SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and ProfilesZerpa, once an important Chavista collaborator with close ties to Maduro and the first lady, also revealed the regime’s connections with drug trafficking, though he did not give many details. “Venezuela is an important country on drug trafficking routes, and that wouldn’t be possible without the complicity of certain authorities,” said the former judge, adding his own drug trafficking accusations to the many that have already been lobbed at Maduro government officials grouped under the moniker Cartel de los Soles (Cartel of the Suns). As Zerpa opened up about the Maduro administration’s hijacking of Venezuela’s government institutions, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) updated its Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List, adding seven people, most of them business leaders known to be in the intimate circles of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. At the top of the list is Raúl Antonio Gorrín Belisario, president of television news network Globovisión. He was added to the SDN list for his alleged ties to a corruption network suspected of bribing Venezuelan government institutions in order to conduct illegal currency exchanges that yielded some $2.4 billion. In a news release, OFAC also alleged that Gorrín and former national treasurer Claudia Patricia Díaz Guillén participated in a mafia-like structure linking business leaders and high-level government officials. Gorrín also made headlines in July 2018 for his suspected participation in Operation Money Flight, a case in which upwards of $1.2 billion was laundered from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA). In that case, Gorrín is alleged to have been behind a series of financial transactions that placed approximately $200 million into accounts belonging to the first lady Cilia Flores’ children. Gustavo Perdomo (also sanctioned) were able to acquire it as compensation for important currency transactions they conducted with the Chavista government. While the acquisition may have been the least profitable that Gorrín and Perdomo carried out under Chávez, it ensured the government’s domination of Venezuela’s communication sector. The media giant may have also been used to cover up criminal operations. Another element feeding into the political situation in Venezuela is the connection between the government and various criminal structures that have emerged from the shadows of Chavismo. Pro-government armed groups called “colectivos” have been deployed in an apparent effort to demonstrate what the government is capable of doing to keep Maduro in power. Since January 7, several groups have paraded down the streets of Caracas, showing off military equipment in front of the presidential palace.
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 imposed, showing Washington is piling on the pressure against Caracas' highest-ranking officials.
Cartel of the Suns Profile
The term "Cartel of the Suns" (Cartel de los Soles) is used to describe shadowy groups inside Venezuela's military that traffic cocaine. It is in some ways a misleading term, as it creates the impression that there is a hierarchical group, made up primarily of military officials, that sets the price of cocaine inside the country. There are cells within the main branches of the military -- the army, navy, air force, and National Guard, from the lowest to the highest levels -- that essentially function as drug trafficking organizations. However, describing them as a "cartel" in the traditional sense would be a leap. It is not clear how the relationship between these cells works, although rivalries between them have apparently turned deadly in the past.
More Cartel of the Suns News
*This article was originally published by the New York Times and was reprinted by InSight Crime with permission.There is no clear-cut definition of what constitutes a mafia state, but the fact that organized crime touches the daily lives of every Venezuelan, and has penetrated the highest level of state institutions, easily qualifies Venezuela. The Maduro government engages in little bilateral or international cooperation in the fight against transnational organized crime and has prominent state officials facilitating and protecting criminal activity. Three years ago, my foundation, InSight Crime, started collecting information on senior figures in the Venezuelan government involved in drug trafficking, the so-called Cartel of the Suns. The name came from the golden stars that the generals of the Bolivarian National Guard wear on their epaulets. The National Guard is responsible not only for internal security but also the frontiers, ports and airports, access to which every drug trafficker needs. It was the first institution to be systematically bribed by Colombian drug traffickers to allow cocaine shipments to transit Venezuela. The first 20 names in our list were easy enough to find. Cross-referencing with files seized from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, consultations with international counternarcotics agencies and extensive field research in Venezuela ensured the dossiers on these individuals were soon bulging. We stopped opening new files when we hit 123 people sitting in senior positions in government in more than 12 state institutions. We ran out of manpower, not leads.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela: A Mafia State?Cocaine is pouring into Venezuela from neighboring Colombia. Drug production has never been higher, and we estimate that Colombia is producing 921 tons of cocaine a year. In 2010, Venezuela was handling at least 200 tons of that. In the past, it was the Colombian cartels that ran this business, paying off Venezuelan officials. Now there is overwhelming evidence that the Venezuelans are directly participating. The 2016 conviction in the United States of two nephews of the Venezuelan first lady for cocaine trafficking is just the most obvious example of this.
