miners on each boat 10 grams of gold per month, the market value of which is roughly $400, the report states.  The report also highlights the well-known participation of members of Venezuela’s military in illegal mining. These officials establish checkpoints in which they demand a percentage of the profits made by illegal miners, either in the form of gold, Colombian pesos or US dollars. In other cases, ELN guerrillas have had to bribe soldiers to be allowed to illegally extract gold, which has at times led to intense fighting among criminal groups.

InSight Crime Analysis

The conditions in Southern Venezuela have made it ripe for the presence of armed groups seeking to control illicit economies. From the border areas to the interior, the “volatile and unpredictable” loyalties of such groups put civil society in southern Venezuela at extreme risk, as citizens are caught in the middle of violent disputes, according to the International Crisis Group report. The report also warns of possible diplomatic confrontations stemming from the criminal actions of Colombia’s ELN guerrillas. From their hideout in Venezuela, ELN guerrillas are able to continue attacks on authorities in different parts of Colombia. The report notes that these attacks could be interpreted as being coordinated and planned from Venezuela’s capital Caracas.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profile

The ease with which the ELN moves across the Colombia-Venezuela border also allows them to traffic and launder illicit gold. These profits only further their criminal activities.  The illegal mining, which requires the use of mercury, has also led to high levels of contamination in the Guainía, Inírida and Atabapo rivers. Mercury levels in these rivers are 60 times higher than the maximum amount the human body can handle, according to the report. International observers have also expressed concerns about criminal groups forcibly recruiting indigenous communities in the border region.  All of these factors have created a perfect storm in which Southern Venezuela may well be South America’s most vulnerable region to organized crime.  

The Armed Groups Propping Up Venezuela’s Government

Reports from Venezuela are shocking the world with images of “colectivos,” police and military using excessive force — even opening fire — on unarmed civilians attempting to bring humanitarian aid into the country through its borders with Colombia and Brazil. The latest incidents occurred on February 23 and left at least four dead and more than 285 injured. The alleged perpetrators belong to three main government-backed groups: – the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB); – the Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES) of the national police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana – PNB); – and what are known as “colectivos,” groups that supported former President Hugo Chávez that over the years have grown increasingly armed and prone to engage in criminal activities. The victims of the events on February 23 include several dozen people from the indigenous Pemón community who had to seek refuge in Brazil as well as journalists who were pursued, robbed and threatened by the armed groups. Mass media and civilian witnesses alike released video footage of men on motorcycles dressed in black and armed with long guns and 9mm pistols. They gathered in packs and clashed with demonstrators who rejected the government of Nicolás Maduro. The border cities of Ureña in the state of Táchira and Santa Elena de Uairén in Bolívar have also reported uniformed GNB soldiers driving tanks and military vehicles through town and shooting up homes and businesses in an effort to force suspected members of the anti-Maduro resistance out into the open to better confront them. Who are these groups? Why do they continue to so vehemently defend Maduro’s now rapidly failing regime? How strong is their loyalty to a government that has been rejected by over 50 nations and is reported to have links to organized crime? Are Maduro’s “armies” prepared to face a potential armed intervention in Venezuela? The following InSight Crime analysis will attempt to answer these questions.

Corrupt Military Leadership in the FANB

It is no secret that the Venezuelan National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana – FANB) are the Maduro government’s main prop, but just how strong is their support? And what is the basis for their loyalty? Militarism has characterized the past 20 years of Chavista rule in Venezuela. Both Chávez and Maduro have fanned the flames of the FANB’s loyalty by placing military officials in virtually all government institutions and militarizing public security forces. But they even went beyond those measures by granting the military new functions and — perhaps most importantly — new sources of income in their creation of financial institutions, mining companies and other structures for them to run.

