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Beyond the Cartel of the Suns

CARTEL OF THE SUNS / 2 MAY 2022 BY VENEZUELA INVESTIGATIVE UNIT EN

In 2020, the US Department of Justice released a bombshell indictment charging sitting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and other senior members of his government with “narco-terrorism” and accusing them of leading the drug trafficking organization the Cartel de los Soles – the Cartel of the Suns.

The indictment paints a lurid picture of the Cartel of the Suns as a fearsome drug cartel, led by a dictator and with the most powerful guerrilla insurgency in Latin American history as its armed wing. These drug traffickers posing as politicians and their terrorist cohorts, it alleges, hatched a sinister “narco-terrorist” plot to “’flood’ the United States with cocaine and inflict the drug's harmful and addictive effects on users in this country.”

The truth defies such easy characterizations. The Cartel of the Suns has never been a drug cartel. Instead, it emerged as a fluid and loose knit network of trafficking cells embedded within the Venezuelan security forces, facilitated, protected, and sometimes directed by political actors.

*This article is part of an investigative series carried out by InSight Crime over three years involving hundreds of interviews and field work in all of Venezuela’s key drug trafficking territories. It looks at one of the world’s most important cocaine trafficking hubs – and the authoritarian regime that keeps the drugs flowing. Read the full series here.

And today, it is evolving. Since Maduro became president in 2013, drug trafficking in Venezuela has becoming increasingly fragmented and complex, while the most powerful national figures in Chavismo appear to have become ever more distanced from actual dirty work of moving drugs. Today, the catch-all term “Cartel of the Suns” masks the fact that the state-drug trafficking axis in Venezuela is now less an organization run by the Chavista regime and more a system that it regulates.

Myths and Realities of the Cartel of the Suns

The indictment of Nicolás Maduro and his co-conspirators constructs a simplified and occasionally distorted narrative of drug trafficking in Venezuela, a Hollywood version of the Cartel of the Suns. But while the prosecutors’ conclusions may be overblown, much of the actual evidence presented in the indictment - and the numerous indictments and sanctions designations that preceded it - is not.

Over three years of investigations, InSight Crime corroborated many of the structures, relations, practices and operations that emerge from that evidence through field work in strategic trafficking regions. This has generated countless interviews with current and former members of the security forces, anti-drugs officials, prosecutors, political leaders from both sides of the divide, people who have worked in and communities affected by the Venezuelan drug trade, experts, investigators and analysts, among others.

There are times the accusations contained in the 2020 indictment stray into hyperbole. The document describes how Chávez plotted against the United States with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) to “prioritize[e] using cocaine as a weapon against America and importing as much cocaine as possible into the United States.”

But this claim flies in the face of drug trafficking patterns at the time. The Chávez years did see a flood of cocaine surge through Venezuela – from 50 metric tons in 2004 to 250 metric tons in 2007, according to US government estimates. But much of the increased traffic was bound for Europe as Venezuela carved out a niche as the principal launchpad for the burgeoning European market.

SEE ALSO: The Cocaine Pipeline to Europe

Elsewhere, prosecutors allege that the FARC trained “an unsanctioned militia group that functioned, in essence, as an armed forces unit for the Cartel of the Suns.” But while there is evidence the FARC trained pro-government armed groups like the colectivos, these organizations bear little resemblance to a cartel army. Instead, they are primarily politically motivated, have limited geographical presence and military capacity, and play no known role in transnational drug trafficking.

The main flaws of the indictment though, come from prosecutors’ attempts to build a neat narrative from a messy reality.

The story they tell begins in 1999, the year Hugo Chávez first became president of Venezuela.

The prosecutors allege the Cartel of the Suns was formed that year by “high-ranking Venezuelan officials” from the “military, intelligence apparatus, legislature, and the judiciary.” The Cartel, the indictment states, immediately made a deal with the leaders of the FARC, which controlled much of the cocaine production in the border region, to “relocate part of their operations to Venezuela under the protection of the Cartel.”

This, the indictment says, marked the start of the “narco-terrorist” conspiracy that would last more than two decades.

But the involvement of senior Venezuelan officials in drug trafficking and even the name the Cartel of the Suns – which refers to the sun insignia designating the rank of general in the Venezuelan military – both predate the rise of Chávez.

And while there is no doubt the FARC set up operations in Venezuela with the Chávez’s blessing, as documented in InSight Crime’s recent investigation into guerrilla dynamics in the state of Apure, this was a gradual process, as political sympathies solidified into a strategic alliance.

