SEE ALSO: ELN in Venezuela ProfileThe situation today is different. Venezuela is a now major source of income for the ELN, not just from extortion, but the running of illegal gold mines, many of these in Bolívar, hundreds of kilometers away from the Colombian border. There is also evidence of involvement in drug trafficking, with planes laden with cocaine departing from areas of Venezuela under ELN control. The recruitment of Venezuelans into ELN ranks now number in the hundreds, according to our sources. The ELN has also been engaging in political work in Venezuela, infiltrating local politics in many of the states and municipalities where it has a strong presence and building up social and political networks that reflect those in places like Arauca, on the Colombian side of the border. They have even been distributing food in Venezuela. Our analysis on this was recently confirmed in Revista Semana by an old friend, a fellow Briton who has lived for two decades in Venezuela, Phil Gunson, who now works for International Crisis Group:
“On this side of the frontier, we feel that the ELN…is more and more a Venezuelan organization, not Colombian, in the sense that its most important bases and its principal sources of income are on this side, where it recruits more and more Venezuelans.”This has huge policy implications for Colombia and for the United States as it seeks to promote regime change in Venezuela. It will also help define the future of the Colombian civil conflict as well as the possibilities of a Venezuelan civil conflict. One must remember that the ELN was born with backing from Cuba, the most important ally of the current Maduro regime. Is it a coincidence that ELN expansion in Venezuela has occurred as the Cuban-backed Maduro resists multiple threats to his grip on power? Unlikely. Will the ELN defend the Maduro regime against opposition elements seeking power? Almost certainly, as this would represent a direct challenge to their interests in Venezuela.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and ProfileIt also means that the ELN is unlikely to roll over if a US-backed government takes power in Venezuela and threatens its strongholds and influence in the country. The ELN has been resisting US-backed governments in Colombia for decades, why would it act any differently in Venezuela? The current situation in Venezuela provides perfect conditions for the ELN to expand, politically, militarily and economically, as well as present itself as a Pan-American and Bolivarian, not just Colombian, rebel force. However, another scenario could also suit the ELN. A fully fledged civil conflict in Venezuela, where it could ally itself with ‘colectivos’, radical Chavista elements in the military and militia as well as the organized crime groups that have deep roots in the Maduro regime. This unifying of civil conflicts in Colombia and Venezuela is a very real possibility and one that should be guiding policy-makers in Colombia and abroad as they promote regime change in Venezuela. But it is not just the ELN who depend on Venezuela for sanctuary, funding and recruitment. The ex-FARC Mafia, more specifically the FARC dissidents, also have significant, and growing, presence across the border. Their biggest outpost is in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, under the command of the FARC’s most famous narco-guerrilla, Géner García Molina, alias “Jhon 40.” Up to 500 ex-FARC mafia are based here, a large percentage of them Venezuelan, and perhaps the main dissident leader, Miguel Botache Santillana, better known as “Gentil Duarte.” Colombia and Venezuela are like Siamese twins, their criminal histories joined at the hip. Relying on primitive diplomacy, military action and short-term gains will simply result in prolonged suffering. What is needed is considered and precise surgery to ensure that both countries tackle their criminal issues in tandem, with a long-term view and intimate cooperation on the social and economic fronts, not just from a law enforcement perspective. Current government rhetoric does not suggest the presence of any such subtlety. A civil conflict in Venezuela will simply only strengthen the ELN and Colombia’s criminal dynamics and condemn us to further decades of violence.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and ProfileYansnier Arias, one such doctors now living in Chile, said that his Cuban and Venezuelan superiors told him oxygen could be used “as a political weapon…not for medical emergencies…but to be doled out closer to the election.” These episodes took place before the presidential elections of May 2018, which have been described as fraudulent by more than 60 countries and which do not recognize Nicolás Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela.
InSight Crime AnalysisThe actions described by the Cuban doctors are among the grimmest reminders to date of Cuba’s influence in Venezuelan politics and the lengths it will go to to keep Nicolás Maduro in power. In addition to such forms of direct control, this shows how Cuba’s intelligence apparatus has developed a symbiotic relationship with Venezuelan security and intelligence bodies.