SEE ALSO: Drug Trafficking Within the Venezuelan Regime: The ‘Cartel of the Suns’

But despite what the government’s creation of so many state-owned companies may imply, the Venezuelan military’s desire to maintain the status quo has more to do with lucrative businesses linked to organized crime, whose profits come from drug trafficking, illegal mining, smuggling, extortion and other illegal activities. The fact that military officials — many of whom hold leadership positions and simultaneously belong to the Cartel of the Suns criminal structure — have illegally amassed this kind of economic power is likely why they continue to support Maduro. The problem is that it is a major obstacle for a peaceful transition of power in the country. It is a different story for those lower in the hierarchy. While mid- to low-ranking officials and troops may participate in criminal activities and human rights violations, they do not have the power nor the income of their superiors and are often exposed to the country’s widespread lack of food and medicine. Amid the most recent wave of unrest, discontent within the military has come to the fore with a mutiny at a military base on January 21. Meanwhile, 411 members of the military have now deserted, seeking the amnesty self-declared interim President Juan Guaidó has offered them. It has been said that many of those who fled their military positions did so because they were forced to work with the colectivos. Venezuelan NGO Control Ciudadano estimates that the four arms of the FANB (army, national guard, air force and navy) currently number between 136,000 and 140,000 troops.

The FAES and the SEBIN: Police and Torturers

The FAES is an elite unit that Maduro created during the 2017 protests specifically to defend the Chavista revolution. Since then, it has morphed into little more than an extermination group, according to Venezuelan and international human rights organizations like PROVEA. The police unit has been involved in the alleged extrajudicial executions of more than 675 people from working-class neighborhoods, sometimes under accusations that they were criminals. The FAES now stands at approximately 1,600 strong, an Interior Ministry official told InSight Crime, and has worked to brutally oppress the newest wave of Venezuela’s anti-government protests since January. “This is one of the few police groups that could remain loyal to Maduro because they have been indoctrinated and have received special training to act according to political objectives. They were created to handle political situations like the one going on right now in Venezuela. They’re prepared to kill,” the official told InSight Crime from Caracas. He added that another reason why some of the FAES could remain loyal to Maduro is that many of them started out in the colectivos, groups that have always been sympathetic to the Chavez and Maduro governments and have become increasingly armed and violent. Maduro likely recruited so many FAES members from the colectivos for their callousness and bloodthirstiness, which has been confirmed by PNB and FAES officials who recently abandoned the police force as well as by colectivo leaders, all of whom spoke to InSight Crime from Venezuela. But the FAES’s ferocity may belie a general hum of discontent within many other branches of the PNB, including the national intelligence service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional – SEBIN) and the criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC). Officers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied due to the worsening humanitarian crisis but are not speaking up for fear of being labeled traitors and consequently persecuted, according to police officials who spoke to InSight Crime. Discontent in the SEBIN, however, became more apparent amid the contradicting orders regarding the January 13 arrest of Guaidó and the subsequent imprisonment of the 12 officers who carried it out. Unlike with the military, the current number of security forces in Venezuela is unknown.

Colectivos Terrorizing the Border

Colectivos have played a major role in this year’s newest bout of political tension. The groups rallied around Maduro as soon as he took office for his disputed second term. Now, they have begun to expand their presence to the country’s borders and give even stronger demonstrations of their support than before. As InSight Crime reported, government officials in Táchira state on the border with Colombia created a “border security colectivo” in 2018. And this one includes members of the ELN and the FARC dissidence. The group put on a show of force on January 23, when it opened fire to prevent humanitarian aid from being brought into Venezuela. They shot at journalists, volunteers and civilian members of the opposition in San Antonio del Táchira, on the Simón Bolívar International Bridge and in Santa Elena de Uairén.

SEE ALSO: The Devolution of State Power: The ‘Colectivos’

Moreover, Humberto Prado, director of the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones – OVP), accused the Maduro government of releasing prison inmates to fill the colectivos’ ranks in their repression efforts. Not only have the colectivos been expanding their reach in Venezuela — they now have presence in 16 states — but they have also become almost unrecognizable from the groups that Chávez originally created. To stymie anti-Maduro sentiment, they now operate more like paramilitary shock troops of armed civilians and receive support from security forces. They participated in the government’s repression of the protests in 2014 and 2017 as well as in a government initiative called “Operation Liberation and Protection of the People” (Operación de Liberación y Protección del Pueblo – OLP), which has been tied to human rights abuses and criminal acts. Beyond their political oppression activities, the colectivos have gotten a foothold in Venezuela’s underworld, engaging in such criminal activities as extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking and murder for hire. In general, the colectivos have supported Maduro as they did Chávez. In an effort to advocate for their survival, one member of a sort of colectivo federation called the Revolutionary Secretariat of Venezuela (Secretariado Revolucionario de Venezuela) told InSight Crime that “if something happens, we’ll have to go out and defend the government, because those who come will be coming for us.” But some are beginning to waver in their allegiance to the government because they have not been receiving the economic benefits they once did, and the country’s crisis has been affecting them. At the same time, they fear persecution should they abandon the government’s revolution. As a colectivo leader in the 23 de Enero neighborhood of Caracas put it, “everyone is afraid here, but the people have shown that they want change, and the same thing is happening with the social organizations … If something happens, most will run away. If something happens, only those willing to die will stay here.”