The drugs came later, as one former Chavista official from the border region, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of persecution, described to InSight Crime.

According to the source, Chávez told local government officials he would put trusted generals in place to oversee cooperation with the FARC, and that the military and the government should turn a blind eye to the guerrillas’ drug trafficking activities.

“But they didn’t just look the other way, they got involved in the business,” he said. “Each of them had a trusted narco to manage the business. They looked for trusted people, they gave them money, they connected with the narcos that they allowed to move cocaine and they created a relationship with them to buy and also to distribute the drugs.

“And with the control they had of the airports and the ports, and of course the highways, they made it all flow through Venezuela. That’s how it started.”

The story of former Venezuelan military spymaster Hugo Carvajal, documented in various sanctions designations and indictments, shows this evolution.

In 2008, the US Treasury sanctioned Carvajal for his connections to the FARC, accusing him of protecting the guerrilla’s drug shipments from seizure, supplying them with arms and government identification documents, and allowing them to control the Apure-Aracua border region – one of the main trafficking arteries into Venezuela.

An indictment drawn up in 2013 then traced his growing involvement in the drug trade through his relationship with Colombia’s Norte del Valle Cartel, which prosecutors say began around 2004. The initial allegations in the case depict a classic protection racket, with Carvajal turning a blind eye to the cartel’s trafficking operations, protecting members from capture, and providing intelligence on anti-narcotics operations. But, the prosecutors describe, he later sold hundreds of kilos of cocaine to Norte del Valle traffickers, and invested in shipments that other traffickers were exporting out of Venezuela.

The 2020 indictment alleges that by 2013 Carvajal was organizing transnational shipments. Prosecutors accuse Carvajal of coordinating the notorious Air France case, where French authorities seized saw 1.3 tons of cocaine from a flight arriving from Maiquetía Airport, where Carvajal’s nephew was at the time the military officer in charge of security.

As the Cartel of the Suns networks took shape and gained influence, the president’s own anti-drugs officials raised the alarm. But for Chávez – scarred by the memory of an attempted military coup against him in 2002 – the systemic corruption of his military was a small price to pay to guarantee their loyalty.

The true function of the Cartel of the Suns was not to use cocaine as a bioweapon against the United States, but to shore up political power at home.

“[The Cartel of the Suns] is a structure to keep the military happy,” a former Venezuelan anti-narcotics official, who didn’t want to be named for security reasons, told InSight Crime.

But the cancer of drug corruption soon spread throughout the state.

“The army and the GNB [Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – Bolivarian National Guard] were corrupted 30 years ago, then the anti-narcotics groups were corrupted, and they also corrupted DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] agents in Venezuela, CICPC and politicians,” a former division chief of the police’s criminal investigation unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC), who spoke on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime.

The indictment’s determination to depict these disparate networks that were proliferating within the state as a coherent and centrally controlled drug trafficking organization leads to some paradoxical claims about its operations. In one section, the Cartel is accused of paying bribes to facilitate drug trafficking while simultaneously being the beneficiaries of those same bribes.

In reality, there was no central control or hierarchy.

“They say ‘the Suns’ because there is a lot of people from the government and military involved but it doesn’t work as a cartel as such,” said the former Chavista. “It is not something that is organized, they don’t all meet up to do this. It is an institutional thing.”

The ‘Cartel Bosses’

The concrete evidence and accusations in the indictments and sanctions designations, many of which InSight Crime was able to corroborate with multiple sources in Venezuela’s key trafficking zones, reflect a much messier world than the one described by the prosecutors.

On the ground, drugs were moved by trafficking cells embedded in the military but also incorporating other branches of state such as the police or customs. But they were also moved by the FARC and by “authorized” trafficking networks.

Those labelled by the US authorities as "cartel bosses," meanwhile, used their power, influence and connections to carve out their own niches offering the owners of the drugs protection, access to trafficking infrastructure and connections with trafficking networks. Some allegedly took it one step further and began making their own cocaine deals, although hard evidence of these arrangements is lacking.

Each had a different portfolio of services they could offer traffickers.

Some were based on their position, especially for military operators. Current Minister of Defense General Vladimir Padrino, for example, stands accused of creating free movement corridors for drug flights dispatched by traffickers who had paid him off – while interdicting those that had not.

Others could offer traffickers powerful underworld connections. Army Major General Clíver Alcalá, for example, was allegedly one of the state’s main interlocutors with the FARC, offering him direct access to the cocaine supply. He also maintained a close relationship with the Guajira Cartel, which ran smuggling routes to Caribbean islands.