“Blood Gold” is Booming Business21.8 of the 73.2 gold tons exported by the BCV in 2018 were bought by Goetz Gold LLC, a Belgian company with offices in Dubai, and which is facing severe scrutiny. It is being investigated by anti-corruption agencies in Europe and Africa for trading in “blood gold”, defined as metal extracted in areas of conflict, financing crime and wars, and promoting the violation of human rights. Goetz Gold LLC is part of the Tony Goetz group, headquartered in Antwerp, Belgium, known as the global capital of the diamond trade. Goetz Gold is under suspicion for being part of an illegal trafficking network of conflict minerals. The company exports gold to Europe and the US processed by the African company African Gold Refinery (AGR) in Uganda, the largest refinery in sub-Saharan Africa and completely owned by the Belgian consortium. Part of the material this factory uses to produce their gold bars comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where the vast majority of mining activity is illegal and serves as a financing source for the purchase of arms. These accusations are based on the compelling investigation, “The Golden Laundromat”, published in October 2018 by The Sentry. This is an anticorruption organization based in Washington DC, which monitors businesses contributing to violence in Africa, co-founded by US actor George Clooney. But the gold refined by the AGR does not only come from their African neighbors. Recently, the Ugandan company admitted to receiving material from an unspecified country in South America. The Ugandan official media indicated this country could be Venezuela, where the government currently relies on gold sales to obtain liquidity amid its collapsed economy and to avoid sanctions imposed by the US and Europe. On March 13, police authorities in Uganda announced they were investigating the legality of an import of 7.4 tons of gold to the Ugandan refinery made in March 2019 with an estimated value of US$300 million. Goetz Gold bought 21.8 tons of gold from Venezuela in 2018, which represented 30 percent all international sales of gold by the central bank. The largest single shipment of 15.6 tons happened on December 3, 2018, shortly after the US announced sanctions on anyone carrying out transactions involving Venezuelan gold.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Venezuela Organized CrimeThe gold sourced by Goetz Gold was transported from Maiquetía Airport by Emirati airline Rotana Jet and Russian airline E-Cargo, neither of which have commercial flights from Venezuela. Runrun.es attempted to confirm these facts with Goetz Gold president, Alain Goetz, in February 2019 but received no answer.
Turkey and Unrefined GoldAlmost 24 tons of Venezuelan gold (23.994 kilograms) had left for Istanbul onboard 28 flights executed between January and September 2018, as stated in the leaked information obtained by Runrun.es. After departing from Venezuela, the “blood gold” –extracted from deposits being controlled by criminal groups, where massacres are known to take place and workers who disagree are often murdered– was taken on by the private Turkish company Sardes Kiymetlí Madenler A.S. This company had a sales agreement with Maduro, through the BCV, according to the revelation made by deputy Carlos Paparoni in early February. The documents indicate that each of the Sardes flights transported between 226 and 3,721 kilograms of gold. Most of the 27 flights were by Turkish Airlines, which started operating in Venezuela in 2016 and since increased weekly flights from Caracas to Istanbul from three to five. Only one of the flights involved another airline, Panama’s Copa Airlines, which transported 543 kilograms of gold on March 20, 2018. Even though Copa denied involvement in of this flight, this itinerary’s explanation can be found in the code share agreement between Turkish and Copa Airlines, signed in April 2017. Both companies are members of the global airline network Star Alliance. Every week, a number of Copa flights depart from Maiquetía, transfer in Panama and continue to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines aircraft. The March 20 flight was one such occasion. The majority of gold transfers, 23 out of 28, happened during the first half of the year. By May 2018, 21.3 tons had already been transferred to Istanbul at a value of US$779 million. Reuters confirmed the shipments reached a value of US$900 million for the entire year. Last July, Venezuela’s minister in charge of mining development, Víctor Cano, acknowledged that the central bank had begun exporting gold to Turkey to be refined there, a process that had not happened in the past. There are no reports of this gold returning to Venezuela. Venezuela had previously sent gold to be refined in Venezuela but US sanctions caused the European country to draw back from this practice. This is not the first time that Turkey has established commercial relations with countries sanctioned by the US Treasury Department. Iran is one such case, which according to Bloomberg, buys billions of dollars of oil from Venezuela. The money from these transactions goes to Turkish accounts where it is “trapped” due to international restrictions. Previously, however, gold was also used in trade with Iran. A BBC story revealed suspicions about the presence of Venezuelan gold in Iran.