Yet we found that drug trafficking was not the most lucrative illegal industry in Venezuela and that our targets had diverse criminal portfolios. Gasoline in Venezuela is the cheapest in the world. Smugglers who move it across the border into Colombia or Brazil can earn a greater markup than with a kilo of cocaine, and with minimal risk. Mr. Maduro closed the border with Colombia during stretches of 2015 and 2016 to “destroy the mafia.” This strengthened the Venezuelan military’s monopoly on fuel smuggling.But the real money was being made, with no risk, through pillaging state coffers. With all transparency and accountability gone, with positions filled on the basis of political loyalty instead of ability or integrity, Venezuela has become a kleptocracy. The linchpin of this kleptocracy is the artificial currency control system. Today one United States dollar on the black market is worth as much as 3.4 million Venezuelan bolívares. But those privileged with access to the official exchange rate can get a dollar for 120,000 bolívares. It’s one of the most lucrative deals on the planet. In addition to catastrophic economic mismanagement, this has brought Venezuela, even with all its oil riches, to the brink of bankruptcy.
There is now little money left to steal from the state, yet the wheels of corruption still need to be greased. The military rank and file earn around the equivalent of less than $20 a month, while the minimum wage is around $1.50 a month. Because everyone has to be on the take to survive, Mr. Maduro has made every Venezuelan an unwilling participant in the criminal economy. If Venezuelans want food and medicine, they must resort to the black markets; they must feed the corruption that permeates every organ of the state and every aspect of their daily lives.
The military now oversees food and medicine distribution. This may keep it loyal for a while yet, but the model is not sustainable. Drug trafficking is the main growth industry in Venezuela, followed by illegal gold mining. Cocaine may well become the lubricant that keeps the wheels of corruption moving in Mr. Maduro’s Venezuela.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles
This situation is affecting Venezuela’s neighbors. Central America, particularly Honduras and Guatemala, is the landing strip for an air bridge shipping cocaine from Venezuela. The Dominican Republic is the destination for drug boats streaking across the Caribbean from the Venezuelan coast.
Aruba and Trinidad and Tobago have become contraband centers. Cheap Venezuelan gasoline gushes across the Colombian and Brazilian borders. And over a million Venezuelans have fled their collapsing country in the last 12 months. Many of these are desperate people, sick and hungry. They will work for a hot meal. They are being exploited and recruited by organized crime.
Isolated and broke, President Maduro has surrounded himself with figures involved in criminal activity, and as long as he remains in power the criminal credentials of the government will only get stronger.Venezuela cannot work to contain organized crime, as the very security forces that should be deployed against it run much of the business. Mr. Maduro, even if he wanted to, could not cut out the cancer of corruption and organized crime as these are the very elements that keep him in power. And for the international community there is little room for maneuvering. Mr. Maduro is not a reliable partner in any fight against organized crime and he has helped turned Venezuela into a haven for criminal activity. *This article was originally published by the New York Times and was reprinted by InSight Crime with permission.
The Development of the Cartel of the SunsThe drug trafficking structures in the Venezuelan state are not a cartel, they are a series of often competing networks buried deep within the Chavista regime, with ties going back almost two decades. Venezuela was always going to play a role in the drug trade, positioned as it is alongside the world’s principal producer of cocaine, Colombia. However initially it was Colombian narcos who ran the business within Venezuela, paying off military officials along the border to look the other way as cocaine flowed across the frontier. Then inevitably, the corruption ran deeper. Instead of just looking the other way, Colombian drug traffickers asked elements of the GNB to protect and even move shipments. Their role protecting the frontiers, airports and ports made them the perfect partners for the traffickers. But Colombia was not content with simply exporting cocaine to Venezuela. By the 1990s, it was also exporting its civil conflict, with the rebel armies of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) taking up residence in Venezuela’s border states. Both groups have long been involved in the drug trade and developed close links with Venezuelan officials, often with the blessing of President Hugo Chávez. Files seized from the camp of FARC commander Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias “Raul Reyes,” killed in an aerial bombardment in Ecuador in March 2008, revealed the names of several senior Venezuelan officials. Some of these have been linked to drug trafficking activity, including: -Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, who was Minister of Justice and the Interior in 2008, met with FARC members many times and was known by them by the alias “El Cojo.” -Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, director of military intelligence, and Henry Rangel Silva, director of the intelligence police (DISIP), liaised with the rebel army. Both were later sanctioned for “for materially assisting the narcotics trafficking activities of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a narco-terrorist organization.” -Freddy Bernal, a former mayor; Cliver Acalá Cordones, an Army General; and Ramon Madriz Moreno, a key intelligence officer, all met with FARC leaders and helped coordinate their security when on Venezuelan soil. Bernal and his right-hand man Amílcar de Jesús Figueroa allegedly helped arrange urban warfare and explosives training for the Bolivarian Circles/Colectivos with the FARC. The links between the Cartel of the Suns and the FARC were instrumental in the development of drug trafficking in Venezuela. While the FARC demobilized in 2017 after signing a peace agreement with the Colombian government, there