The FARC Dissidence and the ELN: Trained and Armed

With the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) in the middle of Venezuelan territory and dissident factions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) regrouping at the border, Colombian guerrilla groups are contributing their fair share to the country’s organized crime activity and driving instability levels up. They now operate in 13 of Venezuela’s 24 states, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG). During and after the peace process between Colombia and the FARC, several groups of guerrillas dissented and chose to continue trafficking drugs. Meanwhile, the ELN has continued to operate and is now Colombia’s number one enemy with the FARC demobilized. Both groups have been eying Venezuela as a means to shield themselves from the Colombian authorities in a country that has been generally tolerant and accommodating towards them for the past 20 years. Colombian guerrilla groups have even gone so far as to assume various state functions. The ELN now runs the country’s mining region. And while both they and area FARC dissidents had already established themselves along the border to control the drug trafficking routes between Colombia and Venezuela, this year’s unrest has seen them take their support of the current administration to another level. Case in point, ELN Central Command leader Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán,” told British newspaper The Telegraph that, in the event of military intervention in Venezuela, they “would be on the front lines and would not hesitate” to defend the Maduro government. It is unknown precisely how many people belong to the Colombian guerrilla groups operating in Venezuela and at the border, but ICG estimates an army of roughly 2,000 in the ELN alone. This makes the group’s formidable criminal allies of the Maduro regime should an armed confrontation occur. Photo Source: AP Images.

Op-Ed: Venezuela – Latin America’s Iraq?

Is it just me or does Nicolas Maduro look a lot like Saddam Hussein? After US intervention in Iraq we saw a nation that descended into civil war, mass displacement and unimaginable suffering. Could Venezuela go the same way? First, let’s engage in a little positive thinking, a scenario where Maduro realizes that his position is untenable and calls for full and free elections for Venezuela to determine the future, allowing for national reconciliation and rebuilding to start. With such elections, sanctions are lifted, international aid and investment pours in, while Colombia and Venezuela restore full and fruitful diplomatic and trade relations. Many Venezuelans, driven from their homeland, return to rebuild their battered nation.

*This article was originally published by Semana and was reprinted by InSight Crime with permission.

Now, let us move to the other end of the scale and look at some of the worst-case scenarios. Few serious analysts of the Venezuela situation believe that US military action in Venezuela would have anything other than negative effects. Venezuela is not Panama, and the successful 1989 US military action there cannot be replicated in Venezuela, a country more than 12 times as big, with a veritable plethora of armed and anti-American armed groups. For the last two decades, the Chavista propaganda machine has been churning out warnings that the ‘Yankees’, working with right-wing Venezuelan oligarchs, are planning military action to take over the country’s oil deposits. It would be a shame to finally prove them right.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles

The Maduro regime is not without foreign allies, and US intervention could have international repercussions, including for Colombia. It could be the one thing that actually unites disparate Venezuelan elements under Maduro. Russia has also proven itself quite determined in standing by allies despite overwhelming odds, as in the case of Syria. China has financial interests in Venezuela of up to $60 billion. As always the international chess board has complex and competing players. There has already been political violence with hundreds of protestors killed. The risk of further political violence is very high. The Venezuelan armed forces long ago ceded the monopoly on the use of arms. Among a wide array of armed groups are prison gangs led by ‘pranes,’ ‘megabandas’ and ‘colectivos,’ while the militia, National Guard and Armed Forces have highly criminalized and corrupt elements prepared to use violence to achieve their ends and protect their interests. Add to these the presence of Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN), dissident elements of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and illegal groups like the Rastrojos. With five decades of insurgent experience and presence in up to half of Venezuela’s 24 states, the Colombian groups alone could make any invader bleed. The question is how many of the armed groups listed would be ready to either defend the Maduro regime to the bitter end, or engage in armed resistance against a new US-backed government. Some violence is almost inevitable and indeed the current levels of homicides in Venezuela already rival many nations engaged in civil conflict. Organized crime has penetrated the very highest echelons of the Maduro regime. This government has increasingly turned to illegal streams of income to feed its diminishing cash flow, gold, and cocaine among them. Unable to ransack state coffers, previously their principal criminal activity, the ruling ‘boligarchia’ have had to look at other illegal streams of income. Thanks to steady gold prices and record levels of cocaine production in Colombia, these are readily available.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela: A Mafia State?

