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Venezuela’s Other Crisis

Jamez42, © 2014

Jamez42, © 2014

On September 1, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Caracas, Venezuela to pressure President Nicholas Maduro to allow a nationwide recall referendum that would terminate his administration and bring an end to the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (or PSUV)’s stranglehold on power. This mass protest was a culmination of the growing angst of a citizenry in survival mode, desperate to alleviate the mass suffering and dystopian conditions that have come to characterize everyday life in Venezuela: scarcity of food and medical supplies, the world’s highest inflation rate, unprecedented levels of street violence, human rights violations, and even a stoppage in the brewing of beer. The ruling PSUV has pushed the country to the brink with its systematic usurpation of constitutional power, economic mismanagement, and rampant corruption. Any outside observer paying attention to the collage of news stories and photographs on the Americas newsfeed would rationally reason that we are witnessing the real-time collapse of a nation. Some say that Venezuela is a failed state and is facing a “Syria-like” humanitarian crisis.

Somewhat lost in the chaos of the social unraveling in Venezuela lies an equally unsettling crisis that threatens to further instability in the already-vulnerable country: there is a growing mountain of evidence indicating that the Venezuelan government is complicit in drug trafficking and corruption on a global scale. On August 1, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment charging the former top leaders of Venezuela’s Anti-Narcotics Agency with participating in an international cocaine distribution conspiracy. General Nestor Reverol Torres, former commander of Venezuela’s National Guard (GNB) and head of the National Anti-Drug Office (ONA), and General Edylberto Molina Molina, sub-director of the ONA, are charged with facilitating the flow of cocaine through the country. This comes on the heels of the arrests of President Nicholas Maduro’s nephews in Haiti by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for conspiracy to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. In March 2015, the Obama administration sanctioned seven Maduro administration officials for contributing to the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, and three other officials have since been named on the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers (SDNT) list. Also implicated are General Henry Rangel Silva, former minister of Defense, and General Hugo Carvajal, former head of Venezuelan military intelligence and current congressman. In all, seven Venezuelan generals are listed by the Obama administration as complicit in the drug trade. As a testament to his power, convicted drug trafficker Walid Makled once boasted of having “40 generals” on his payroll.

Amid the evidence of high-ranking officials participating in this illicit industry, it is Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly president, whom many Venezuela experts consider the most powerful man in Venezuela and the mastermind of the institutionalized trafficking operation within the GNB and Maduro administration. Cabello is believed to be the head of the so-called “Cartel de los Soles,” named after the sun emblems embroidered on the uniforms of high-ranking officers of the Venezuelan military. The Soles are said to hold a monopoly on the drug trade in Venezuela, working in conjunction with the FARC and other drug organizations in Colombia and securing the free passage of shipments of equipment and product to the cartels in Mexico and beyond. Their impact is not insignificant: the United States estimates that approximately 131 tons of cocaine, about half of the total produced in Colombia in 2013, moved through Venezuela that year.

There is also evidence of complicity in lower levels of the government. In August, ten individuals, including three lower-ranking officers of the GNB, were charged in smuggling 1.3 tons of cocaine on an Air France flight to Paris in 2013. At the same time, four other GNB members, none higher-ranking than first lieutenant, were charged for conspiring to ship 600 kilos of cocaine to Mexico. While this most certainly could not have happened without the knowledge of higher-ranking officers, these cases show that systemic corruption may be present in the GNB.

The upshot of this evidence of mass corruption and criminal activity in the Venezuelan government is a clear mandate for the world community to finally see the Bolivarian Revolution for what it is: a narco-state that endangers its own people and threatens the stability of the region. The influencers of the world, including the United States, Europe, China, and Russia, should publicly condemn the PSUV’s criminal bureaucracy and fully support Venezuela’s opposition as they continue their pursuit of impeachment of President Maduro. Publicly condemning systemic drug trafficking may be the most practical way for autocracies such as China and Russia to sanction Maduro’s government while not implying censure for autocratic policies. While the U.S. Justice Department’s criminal cases against Venezuelan officials suspected of drug trafficking give credence to President Maduro’s anti-American propaganda, the inclusion of the world order, including those countries with the most influence on Venezuelans—the nations of Latin America—should provide a clear message to the PSUV that their illicit system will not be tolerated. Only then can the policies that have led to a failed state begin to be reversed while bringing these drug traffickers to justice.


Ernesto Garcia

Ernesto is a management and technology consultant to U.S. and international public sector clients. His professional and academic focus is centered on the economic, geopolitical and security environment in Latin America, with particular concentration on Panama, Colombia and Venezuela. A former military officer, Ernesto has extensive international security and collaboration experience in Europe, Central Asia and Latin America. Ernesto holds a M.A. in International Relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a B.B.A. in Information and Operations Management from The Mays School of Business at Texas A&M University. You can connect with him on Twitter @karlkrockel11.
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