For others, their competitive advantage was their control of infrastructure. Among these were current Minister of Industries and National Production Tareck El Aissami and his close ally, current Minister for Energy and former head of the GNB Nestor Reverol. The pair allegedly charged traffickers to use the shipping ports and air bases under their control. While many of the shipments they helped dispatch belonged to traffickers such as Venezuela’s most notorious drug lord, the now detained Walid Makled, others were part or fully owned by El Aissami, US investigators allege.

The two most contrasting profiles among the Cartel of the Suns operators are of the two men who would come to dominate Chavismo and Venezuelan politics after the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013: Nicolás Maduro and Diosdado Cabello.

SEE ALSO: A Seat at the Table: What New Governors in Venezuela Mean for Organized Crime

The fingerprints of Cabello are everywhere. The 2020 indictment describes him on the scene in nearly every event detailed, making multi-ton cocaine and arms deals with the FARC, and organizing exports to Central America, Mexico, and Europe.

The sanctions designation against Cabello accuses him of also organizing shipments to the Dominican Republic for dispatch to Europe, and of compiling loads from seized drugs then exporting them through a Venezuelan government-owned airport. 

Sources that spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, including current and former government and security forces officials, experts, and on-the-ground sources in trafficking zones repeated these allegations and made many more, although there were few of these that InSight Crime could independently verify. These sources routinely referred to Cabello as the man who controls or leads the Cartel of the Suns, “the capo of capos” as one former anti-drugs official described him.

Other sources scoffed at some of the more outlandish allegations, such as Cabello personally overseeing the delivery of machineguns, ammunition, and rocket launchers to the FARC as payment for cocaine, and this conclusion may be another Hollywood version of a more complicated reality. But whatever the truth, Cabello has become the public face of the Cartel of the Suns.

The evidence linking Maduro to direct involvement in trafficking deals, in contrast, is scant.

Instead, the indictment depicts him as a largely behind the scenes operator, purging the judiciary of honest judges or using his position as foreign minister to intervene with other nations to protect trafficking interests or to broker international trade deals so they could be used to launder drug money.

On one of the rare occasions he is mentioned in direct connection to a cocaine load, he is described rebuking Cabello and Carvajal for their use of Maiqueíta for the Air France shipment.

Such experience manipulating the conditions to protect his allies and their criminal operations would go on to serve him well after he succeeded Chávez as president in 2013.

The Cartel of 2,000 Suns

The evidence against the alleged “leaders” of the Cartel of the Suns laid out by US investigators, as well as the allegations made by informants and regime turncoats, begin to get ever thinner following the death of Hugo Chávez, and dry up altogether after 2017.

This is likely no coincidence.

“The Cartel of the Suns as we once knew it may no longer exist,” security analyst Douglas Farah, who has led investigations into the criminal connections of the Chavistas in Venezuela, told InSight Crime. “The Cartel has gone from being a military structure to one more open to the entry of civilians and criminal actors with real economic power.”

The core purpose of the Cartel of the Suns today remains the same as ever – to help a Chavista president hold on to power. But the challenges facing Nicolás Maduro have changed as the country has spiraled into an economic and political tailspin. The president heads a near bankrupt state, and he is under constant pressure from political opponents at home, abroad and even within Chavismo and the Venezuelan state.

The Cartel of the Suns has changed to meet these challenges, evolving from a loose knit trafficking network to an elaborate system of patronage used to distribute the wealth of the drug trade to those Maduro needs to stay loyal.

Like Chávez, Maduro knows he must keep the military on his side if he is to remain president. But Maduro has no money to pay them: the collapse of the Venezuelan economy has seen rank and file military salaries drop to less than $20 per month.

And the military has traditionally been closer to the man who expected to succeed Chávez as president and has led a rival faction within Chavismo since those dreams were dashed: Diosdado Cabello.

Maduro had to find a way to pay his soldiers and buy the support of military commanders while also restricting the generals’ ability to build their personal power so they can’t become a threat to his position. Drug trafficking has played a central role in how he has been able to do this.

Under Maduro, power has been dispersed by inverting the traditional military hierarchy. Whereas once it was a rare achievement to achieve the rank of general and become a “sun,” the Venezuelan military now has as many as 2,000 generals according to US military authorities.

“The traditional military structure is a pyramid - as you climb up it gets narrower. But here they promote everyone, there are no restrictions on promotion,” one former general, speaking on condition of anonymity for his safety, told InSight Crime.

Rising to the rank of general offers access to lucrative regional postings, which are often more sought-after than the senior ranks of the military high command.