The Maduro regime was struggling to pay its bills before the latest raft of sanctions on its oil industry hit. This strangling of funds to the current government, combined with international diplomatic pressure, will force its fall. It may take some time, but that may be what is needed to find a peaceful transition. Cracks are already showing and for all but the most diehard fanatics, there must be a dawning realization that that status quo cannot continue. The suffering of the Venezuelan people will continue in the meantime, but even if the best case scenario above comes to pass, Venezuela will take years to recover a position where the government is able to protect, educate and treat its citizens. A civil conflict must be avoided at all costs, and to do so, the organized crime interests currently propping up Maduro must be dealt with and neutralized.

*This article was originally published by Semana and was reprinted by InSight Crime with permission.

A Blast from the Past: The Duque Security Plan for Colombia

When Colombian President Iván Duque announced his new security plan, he told the media that security “shouldn’t be confused with war.” In his actual plan, however, that distinction seems to be of little importance. The plan, released this month, says the Colombian government will not negotiate “bilateral ceasefires” when taking on what it calls Organized Armed Groups (Grupos Armados Organizados – GAO). These groups include guerrillas, like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN); former paramilitaries, like the Urabeños, or Gulf Clan; and vestiges of these groups. The one common factor among them is that they are all involved in drug trafficking and other crimes. Security forces will seek the “disarticulation” of these groups to prevent them from being able to form new criminal structures, according to the document called the Politics of Defense and Security (Política de Defensa y Seguridad – PDS).

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

A second principle stated in the plan is the recovery of institutional presence throughout the country. To do this, security forces will be focused on what are described as Strategic Zones of Integral Intervention (Zonas Estratégicas de Intervención Integral – ZEII). These zones are high in crime and violence, as well as located in poor, remote stretches of the country that are rich in natural resources. The government will also bring social services to these territories, though the plan mostly describes military and police interventions. Citizen security networks, which will “give support to the armed forces,” are included in this strategy to retake zones under the control of criminal groups. Rafael Guarín, Duque’s security minister, was quick to explain that these citizen networks will merely provide information to authorities, adding that their weapon “is a cellphone.” More than 800,000 Colombians have already registered with these networks, El Tiempo reported. To combat transnational organized crime, the plan calls for security collaborations with neighboring countries and increased intelligence capabilities, such as satellite technology to control Colombia’s borders.

InSight Crime Analysis

Duque’s security plan is bellicose, short on details and a rehash of controversial strategies implemented by his predecessors — notably his political mentor, Alvaro Uribe. Uribe, president from 2002 to 2010 and currently a senator, was the first to designate areas that were the focus of armed forces. Uribe’s successor Juan Manuel Santos, president from 2010 to 2018, also went after red zones. Their administrations used funding from Plan Colombia, a two-decade-long  $10 billion US assistance program, to combat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), dubbed a narco-terrorist organization. Plan Colombia provided the military new weapons and improved their intelligence capabilities. The forces made important security gains, restoring military presence in neglected areas of the country and driving out illegal armed groups. But security forces also drew fire for the killing of civilians. In the early 2000s, young men were kidnapped, killed, then dressed in army uniforms and reported as enemy combatants in a scandal known as the false positives. In 2015, prosecutors said that they were investigating cases involving nearly 5,000 false-positive victims.

SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile

At the same time, Duque’s citizen security network harkens back to Uribe’s Convivir, citizen security groups launched in the mid-1990s ostensibly to bolster the state’s fight against violence and crime. InSight Crime reported in 2015 that these groups went on to become shadow criminal organizations and fronts for the right-wing paramilitary movement. The notorious legacy of the Convivir squads, which were armed with the blessing of the government, is likely the reason Duque’s security minister immediately made clear that those involved in the new citizen security network will not be armed, and will merely act as intermediaries with authorities. Yet the quick enlistment of hundreds of thousands of Colombians shows that the idea remains popular. Such a large number of informants could provide authorities with vital information about zones under gang control, as in Medellin’s hillside districts where the so-called combos have recently stepped up killings. The plan also acknowledges past shortcomings in protecting natural resources from criminal groups, which are increasingly involved in land trafficking, the clear-cutting of forests to make room for coca-cultivation and illegal gold mining, both of which have devastating effects on the environment. It also says that the government will increase its efforts to protect social and community leaders, who have been killed with chilling regularity in recent years. Other valid priorities in the plan include focusing intelligence resources on Colombia’s borders, and increasing security cooperation with neighboring countries. Criminal groups of all stripes — the ELN, FARC dissidents, and drug traffickers like the Urabeños — are using Ecuador and Venezuela as staging grounds for Colombian drug shipments, illegal gold mining and other illicit economies, such as contraband cattle and other goods. The Duque plan also attempts to take on Colombia’s record-high coca cultivation, increasing its annual goal to 100,000 hectares destroyed. But it concentrates on forced eradication efforts, such as aerial fumigation, seemingly at the expense of the crop substitution program implemented as part of the peace agreement with the FARC. Duque’s plan hews so closely to his mentor’s vision, which Uribe outlined in a plan in 2003, that El Espectador found similar wording in both documents. Both studiously avoid the phrase “armed conflict.” Tellingly, Duque’s security strategy veers from that of his predecessor Santos in an obvious and glaring way. Santos negotiated a peace deal with the FARC, and he was willing to consider such an accord with the ELN. Duque’s plan leaves little doubt that no such negotiations will occur under his watch, by making “bilateral ceasefires” illegal and stating that armed groups have only one way out: the total “dissolution” of their organizations. Meanwhile, a tenuous peace hangs in the balance as the number of FARC dissidents increases. And the ELN continues to expand its presence, grow its criminal economies, and confront the state head-on. The rebel group’s recent car bombing of a Bogotá police academy calls back to the worst of Colombia’s bloody past — Pablo Escobar’s bombing campaigns and M19 guerrillas storming the Palace of Justice. With peace negotiations called off, the ELN’s attacks are only likely to increase. To confront Colombia’s current threats, however, what is needed is not a return to the past, but new ideas.

Key Criminal Revelations From Former Venezuela Intelligence Chief

The former head of Venezuela’s military intelligence service has revealed some key details that confirm longstanding links between several officials in the regime of President Nicolás Maduro with organized crime and terrorist groups. Speaking to The New York Times in a February 21 interview shortly after he endorsed Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela, General Hugo Carvajal Barrios, alias “El Pollo,” provided the most important revelations by a former Maduro official to date. Carvajal, who is under investigation in the United States for drug trafficking links, is distancing himself from Maduro just as the Venezuelan government is undergoing one of its toughest challenges. Maduro has recently refused to let in foreign aid from Colombia and Brazil, and has denied that he will stand down despite growing international pressure and warnings of a potential military strike from Washington.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profile

Senior Venezuelan officials involved in these revelations include Interior and Justice Minister Néstor Reverol and former Vice President Tareck El Aissami, as well as drug dealer Walid Makled, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the terrorist group Hezbollah, and President Maduro himself. However, Carvajal did not reveal or elaborate on all the privileged information he may have gained about organized crime efforts entrenched within the Venezuelan state after spending more than a decade at the head of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence. InSight Crime has reviewed his claims below.

Drug Traffickers Within the Cabinet

“Drug trafficking and corruption were commonplace, managed by top figures such as Néstor Reverol,” said Carvajal, adding that the minister allowed planes carrying drugs to land in Venezuela when he was head of the National Anti-Drug Office (Oficina Nacional Antidrogas – ONA) in 2008. In December 2015, the United States indicted Reverol on drug trafficking charges. The next day, Maduro named him as minister. In July 2017, the US further accused Reverol of having drug trafficking links and included him on a list of 13 sanctioned officials. At the time, InSight Crime reported that Reverol was thought to have received bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for helping them ship cocaine to the United States. Reverol’s involvement in drug trafficking is not new as he (alongwith Carvajal, the man now blaming him) is part of the Cartel of the Suns, a shadowy drug trafficking network run within the ranks of the Venezuelan government and army.