are growing dissident elements still in Venezuela, deeply involved in the drug trade. (For more information on this read “Colombia and Venezuela: Criminal Siamese Twins.”) It is believed that these elements are still working with members of the Cartel of the Suns. A key moment in the strengthening of drug trafficking in Venezuela came with 2005 expulsion of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), after Chávez declared that it was “using the fight against drug trafficking as a mask to support drug trafficking, and to spy in Venezuela against the government.” This, combined with the suspension of the flyover agreement for drug flight monitoring, meant that Venezuela suddenly became a black hole for US intelligence gathering in the counternarcotics fight. Organized crime was quick to take advantage of this, with drug trafficking organizations increasing their use of Venezuelan territory. Also in 2005, the passing of a new drug law (Ley Orgánica Contra el Tráfico Ilícito y el Consumo de Sustancias) decreed that counternarcotics investigations and operations would no longer been the exclusive remit of the National Guard but would include all other branches of the armed forces — the army, navy and air force. The Cartel of the Suns suddenly expanded from the National Guard to all arms of the military. Mildred Camero, Chávez’s drug czar at the time, told InSight Crime that this was the moment that the military shifted from a facilitator in the drug trade to an active participant. Before the passing of the law, drug trafficking was largely limited to the National Guard, but once all branches of the military were given jurisdiction “a war broke loose,” according to Camero. The army and the National Guard started to compete with each other for routes, and began dealing directly with the FARC rather than with Colombian civilian drug traffickers. This, along with international pressure, led to the capture of several top-level Colombian drug traffickers in Venezuela during 2011 and 2012. These arrests marked yet deeper participation in the drug trade by the Cartel of the Suns. Among those arrested were Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias “Valenciano,” a leader in the criminal organization the “Oficina de Envigado,” captured in November 2011; Héctor Germán Buitrago, alias “Martín Llanos,” a paramilitary warlord who had long run drugs across Colombian’s eastern plains into Venezuela, arrested in February 2012; Diego Pérez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” military head of the Rastrojos crime group, captured in June 2012; and then Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco,” one of the most prolific Colombian cocaine smugglers, arrested in September 2012. These traffickers had been protected by high-level Venezuelan officials. After their captures, the Cartel of the Suns took over many of the routes the Colombians had been running, thus moving from protecting shipments, to buy and selling them, dealing directly with international buyers, foremost among them the Mexican cartels.
Emblematic Cases of the CartelThe first person to speak with inside knowledge of the penetration of drug trafficking into the Venezuela state was Walid Makled. Makled was, in the late 1990s, one of Venezuela’s most powerful drug traffickers. His power was based upon his strong links to senior members of the Venezuelan military, and his criminal empire grew exponentially during the early years of the Chávez’s government. He controlled the drug trafficking business in the state of Carabobo, which is home to Venezuela’s main port, Puerto Cabello. According to the DEA, over 70 percent of the narcotics then sent from Colombia through Venezuela were shipped from Puerto Cabello. Makled was connected to the former National Guard general and then governor of Carabobo, Luis Felipe Acosta Carles. General Alexis Maniero was head of the 7th Army Regional Command in the state of Sucre, expedited official credentials for Makled, who considered him a valuable ally, according former drug czar Mildred Camero. In 2004, Makled momentarily lost four tons of cocaine at the hands of the local Valencia police. The drugs were returned to him by Jesus Itriago, the then chief of the anti-drug unit within the judicial police (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC), after Makled paid him a million dollars, according to DEA documents seen by El Nuevo Herald. An official investigation was later aborted in the Carabobo state legislature, when key politicians were also reportedly paid off by Makled to drop the probe. Itriago was later promoted to head of the CICPC’s drug division. In April 2006, Makled was linked to 5.5 tons of cocaine found in 128 suitcases on a plane that landed in southern Mexico, having departed from Maiquetía airport (now Simón Bolívar International Airport) outside Caracas. The captured pilot of the flight spoke of the National Guard supervising the loading and departure of the plane. The links between Makled, the FARC and the Chávez government became clearer after Makled was captured in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta in August 2010. Makled was by this point probably the most powerful native drug trafficker in Venezuela — he was added to the US “Kingpin List” in 2009. His position as a broker between the FARC and corrupt elements of the Venezuelan armed forces, among others, meant that he probably knew more about the mechanics of corruption and drug trafficking in Venezuela than anyone else. In interviews with the media after his arrest, Makled claimed “all my business associates are generals,” and that he had paid off as many as 40 Venezuelan generals as part of his drug trafficking activities. Serving or former members of the military named by Makled included military general Henry Rangel Silva (who was subsequently made Defense Minister), former Military Intelligence Director Hugo Carvajal, National Guard General Dalal Burgos, and former captain Ramon Rodríguez Chacin, who at the time was the Minister of Interior and Justice. Makled stated that he used to pay Carvajal $50,000 a week for his help and cooperation. Silva, Carvajal and Rodríguez had already been sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for their involvement with the FARC and drug trafficking. Makled said that up to six drug flights a day left the border state of Apure, taking cocaine