InSight Crime AnalysisThere are scant patrols by authorities on either side of the Venezuela-Colombia border, creating a kind of “no man’s land” that has proven to be fertile ground for organized crime. As a result, criminal groups have exploited the unguarded illegal passageways amid tensions between Colombian President Iván Duque and the Maduro regime. InSight Crime has verified that these trailed are manned by “trocheros,” or guides, who know the routes and who sometimes also work for criminal organizations. In many cases, these individuals are young Venezuelans who themselves are in need and seeking some form of income. They charge a tax to people who want to cross the border. To make matters worse, the pro-government armed colectivos that are loyal to Maduro have also entered into fierce competition over the criminal markets that thrive on these very trails. Venezuelans desperate to flee the crisis after the closure of the border, which stretches more than 2,200 kilometers, are particularly vulnerable when trying to cross these passageways that are largely controlled by criminal groups.
InSight Crime AnalysisMaduro’s call once again evidences the ties his government has with paramilitary groups dedicated to criminal activities such as kidnapping, extortion, drug trafficking and other offenses. The “colectivos” have been allowed to act with impunity in exchange for their support in combating anti-government protests as well as opponent intimidation and persecution, aiming to safeguard the unstable Venezuelan regime. This national blackout has been a backdrop for yet another round of public protests, once again interrupted by the “colectivos”. A video released on Twitter recorded these armed groups in action on March 10 in the Caracas municipality of Chacao, dispersing people expressing their anger at the power cuts. The groups of armed men were seen leaving from the Transport Ministry. Next to the social fretfulness, raids, riots and public disorder, the interventions by the “colectivos” have also been center stage. “Border Security Colectivo.” It operates in the state of Táchira and its members are dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). The group acted in coordination with state security forces to block the entrance of international humanitarian aid, last February 23. While the social and political agitation increases in Venezuela, the “colectivos” appear empowered as a strike force and armed wing of the Chavista revolution, with permission to perpetrate brutalities and further their criminal activities.
The United States has charged Tareck El Aissami, one of the most powerful men in Venezuela, and five of his collaborators for violating sanctions imposed in 2017 for alleged drug trafficking, showing Washington is piling on the pressure against Caracas’ highest-ranking officials.The US Justice Department announced the charges issued against El Aissami, currently minister of industries and national production, and businessman, Samark José López Bello, in a federal court in Manhattan for violations of the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. The charges stated that Venezuela’s former vice president supposedly bypassed the sanctions imposed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) by using US companies to provide international transportation through a private plane. the subject of OFAC sanctions in February 2017, for their alleged involvement in drug trafficking. At the time, a number of their assets were frozen and US citizens and companies were blocked from carrying out any commercial activities with them. El Aissami has been linked to drug traffickers and criminals such as the Zetas in Mexico and Colombian drug lord, Daniel ‘El Loco’ Barrera, since 2008 when he operated as Hugo Chávez’s minister of interior relations. He has also been associated with terrorist groups like Hezbollah, although these connections have not yet been fully verified.
InSight Crime AnalysisTareck El Aissami is the third senior Venezuelan government official to face charges of drug trafficking in the US. The first two were Hugo Carvajal Barrios, alias “El Pollo”, a former chief of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar – DGCIM), who has since turned on the regime, and Néstor Reverol, minister of interior relations. Two nephews of Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, namely Franqui Francisco Flores and Efraín Campo Flores, are also serving an 18-year prison sentence in the US for conspiracy to bring drugs into the country. In addition, InSight Crime has the names of over 120 Venezuelan government officials who either face sanctions, have alleged ties with drug trafficking, and are part of the ‘Cartel of the Suns’, a criminal organization within the upper echelons of the government and army.