Vice President and Hezbollah ‘Ambassador’

Carvajal also accused former Venezuela Vice President Tareck El Aissami of having significant links to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. He said that he accompanied El Aissami on a 2009 trip to Iran, which included a stop in Syria to invite Hezbollah militants to come and work with FARC fighters in Venezuela. A mere two days after having been named vice president in 2017, the US government sanctioned El Aissami for suspected drugs trafficking links. At the time, InSight Crime reported that El Aissami allegedly “received payment for the facilitation of drug shipments belonging to Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled.” He was also linked to coordinating drug shipments for Mexico’s Zetas criminal group and providing protection to Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco,” as well as Venezuelan drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco. El Aissami, who is currently Venezuela’s minister for industries and national production, has also been linked to granting Venezuelan passports to members of terrorist groups in the Middle East.

One-on-One with Walid Makled

Carvajal admitted that he carried out direct transactions with convicted drug trafficker Walid Makled. However, he claimed that he did so “for investigative purposes as head of the General Directorate of Military Intelligence.” In February 2015, Venezuela’s most prominent capo was sentenced to 14 years in prison on drug trafficking and money laundering charges. Before and during his capture in Colombia, Makled provided information on the Venezuelan government’s links with international drug trafficking organizations and the FARC rebels. He also said that he had financed one of the late Hugo Chávez’s presidential campaigns.

FARC Enclave

Regarding the presence and criminal activities of the FARC in Venezuela, Carvajal only admitted to having a personal meeting with leaders of the Colombian guerrilla group in order to free a Venezuelan businessman. Before the FARC’s demobilization, InSight Crime noted that Venezuela was a “vital base of operations” for the FARC as three of its seven blocs had a presence there. For the now-demobilized guerrilla group, the South American nation offered access to some of the region’s main drug trafficking corridors, and also served as a place to “escape pressure from Colombian security forces.” As for the former FARC rebels’ connection with the upper echelons of the Venezuelan government, the so-called “narco nephews” of President Nicolás Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores provided information of that link during their drug trafficking trial in the United States. The most recent showing of the criminal activities of former FARC fighters in Venezuela was a meeting between dissident FARC leaders and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) in Apure state along the border with Colombia.

Corrupt Businessmen

The former Venezuelan intelligence chief, who has emerged as a whistleblower that could help ignite a political change in Venezuela, turned against businessman Raúl Gorrín to showcase the corruption that has gained strength under the governments of former President Hugo Chávez and President Maduro. Gorrín is one of the most recent Venezuelans sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for his alleged participation in a corruption network that granted concessions that caused the state $2.4 billion in losses. Former Chávez administration National Treasurer Claudia Díaz Guillén allegedly participated in the scheme along with Alejandro Andrade, who was accused of laundering more than $1 billion and sentenced to 10 years in a US prison. The Globovisión television station owner is also named in the so-called Operation Money Flight case that uncovered $1.2 billion was embezzled from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and main revenue source, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA). In this case, Maduro could be one of the beneficiaries of those funds. Additionally, Carvajal assured that Maduro ordered him to blackmail Gorrín, and that he offered him $10 million to ensure the government would not use evidence about the businessman’s alleged criminal activities. But Carvajal is not just an exceptional witness to organized crime in Venezuela. He is also considered to be part of the Cartel of the Suns and faces at least two trials in the United States for his alleged links with drug traffickers and guerrillas. It remains to be seen how these criminal proceedings will end up after he left the Maduro regime and expressed his willingness to cooperate with a new government in Venezuela.

Guerrilla-Trained ‘Colectivo’ Threatens Humanitarian Aid to Venezuela

A new pro-government Venezuelan militia or “colectivo” allegedly trained by Colombian rebels may have posted itself alongside security forces on the Venezuela-Colombia border. The colectivo’s appearance came at the same time as an announcement that humanitarian aid would be arriving to the region after requests by the country’s political opposition and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó. Venezuela currently faces devastating shortages of both medicine and food. Since February 3, Freddy Bernal — whom President Nicolás Maduro appointed as the “protector” of the border state of Táchira in 2017 — has led the deployment of Venezuelan security forces in the country’s border towns. The forces are made up of both the police and the military, namely the Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES) of the national police and the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana — FANB). The decision to shore up government forces along the Venezuela-Colombia border came amid Guaidó’s announcement that the opposition was stocking warehouses with food stuffs and other aid at a collection site in the Colombian city of Cúcuta. In videos posted on his Twitter account, Bernal echoed instructions handed down to him from Maduro himself. “To guarantee Peace we are implementing a perfect plan with our men and women from #Táchira, trusting in the #FANB and in our Patriotic Love,” he wrote in a message accompanying one of the videos he tweeted. Venezuelan soldiers have already started to block the aid deliveries. Sources in Táchira informed InSight Crime that the Maduro government’s plan along the border also included mobilizing the “border security colectivo.” The colectivo was first reported on in August 2018 and is said to include dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) as well as armed civilians.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela Criminal Structures Bolster Maduro in Second Term