to Honduras, from where it was shipped to Mexico and into the United States. He insisted there were drug laboratories in Apure and Maracaibo, and that they were “guarded by the government.” While Makled admitted he had not directly dealt with Chávez, he said he had spoken to “very close relatives of his” (believed to be his brother Adan), and also claimed to have financed one of Chávez’s presidential campaigns in exchange for concessions at Puerto Cabello. Today, Makled sits in a Venezuelan military jail, as do many of the regime’s dirty secrets. In September 2013, France made one of its biggest cocaine busts ever, finding 1.3 tons of cocaine on board an Air France plane that landed in Paris, packed into 31 suitcases. The flight had left Caracas airport, which is closely controlled by the National Guard. The international scandal forced the Venezuelan government to act. Twenty-eight arrests were made, among them a lieutenant colonel and other National Guard members. With these arrests the investigations by the Venezuelan government halted and no attempts were made to follow lines of enquiry that led to more senior figures. In November 2016, Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas — the nephews of Maduro’s wife and First Lady, Cilia Flores — were convicted by a court in New York for conspiring to traffic 800 kilograms of cocaine into the country. The cousins planned to move the cocaine, provided by the FARC, out of the international airport in Caracas using their privileges as members of the Venezuelan elite, and their relationship with the military. They flew to Haiti in November 2015, where they planned to seal the drug deal, but were arrested by the DEA. The plane was piloted by Pablo Urbano Pérez, a military official, and Pedro Miguel Rodríguez, a lieutenant colonel in the Venezuelan Air Force. Evidence that one of the nephews, Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, was planning to put some of the proceeds from the drug deal into his aunt’s political campaign as head of the National Assembly, suggests that the first lady was not ignorant of her nephews’ activities and where they were getting their money.
The Cartel TodayThe Cartel of the Suns today is a disparate network of traffickers, including both state and non-state actors, but all operating with the blessing and protection of senior figures in the Venezuelan government. Without such political top cover, and paying off the correct people, drug smuggling operations are shut down. As the country teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, kleptocracy and the systematic sacking of state coffers has diminished. There is simply no more money to steal from the government budget. However, the wheels of corruption need to be greased, especially within the military, which is the key strut propping up the government of Maduro and which will be the kingmaker during any regime change. InSight Crime believes that drug trafficking is one of the main lubricants for corruption in Venezuela today, and that this troubled Andean nation is becoming one of the world’s major cocaine trafficking hubs. This article is part of a multipart investigation looking at organized crime in Venezuela. See other parts of the series here and the full report here
InSight Crime AnalysisDespite the accusations against him, Cabello has so far escaped US sanctions for human rights violations, drug trafficking or undermining democracy, unlike Vice President Tareck El Aissami and President Maduro. Furthermore, Cabello may not be the second most powerful person in the Venezuelan government; it has been said multiple times that it is he who makes the decisions. He is a fundamental figure at the heart of the Maduro regime, and was one of former president Hugo Chávez’s most loyal supporters. He has a long history in the military, and his position in national politics is a determining factor. He is considered one of Chavismo’s most fervent supporters. He controls the National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional – SEBIN), which has been accused of committing innumerable human rights violations including torture, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial executions. SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles For his part, Todd Robinson is a career diplomat coming from a previous post as US ambassador to Guatemala. He is currently in Caracas to help with the “return of democracy in Venezuela,” and his work focuses on negotiation. “I would say we cannot afford to disqualify any sector from negotiations for a better Venezuela. Clearly the military sector has a lot of influence on the future of the country, and if they can help, we’re not going to say no,” said Robinson in what was the first interview offered by a US diplomat in Venezuela since Maduro came to power in 2013. But Robinson also trusts in the sanctions’ effectiveness and is sure they “are working out very well.” This is why negotiations over a solution to the conflict in Venezuela — in which Robinson, fresh off a decisive anti-corruption effort in Guatemala, seems to be an influential participant — could be directly affected by the threat of possible sanctions against Cabello.
- Armed civilian militias that are uniformed and trained by the army
- The Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Boliviariana — GNB)
- The Bolivarian National Police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana — PNB)
- The Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana — FANB)
- Cuban military advisors surrounding Maduro
- “Colectivos,” the pro-government paramilitary organizations that operate throughout the country
- The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC)
- Colombia’s National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN)
SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and ProfilesThese armed groups have a presence across Venezuela. In addition to the state security forces positioned throughout the country, there are also groups in the western, central and southern states of Merida, Lara, Aragua, Tachira, Miranda, Caracas, Carabobo and Barinas, among others. In 2017, more than 150 people died at the hands of security forces during protests against the Maduro administration. Members of the National Police, National Guard, National Armed Forces and the colectivos all allegedly participated in the violence.