SEE ALSO: Profile of Cartel of the SunsEl Aissami is considered to be one of the most dangerous and powerful men in the regime, after Nicolás Maduro and former vice-president Diosdado Cabello. Even though the 2017 sanctions may have weakened him, this recent episode shows he remains active in the same criminal economies. The Venezuelan politician has been on the radar of US authorities radar for over eight years. “He has involvement in every criminal activity. We would find El Aissami’s name in every case: drug trafficking, terrorism, money laundering, gold contraband, in everything…,” revealed a US government official after the 2017 sanctions, when El Aissami was vice president. The official also told InSight Crime that the possibility of El Aissami becoming president had set off alarms within the Trump administration. Information had been received on him trying to create a “drug trafficking organization called the Alba Cartel, with military officials from countries within the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América – ALBA, created by Hugo Chávez in 2004).” But his ties to crime do not stop there. During his time as minister of interior relations, between 2008 and 2012, while being responsible for the administration of prisons, he oversaw the creation of the “pranes.” These criminal structures operating inside prisons with support from authorities are now among the most feared criminal organizations in Venezuela. Later, between 2012 and 2017, El Aissami was governor of Aragua state. Over that time, crime in Aragua shot up, with a crime rate of 168 per 100,000 inhabitants, ranking among the five most violent states of the country.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela: A Mafia State?On January 28, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department issued sanctions against PDVSA stating that “Venezuela’s state-run oil company… has long been a vehicle for corruption… for the personal gain of corrupt Venezuelan officials and businessmen.” Official documents of the Venezuelan oil company state that PDV Caribe, one of PDVSA’s subsidiaries, owns 60 percent of Alba Petróleos. The latter is a private-public venture funded in 2006 in El Salvador and is heavily linked to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN). In Nicaragua, PDVSA owns 51 percent of Alba de Nicaragua (Albanisa). The other 49 percent is owned by municipalities under the control of Daniel Ortega’s regime, according to an investigation by Connectas, and confirmed by official documents InSight Crime had access to. The sanctions state, among other things, that no American person or company can carry out any trade or transactions of any kind with these companies. For more than a decade, PDVSA has been at the center of a series of regional corruption scandals and has faced repeated accusations of money laundering.
InSight Crime AnalysisThese sanctions on PDVSA subsidiaries, Alba Petróleos and Albanisa, shine a spotlight once again on the Central American partners of Nicolás Maduro’s regime. This also ratchets up international pressure on Salvadorian and Nicaraguan interest groups which have supported Venezuela. Since Alba Petróleos was founded, it has been under the control of José Luis Merino, known as “Ramiro Vásquez”, a former FMLN guerrilla captain, who later became a federal deputy and government official.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized CrimeOver the past decade, Merino has been scrutinized by multiple US agencies and his name is even mentioned in a file opened by the El Salvador Attorney General’s Office for alleged arms trafficking. Merino, nonetheless, holds immunity in El Salvador, since the current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, appointed him deputy foreign affairs minister in 2016. In 2017, 14 US congressmen requested that the Trump administration investigate Merino for “longstanding associations with organized crime networks subject to criminal investigations in the US.” In March 2018, American authorities detained Fred Merino, brother of José Luis, in Houston in connection with the same investigation. Fred Merino has also long been a major figure within Alba Petróleos. Venezuelan oil and the profits it has brought to Alba Petróleos have also served to finance FMLN election campaigns, it was confirmed last January, by a consultant close to the presidential candidate of said party for the February 3 elections. Asdrúbal Chávez Jiménez was one of the first directors of Alba Petróleos, cousin of the late Hugo Chávez and one of the directors of PDVSA since 2004. Nicolás Maduro appointed him minister of oil and mining in 2014. That same year, according to an investigation led by US federal prosecutors, $1.2 billion were redirected from the Venezuelan state-run oil company to personal accounts of Maduro’s regimen officials. In Nicaragua, according to Connectas, Albanisa was one of the main financial fronts for the regime of Daniel Ortega, who used Venezuelan money to feed the social aid programs and political alliances that have kept him in power. Last July, the Treasury Department issued sanctions against Francisco López Centeno, Albanisa’s vice president and a close ally to Daniel Ortega, for “misappropriation of state assets…corruption related to government contracts…[and] bribery.” In practice, the US sanctions will have different consequences for Alba Petróleos and Albanisa. In El Salvador, the FMLN’s government ends on June 1 and the local oil company is almost bankrupt. This means the main implications for officials linked to this Venezuelan oil scandal will likely be prosecutions on corruption charges. In Nicaragua, Albanisa’s financial drought and the sanctions it now faces adds pressure to the Ortega government, which has been in turmoil since launching a brutal repression campaign against its own citizens. However, Ortega has previously survived several rounds of sanctions coming from Washington DC.
SEE ALSO: ELN in VenezuelaThe 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 AnalysisThe 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 ProfileThe 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.