InSight Crime confirmed that approximately 70 alleged members of the border security colectivo roamed the streets during anti-Maduro protests in the Táchira towns of San Antonio and Ureña on January 23. Non-governmental organization Fundación Redes (FundaRedes) blamed the group for the deaths of two protesters that day.

InSight Crime Analysis

A pro-Maduro colectivo on the border could threaten humanitarian aid efforts in Venezuela, as many colectivos have been linked to criminal activities. Venezuela’s colectivos were originally created by former President Hugo Chávez to quell efforts against him. They are still active today, mostly in the capital city of Caracas. It is telling that military and police forces under the command of Freddy Bernal did nothing to deter the recent public shows of force by the border security colectivo as they cruised the streets on motorcycles dressed in black and outfitted with weapons, bulletproof vests and balaclavas. The inaction renews suspicions that government authorities not only tolerate but work in tandem with the groups, which are increasingly armed. Until now, the border security colectivo operated underground. The only evidence of the group’s presence in Táchira was the occasional instance of graffiti on city walls featuring the image of a man carrying a rifle and an inscription: “The colectivos are taking the border to defend the revolution.”

SEE ALSO: The Devolution of State Power: The ‘Colectivos’

But a witness told InSight Crime that “they came out on January 23 after the march at about five in the afternoon, to intimidate people and shoot up all of Ureña and San Antonio.” Meanwhile, military sources consulted by InSight Crime said that members of the border security colectivo may be receiving training from guerrilla groups. The training is said to have taken place in a camp in the village of Palotal within the municipality of Bolívar in Táchira. It is not surprising that the Maduro administration is deploying troops to the Venezuela-Colombia border at the same time that Venezuela’s opposition says its going to move aid through there. But the presence of a colectivo, which may have received training from rebel forces, could increase regional tensions.

Caparrapos Thriving in Colombia Due to Alliances With ELN, Ex-FARC Mafia

Having become one of the more visible criminal actors in Colombia due to their war with the Urabeños, the Caparrapos have been heavily targeted by authorities in 2019 so far. However, this versatile criminal group has continued to thrive by forging alliances with the ELN and ex-Farc Mafia to secure crucial territory. On January 23, the Colombian army seized an illegal mining site in the rural area of El Bagre, from which the group had been extracting over 20 kilos of gold a month, representing monthly earnings of over $725,000. Just two days later, an operation in and around the rural municipality of Tarazá led to the arrest of 14 gang members, including six from the Caparrapos, as well as the freeing of a number of minors who had been forcefully recruited. That same raid saw the seizure of a number of weapons, including rifles, handguns, hand grenades, over 1,200 rounds of ammunition, and communications equipment. These actions by both the military and police came in response to an escalation of violence linked to the Caparrapos in Bajo Cauca. The violence has displaced at least 200 people. On January 17, clashes between the criminal group and the Urabeños, also known as the Clan del Golfo, forced 48 families to flee from a village in Tarazá.

SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile

In response, the Colombian army’s Seventh Division has sent a military presence to the area. Despite these complications, the Caparrapos have continued to stengthen, mainly through strategic alliances with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacíon Nacional – ELN) and ex-FARC Mafia, dissidents who have refused to join the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia – FARC). The group has allied with both the ELN and the 36th Front of the FARC dissidents — partnerships that provide extra firepower to take on the Urabeños, who operate alone. The Caparrapos also have forged a pact with the former FARC 18th Front allowing the criminal group to further secure coca production and other illicit economies.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Caparrapos’ strength grew exponentially in 2018 as they took the upper hand in Bajo Cauca against the Urabeños, the group from which they broke off. The group has proven to be agile in its shifting alliances with the ELN and FARC dissidents, which were made as violence has flared up and drawn a heavier military response, providing extra protection for the group at the right moment. A source from Colombia’s Ombudsman’s office in the department of Córdoba, who wished to remain anonymous, told InSight Crime that “the Caparrapos are likely to expand strongly in 2019 and establish themselves firmly as a major player in the organized crime landscape.” According to them, the alliance with the ELN first became clear in late 2018, when Caparrapos gang members were reported to be fighting alongside men wearing ELN armbands. “These alliances are very volatile. It is likely to be temporary and based on claiming land. They will have delineated which areas each group can take,” said the source. Around 30 years ago, the contested region of Bajo Cauca was a hotspot for the ELN and the FARC before pressure from right-wing paramilitary groups weakened their hold. Now, it has become the site of an attractive land grab for groups such as the ELN, again due to the fragmentation of the Urabeños. Partnerships with the Caparrapos are being drawn up in order to best capitalize on this power vacuum.