InSight Crime AnalysisIn addition to being used as a tool to repress demonstrations related to the ongoing economic, political and security crises in Venezuela, these armed groups are also closely linked to organized crime. They participate and benefit from criminal activities such as drug trafficking, illegal mining, contraband smuggling, kidnapping and extortion with the unofficial approval of the government. The National Guard controls contraband smuggling routes through the border into Colombia, and has helped give rise to the Cartel of the Suns, a shadowy group within the Venezuelan military involved in cocaine trafficking. The National Armed Forces, particularly the Army, control mining activities in the state of Bolivar and directly participate in the extraction and smuggling of gold, coltan, precious stones and other minerals, as well as drug trafficking.
SEE ALSO: Cartel of the Suns News and ProfileThe National Police was created to operate throughout the country and is currently the most repressive force, with an extensive list of accusations against them for human rights abuses. Police officials are frequently denounced and investigated for their alleged participation in kidnappings, extortion and drug trafficking. The force, which was created by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as a personal army to defend the revolution, now engages in extortion and the illegal sale of food and other basic supplies that are scarce in Venezuela. The colectivos, or pro-government armed groups, control large territories and live off extorting residents and business owners. They are also linked to kidnappings, drug trafficking, contract killings, theft and the contraband food trade in the shortage-ravaged country.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of ContrabandThere are no reports linking the Cuban police or military to criminal activities in Venezuela, but the presence of Cuban intelligence officers in positions reserved for local security forces has been widely criticized. Some media organizations link them to espionage, persecution and the detention of Venezuelan citizens. The presence of the ELN guerrilla group and FARC dissidents in Venezuela intensified after former President Chávez assumed power. Both groups dominate important territories along the Venezuela-Colombia border, and for years have had a presence in some areas in central Venezuela, including the capital Caracas. They have been linked to officials from the Maduro administration who were named in a list of entities tied to drug trafficking maintained by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC), including current Urban Agriculture Minister Freddy Bernal and former Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín. Rather than protect Maduro, these “armies” are more concerned with care of their own criminal activities. But that is why they have an interest in maintaining the status quo and ensuring the continuation of their businesses.
The rare move by the United States to place economic sanctions on Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro will do little to reduce criminality within his regime and across his beleaguered country. The question is whether matters could get worse in criminal terms.
The US Treasury Department added Maduro to its list of “specially designated nationals” on July 31, thereby freezing all of his US assets and prohibiting American businesses from dealing with him. According to a Treasury Department press release, the action was taken under the authority of a 2015 presidential order, “which authorizes sanctions against current or former officials of the Government of Venezuela and others undermining democracy in Venezuela.”
It is not clear what, if any, assets Maduro has in the United States. But the move does carry some symbolic impact, coming the day after Maduro claimed a sweeping victory in a controversial election to create a new constitutional assembly. The July 30 voting process was marred by violent clashes between demonstrators and authorities, as well as allegations of fraud on the part of the government.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profile
The new political body is expected to replace the current opposition-controlled National Assembly, and it is likely Maduro will use it to consolidate power even further as the regime faces down almost daily street protests that have been running since April, during which dozens have died.
“Yesterday’s illegitimate elections confirm that Maduro is a dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuelan people,” said US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a July 31 statement regarding the sanctions.
The new measures come less than a week after the administration of US President Donald Trump sanctioned 13 current and former Venezuelan officials for “undermining democracy.” Among them was Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, who was appointed to his current position by Maduro the day after being indicted by the United States for allegedly participating in a transnational cocaine trafficking network. Venezuela’s prisons chief Iris Varela, accused of overseeing the abdication of the penitenciary system to the control of its inmates, was also sanctioned last week.
It is unusual for the United States to target heads of state with economic sanctions. Maduro joins a short list of sanctioned leaders that includes the recently-deceased former dictator of Panama Manuel Noriega, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Hours after the sanctions against Maduro were announced, authorities reportedly rearrested Leopoldo López — a prominent opposition leader who was recently moved from prison to house arrest after more than three years in a cell — and Antonio Ledezma, another high-profile opposition voice.
InSight Crime Analysis
As InSight Crime pointed out last week, sanctions against top Venezuelan officials will likely serve to further isolate the regime, consolidating international pressure upon it and offering moral support to Venezuela’s opposition. But they are unlikely to significantly weaken Maduro’s grip on power, and could even prompt him and his allies to dig in further.
