CARTEL CHRONICLES is an ongoing series of dispatches from the front lines of the drug war in Latin America.
When the former head of Venezuela’s intelligence service released a video denouncing President Nicolás Maduro last month, the world listened. In a series of filmed statements circulated on Twitter and comments to the press, Hugo Carvajal Barrios, 58, accused the current government of the troubled South American nation of drug trafficking, corruption, and repression.
He was just the latest of a number of people who served under the late Hugo Chávez to implicate senior players in the government in the narcotics trade. Since 2002, a bevy of officials and high-level officers in the armed forces have been accused of or sanctioned for drug trafficking by the United States.
For those who might try to dismiss the indictments and sanctions as politically motivated—the US has long been the nemesis of the "socialist revolution" in Venezuela—there’s also the evidence. Like the Air France flight that landed in Paris on September 10, 2013, with some 1.3 tons of cocaine on board (estimated street value: $270 million). The flight departed from Venezuela’s international airport in Caracas, where Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) is responsible for providing security. The embarrassing incident resulted in the arrest of a number of military personnel including a first lieutenant from the Guard's anti-drug unit, according to subsequent reports.
And then there were the nephews of the First Lady (yes, President Maduro’s wife), Celia Flores. Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas were apprehended by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Haiti in late 2015 as they attempted to seal a deal to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. Both were eventually convicted and sentenced to 18 years behind bars for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.
So rife is the Venezuelan state’s role in drug trafficking in Venezuela that it has a name: The Cartel of the Suns, or Cartel de los Soles, as it is called in Spanish, is an umbrella term for the networks that seem to exist within the military and other state apparatus that aid and abet drug trafficking.
Its members include the former head of the country’s anti-drug trafficking agency, Nestor Reverol, who stands accused by a United States indictment of receiving payments from drug traffickers in exchange for helping them traffic cocaine destined for the US through Venezuela. Reverol “alerted the traffickers to future drug raids or the locations where law enforcement officers in Venezuela were conducting counter-narcotics activities to allow drug traffickers to change the location where they stored drugs or alter drug transportation routes,” amongst other offenses, federal prosecutors said.
Diosdado Cabello, currently a top official in Venezuela’s United Socialist Party and widely regarded as one of the most powerful people in the country, may also be one of the heaviest hitters of the Cartel of the Suns. Cabello was sanctioned by the United States last year; US Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said at the time, "We are imposing costs on figures like Diosdado Cabello who exploit their official positions to engage in narcotics trafficking, money laundering, embezzlement of state funds, and other corrupt activities.”
Then there’s Venezuela’s current vice president, Tareck El Aissami, who was also sanctioned for his alleged role in international drug trafficking. “He facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, to include control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan air base, as well as control of drug routes through the ports in Venezuela,” according to the Unites States Treasury. Last week, El Aissami was named in a US indictment for allegedly violating sanctions.
What Carvajal didn’t dwell on—understandably—as he implicated his former colleagues was his own role in this network, according to at least a couple of indictments against him in the United States. Those documents allege he was paid by Wilber Varela, the leader of part of the North Valley Cartel of Colombia, to aid his drug trafficking activities through Venezuela. After the death of Varela in 2008, Carvajal continued to work with his cartel and other criminal organizations in the same way, and allegedly even sold hundreds of kilos to cocaine to them, prosecutors said.
Carvajal escaped extradition from Aruba in 2014 on the charges against him. At the time he was still protected by the Venezuelan state, which may no longer be the case given his recent media blitz. (Last month, he told the press that any contact he had with drug-trafficking entities during his time in the job was due to investigations he was overseeing against them as intelligence chief.)
Whatever Carvajal claims about his own role, it’s clear that the Venezuelan government is up to its neck in the drug trade as well as other criminal economies.
“For us there is no doubt that Venezuela is a mafia state," said Jeremy McDermott, the co-founder of InSight Crime, which investigated the progress of organized crime under the socialist regime created by Chávez. "We don’t use the term narco state simply because there are a lot of other criminal activities and economies within Venezuela that have penetrated the upper echelons of government, not simply the drug trade. These include contraband, fuel, black markets for medicines and food, the systematic pillaging of state coffers and the manipulation of the artificial exchange rate. These were all different ways that criminal elements operating within the Venezuelan state made money—or robbed money—from the government and the people of Venezuela."
Venezuela’s geography puts its political leaders in a tempting position, offering the kinds of spoils many might find hard to resist. It shares a border with Colombia, the biggest coca producer in the world, and cocaine pours across the international line into Venezuela, where it is then moved north to be dispatched on to the United States and Europe. Corruption is a perennial problem.
“In political terms, if you remove the checks and balances of a working democracy, you do away with transparency of any kind," said McDermott. "Nicaragua and Bolivia are moving down that continuum. When transparency goes, it leaves the path open for criminal elements to do whatever they want, and that for me has been the story of Venezuela."
Perhaps Venezuela is a cautionary tale to the rest of the region of just how bad things can get.
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