SEE ALSO: Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias ‘Otoniel’ Profile

This also ramps up the pressure on the Urabeños, who are increasingly at risk of fragmentation, as splinter groups begin to move drugs on their own. The trouble within the group has been evident with the loss of power of Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” its top leader who is currently on the run from authorities. Otoniel has offered in the past to turn himself in, along with a number of followers, but this has not taken place. The Caparrapos are likely to continue rising in power in 2019 due to their combination of operational savvy and ruthlessness. Some 4,000 troops have been deployed to Antioquia and Córdoba to prevent the group’s further spread. But, according to the Ombudsman’s office source, “a lack of intelligence gathering ability and not knowing who the enemy is means the soldiers may only have a slight dissuasive effect.”

Ecuador Warned of Potential Cross-Border Attack by ELN


Ecuadorean security forces are on high alert after receiving reports Colombia’s ELN guerrillas are planning a cross-border attack, highlighting what has until now been a major blind spot in Ecuador’s border security strategy.

Security forces in Colombia have issued an alert to their Ecuadorean counterparts, seen by InSight Crime, that the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacíon Nacional – ELN) is planning an attack against military or police in the border region. The report identifies facilities and units in the municipalities of Mira in the province of Carchi and San Lorenzo in Esmeraldas as potential targets. While the warning makes no mention of the motives for the attack, a senior official from the Ecuadorean police, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime any attack would likely be politically rather than strategically motivated. According to the official, the ELN may be looking to retaliate against the Ecuadorean government for throwing guerrilla leaders out of the country after refusing to continue hosting peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian government last year. And the guerrillas could also be sending a message over Ecuador’s support for Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader who has declared himself president, as the guerrillas are believed to have ties to the current embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, the source added.

SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile

The ELN has no verified armed presence within Ecuador, but according to intelligence reports seen by InSight Crime, the rebels’ Jose Luis Cabrera Company operates just to the west of the major Ipiales-Tulcan border crossing. The company is part of the Comuneros del Sur Front, which is a major player in the underworld war to control criminal economies in the Colombian border department of Nariño. In addition, the police official reported that, while the ELN were in Ecuador for peace talks, they also worked hard to build a support network within the country. According to the official, the rebels established contacts with high-level national government officials, and local political and community leaders in the border region. While authorities believe their main aim was to establish political ties, they are concerned the guerrillas could also have been looking to set up logistical support networks and supply lines.

InSight Crime Analysis

An attack against the Ecuadorean security forces would be a high risk move for the ELN. The last underworld figure to launch spectacular attacks in Ecuador was Walter Patricio Arízala Vernaza, alias “Guacho,” who led a criminalized splinter group of former guerrillas from the now demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia – FARC). Guacho was killed in December 2018 after his attack against police, military and journalists in Ecuador only succeeded in pushing Colombia and Ecuador to dramatically improve bilateral security cooperation as they united to hunt down the former guerrilla fighter.

SEE ALSO: Ecuador Organized Crime News

With the Colombian government desperate to strike hard at the ELN following the car bomb attack on police facilities in Bogota that killed 21 people in mid-January, an ELN attack in Ecuador would likely provoke a similar cross-border assault. However, sources in Ecuador also talk of a different concern – that the ELN will look to build on the foundations they established during peace talks to use Ecuador as a rear guard, logistical hub and supply line. This would also potentially increase their criminal earnings as it would allow them to control movement through what is one of the main cocaine trafficking corridors out of Colombia and a region where illegal gold mining is on the rise. While the ELN’s border strategy remains unclear, the attack alerts stand as a stark warning to Ecuadorean authorities: by focusing their attention almost exclusively on the ex-FARC Mafia, they have created both space and opportunity for the ELN.