“Maduro will brush off the sanctions imposed by the US like one would brush off a pesky gnat,” Mike Vigil, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent with decades of experience in Latin America, told InSight Crime. “Venezuela, unfortunately, is now a failed state and narco regime.”
Vigil and other international experts consulted by InSight Crime also expect this week’s economic sanctions to have zero impact on Maduro’s behaviour — or at least none of the type of impact that the Trump administration might hope to see.
“Individual sanctions have never had an impact on the political or economic processes that would force or bring about changes on despotic regimes. Also, broader sanctions on Venezuela’s oil-based economy would cause only more misery for the innocent citizens of Venezuela. The [latest sanctions] by the White House are nothing more than bluster,” said Vigil.
Despite rumours that the United States is planning to slap sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA), those measures have not been announced. When asked during a press conference whether oil sanctions were a possibility, Mnuchin said the US government would “continue to review all of our options.”
Criminality within government ranks may be a motiviating factor behind the Maduro administration’s rejection of the sanctions. Should Maduro and his allies be ousted, and should the opposition take over the executive branch, it is highly likely that criminal proceedings will be used to keep the Chavistas as far from power as possible. This gives the Maduro regime a strong incentive to try to maintain its grip, even if it involves extreme measures.
“The regime is already criminalized, and I’m not sure how much more criminalized it could become,” Douglas Farah, president of national security consulting firm IBI Consultants, told InSight Crime.
Maduro’s vice president Tareck El Aissami was sanctioned in early 2017 by the United States for his alleged ties to the drug trade, and more than a dozen current or former high-ranking officials have either been sanctioned or indicted for crimes related to drug trafficking. Maduro’s own nephews were convicted in the United States in November 2016 for conspiring to traffic 800 kilograms of cocaine into US territory.
Pro-government groups in Caracas and around the country known as “colectivos” are also becoming increasingly criminalized and are now active in kidnapping, extortion and microtrafficking, according to field research by InSight Crime. The military, the regime’s major pillar of support, is profiting from food and fuel trafficking as well as the international cocaine trade. Organized criminal networks control the country’s prison system, and have given birth to a number of megabandas (large criminal gangs) on Venezuela’s streets.
“With all the anarchy, with all the chaos spilling out into the street, that is going to be taken advantage of by the criminal groups there. It will definitely increase drug trafficking; I think you will see more and more Colombian organizations moving into Venezuela … and a lot of people will go into the drug trade because they have no option — there’s no jobs, no money, no supplies,” said Vigil.
Although Maduro and his inner circle all have a personal interest in maintaining the status quo due to the indictments and sanctions against them, Ralph Espach, director of Latin American and strategic affairs at the think tank CNA, thinks that ideology could still be a major motivator for key members of the regime.
“I wonder if maybe in Washington we are underestimating their ideological commitment. We like to describe them as crooks, and traffickers, and corrupt, not as ideological warriors (like the Castros) who are generally far more willing to allow the country to suffer, especially the former middle class/upper class and elites,” said Espach via email.
“It could well be that they are thinking like Cuban revolutionaries, and are focused on sustaining the ‘revolution,’ even if it may last decades, and perfectly willing to contemplate the exodus of another million Venezuelans from the country or more, until oil prices go up again or they can get some special assistance from China or someone and ride this out.”
SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and ProfilesPresident Nicolás Maduro controversially ordered the creation of the constituent assembly in a May 2017 presidential decree, even while local elections are months overdue. The country has since witnessed a wave of violent protests, while its deep political and economic turmoil continues.
InSight Crime AnalysisWhile the US sanctions are aimed at punishing human rights abuses by Venezuela’s increasingly repressive government, they have also shone the international spotlight on some of the shadiest figures of the socialist regime. These include members of the so-called Cartel of the Suns, the name given to the loose networks of transnational drug traffickers operating from the highest echelons of the Venezuelan government and military. (See InSight Crime’s diagram of corrupt government officials below). Among them is Interior Minister Reverol, who was appointed to his current position by Maduro the day after being indicted by the United States for allegedly participating in a transnational cocaine trafficking network.
SEE ALSO: Cartel de los Soles News and ProfileIris Varela, on the other hand, helped foster an organized criminal system much closer to home. As prisons chief under former President Hugo Chávez and later Maduro, Varela oversaw control of the country’s jails largely pass into the hands of the inmates themselves. This strengthened the power of the “pranes,” or the prison gang bosses, whose system of criminal governance eventually influenced the creation of the “mega-gangs” (“megabandas”) in Venezuela’s increasingly dangerous streets.
(Varela sparked controversy when she was photographed with a “pran” inside prison walls)As InSight Crime has noted in the past, renewed US sanctions could energize domestic opposition and international pressure on the regime. But they could also place the Venezuelan government even further on the defensive as it takes extraordinary steps to maintain its delicate grip on power.
(InSight Crime graphic taken from a February 2017 article)
Colombia has extradited a Venezuelan former army captain with ties to the administration of President Nicolás Maduro to face drug trafficking charges in the United States, in a move that likely has Venezuela’s government worried over what stories he might tell US authorities.
On June 24, Yazenky Lamas was flown to the United States where he will be tried for his alleged role in coordinating over 100 drug flights from Venezuela to Central America and the Caribbean, reported Semana.
Prosecutors allege that Lamas played a central role in organizing drug flights by obtaining air traffic codes that allowed the planes to pass themselves off as commercial flights, among them a flight that travelled from the Venezuela-Colombia border region to Honduras with 1.6 tons of cocaine in 2015, according to Semana.
Lamas, who used to be the personal pilot of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores, according to El Nuevo Herald, was arrested in Colombia in June last year. He claimed to be sourcing pedigree dogs, but Colombian investigators told Semana they believe he was in the country to make contact with the powerful paramilitary mafia known as the Urabeños.
InSight Crime Analysis
Lamas is a figure with political connections that run to the very top of the Venezuelan government, and if he decides to turn informant he could potentially provide devastating information on the Cartel of the Suns — the term used to describe drug trafficking networks inside Venezuela’s military.
There have already been strong indications of concern on the part of the Maduro administration; the Nuevo Herald reported that late last year government envoys pleaded with their Colombian counterparts not to extradite the former military man to the United States.
Such tactics have succeeded previously, most notably in the case of Walid Makled, a now-convicted drug trafficker with high-level state connections, whom the Colombian government extradited to Venezuela instead of the United States in 2011.
SEE ALSO: The Cartel of the Suns Profile
However, the political context is very different now. In 2011, Colombia was keen to improve relations with Venezuela — which at that time was politically polarized and economically struggling, but far from the collapsing state seen today. Colombia also reportedly had favors to ask in return, namely, the extradition of Colombian guerrillas and the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars of trade debt.
In contrast, the Venezuelan government today is increasingly internationally isolated over its brutal attempts to put down a wave of political protest, and its inability to resolve an economic crisis and rampant corruption. In this context, pressure over the Venezuelan government’s alleged collusion in drug trafficking has been steadily building, with US authorities prosecuting cases such as the “narco nephews” case involving the first lady’s nephews, and levying a series of sanctions against state actors, including placing Vice President Tareck El Aissami on its “Kingpin List.”
Colombia therefore would have little to gain and much to lose by cooperating with a government that is not only approaching pariah status internationally, but — depending on what Lamas tells US authorities — could also be on the verge of being exposed as a criminal state.
Cracks have appeared in Venezuela’s increasingly criminal regime. Dissidence has set in within the military, which is propping up the flailing government, and a key opposition leader is calling for more soldiers to defect, while the attorney general continues to challenge the president.
In a video posted on his Twitter account, jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, head of the Voluntud Popular (Popular Will) party, has called on the military to cease complying with orders they are receiving from the leadership of President Nicolás Maduro.*
“To the soldiers who are in the streets today, I want to send a very calm, clear message that is framed in our Constitution: You have the right and the duty to rebel,” López, who was arrested and eventually imprisoned by the Maduro administration in 2015, said in a video recorded from the Ramo Verde military prison where he is jailed.
His remarks were likely prompted by the increasing evidence of dissent within the ranks of the armed forces, who have been on the front line of the government’s sometimes deadly repression of opposition street protests that have now been running for nearly three months.
At least 14 army officers were arrested in April during the first week of the ongoing wave of popular unrest. The charges against them included “rebellion” and “treason,” according to official documents obtained by Reuters.
In addition, at least three lieutenants from the military — José Alejandro Michael Sánchez, Ángel David Mogollón Medina and Alfredo José Rodríguez — have deserted to Colombia and denounced Maduro and his regime.
On top of this, over the last year Venezuela’s attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz, a former loyalist to the regime, has increasingly gone rogue.
On June 8, Ortega called for all Venezuelans to oppose Maduro’s effort to rewrite the constitution.
“What is at stake here is the country, and the integrity of all Venezuelans,” the attorney general said, according to the Associated Press.
The first time Ortega voiced her disagreement with Maduro’s security policy was in July 2016, when she criticized the Operation Liberation of the People (Operaciones de Liberación del Pueblo – OLP), the controversial anti-crime drive implemented by the regime that has caused extrajudicial killings to surge.
But her boldest move came on March 31, when Ortega declared that a Supreme Court ruling effectively seizing power from the National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition, signaled a violation of the constitution. That criticism caused the Supreme Court to reverse the ruling, and the following day Maduro announced the stalemate had been resolved. However, the controversy could not be undone, and it reignited opposition protests that continue today.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles
Since then, Ortega has repeatedly denounced the “political” violence that has killed nearly 70 protestors so far. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she stated that “we cannot expect citizens to act peacefully and in accordance with the law if the state takes decisions that are against it.”
On May 27, Ortega shared the results of an investigation into the death of Juan Pernalete, one of the young protesters killed during the marches. Pernalete was hit and killed by a tear gas canister shot by the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), according to evidence seen by Ortega. This contradicted the government’s official version of events, and Interior Minister Néstor Reverol and Defense Minister Padrino López tried to refute and discredit the attorney general’s statements.
But the political controversy prompted by her latest public declarations have caused another important, but perhaps more veiled, criticism to go almost unnoticed. In 2016, for the first time, the Attorney General’s Office annual report featured a chapter dedicated to organized crime. The document outlines the levels and nature of crimes such as extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking, money laundering, financial fraud, contraband and theft, as well as the effectiveness of anticorruption measures, showing statistical evidence for each illegal activity, the steps taken by the institution to combat them and relevant examples.
It takes a more objective tone on organized crime, one more in line with the international community. It recognizes the scale of the problem in the country, and objects to the government’s efforts to tout almost any crime perpetrated in Venezuela as actions committed by paramilitary groups. Venezuela is now one of the most violent countries in the world, and organized crime, which was minimal when former President Hugo Chávez took power in 1999, went into accelerated growth under his “21st Century Socialism.”
InSight Crime Analysis
So far, Ortega’s denunciations have cost her the presidency of the Moral Republican Council (Consejo Moral Republicano), a public ethics body. But she is risking alot more by putting herself in the crosshairs of a regime that has proved itself willing and able to use violence to protect its interests.
If Maduro is eventually able to replace Ortega with a more pro-revolution official, her criticisms and good intentions could be short-lived. However, it will not be easy to do this legally — he would have to dissolve the National Assembly (which he has tried to do and failed) in order to remove top officials from other branches of power.
But Venezuela’s officials would do well to heed Ortega’s strong words and turn them into more concrete actions against new forms of organized crime that have emerged during the socialist regime, many of which are backed by political elites.
For instance, the country’s prisons are in the hands of powerful gang leaders known as “pranes,” who operate with the tacit cooperation of the government. The “colectivos” — civilian armed groups aligned with the regime — have acted as some of the fiercest repressors of the street protests, and are also active in microtrafficking, kidnapping, black market food and extortions. Ortega has done little to limit these criminal forces, the latter of which are key armed enforcers for the current regime, especially in the poor neighborhoods of the capital, Caracas.
Given the government’s relationship with various types of criminal networks, including some that operate in official circles, addressing these issues is no simple matter. Indeed, the focus promoted in the attorney general’s annual report threatens the criminal markets in which the state has interests. It stresses the need to take organized crime more seriously and the importance of rebuilding anti-crime efforts with international partners, especially with respect to drug trafficking, corruption and contraband. (Chávez officially expelled the US Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005.)
SEE ALSO: Cartel of the Suns News and Profile
Drug trafficking, for instance, has reached the highest levels of Maduro’s government. Current Vice President Tareck El Aissami became the highest-ranking member of government to be sanctioned or indicted by the United States for drug trafficking earlier this year. Contraband oil and food is a large source of income for corrupt elements in the regime, including the military, and kleptocracy has helped bring the country close to collapse.
The small signs of rebellion within Venezuela’s armed forces are competing with strong incentives to stay loyal to the government. Profits from criminal activities and maintaining the status quo that allows those criminal markets to exist; thus, many members of the military are unlikely to be heavily influenced by López to lay down their weapons.
The military has benefited hugely from the artificial exchange rates operated by the Maduro government (and introduced by Chávez), and the regime has allowed them to profit from their role in managing the country’s food production and distribution in a climate of acute shortages. An investigation by the Associated Press revealed the extent to which the military is at the heart of the contraband food trafficking business.
Under the current government, the military’s role in the transnational cocaine trade has also grown. Soldiers on the border profit from colluding with or turning a blind eye to Colombia’s rebel armies and other criminal groups running drug trafficking operations across the frontier wth Colombia. Many high-ranking members of the military as well as the government (networks known loosely as the Cartel of the Suns) have been targeted for their role in the drug trade by the United States.
However, there is little doubt that many members of Venezuela’s armed forces will be confronting their consience in the days and weeks to come — if they haven’t already — and weighing the pros and cons of a new chapter in Venezuelan political history. In the event of a political transition, what is certain is that the military will fight to maintain its role as a key power broker in Venezuela’s political scene.
* Correction, June 14: This sentence has been amended to reflect the fact that López is the leader of the Popular Will party. An earlier version of this article stated that he is the head of the Justice First party. While López did co-found Justice First, he has since moved on to Popular Will.