“The high [military] offices are awarded to those who are loyal to the chief,” said the ex-general. “They are placed in positions where they can manage dirty businesses, such as the border regions for drug trafficking.”

These regional postings are determined according to a system first devised by Chávez in 2009, but hugely expanded by Maduro. The military is divided into a patchwork of geographic units, which numerous sources across the country report serve as coordination centers for military involvement in criminal economies.

Postings are rotated frequently, distributing access to criminal profits throughout the armed forces, while keeping the military subordinated to the political powers who determine the postings.

“There is no Cartel of the Suns, because a cartel would not sustain all the “suns,” said Sebastiana Barraez, a Venezuelan journalist who specializes in military issues. “What there is, is military officials that are involved in drug trafficking because of the positions they hold at that moment.”

A New Cartel for a New Cocaine Trade

This replacement of military-embedded trafficking cells with a military-embedded trafficking system mirrors changes in the cocaine trade. The all-powerful cartels of the past have been consigned to history, and today most cocaine trafficking is carried out by ad-hoc networks formed for each assignment and then dissolved.  

In Venezuela, this means the world of a few chosen traffickers backed by Cartel of the Suns heavyweights has fragmented into a multitude of transport networks, territorial gangs, and narco-brokers. Even the guerrillas have atomized, with the demobilization of the FARC in 2017 leaving a power vacuum filled by various ex-FARC dissident groups and the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN).

In both the military and the underworld, the faces of those trafficking cocaine now change constantly but the system remains the same. Together they form what Venezuelan investigator Maibort Petit describes as a “network of networks,” in which drugs can pass through the hands of several different trafficking nodes – both military and criminal – as they move through the country.

In some regions, especially those with reliable trafficking networks with close connections to the state, sources describe how the military has stepped back from active trafficking and is now content to just take pay offs from authorized traffickers. In others, military cells continue to transport shipments themselves. Often, the two modalities intersect.

In the western border state of Apure, drugs enter Venezuela through clandestine border crossings controlled by the ex-FARC dissidents and the ELN. From there, loads are either exported directly on light aircraft, or moved through the country to the coast.

The military’s involvement depends on which route the drugs take, according to the former Chavista political leader. The ex-FARC handle the flights directly with buyers or intermediaries, paying off the military for the right to operate.

“The FARC pay the government for every ‘kilo despegado’ [kilo that takes off], and this payment goes to ‘the generals’,” he said.

But the drugs that continue through Venezuela’s interior are moved by a military trafficking cell, he claims.

“An army colonel controls the land routes,” he said. “He has a government freight concession and the army lets his trucks pass through the checkpoints.”

In the Caribbean state of Falcón, a fisherman who has worked for drug traffickers, who asked to remain anonymous, told a similar story.

“A lot of the time the merchandise is brought to the coast in National Guard trucks,” he said.

The shipments are then handed over to fishermen who are contracted by groups such as the Paraguaná and Guajira cartels, who then load the drugs onto their boats and set sail for Caribbean islands. Their passage is guaranteed by pay offs to the GNB units responsible for patrolling Venezuela’s maritime territories.

 “We don’t see them, all we know is that at night it is free passage, there is not going to be anyone moving around.”

His account was corroborated by a GNB officer in Falcón, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.

“You have to work for these people [drug traffickers] and stay quiet about it because otherwise you’ll end up in [military prison] Ramo Verde,” he said.

While much of the cocaine exported from Venezuela is now moved by criminal groups using clandestine light aircraft or small boats, control of ports and airports also remains a key part of military involvement in the drug trade.

“The administration of the port of Puerto Cabello is in the hands of the military and it’s there that most drugs transit,” a former Public Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime.

The Power Brokers

While cocaine trafficking in the military has been institutionalized, the role of the “cartel bosses” identified by US investigators is today shrouded in uncertainty.

Two of the biggest names, ex-army general Clíver Alcalá and former spy chief Hugo Carvajal have both turned on the Maduro regime, with Alcalá even attempting to overthrow the government in a mercenary coup. Carvajal is currently in prison in Spain where he has been fighting extradition to the United States, while Alcalá is in a US prison awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges.     

Sources across Venezuela’s trafficking regions continue to insist that “the suns” are among the owners of the loads they see move through. But there is little evidence to directly connect these to the alleged Cartel chiefs.

Instead, actors such as Diosdado Cabello, Tareck el Aissami, Nestor Reverol and President Maduro himself appear to be keeping a safe distance from any drug shipments.

Several sources claim such actors have found less direct ways of profiting from the drug trade, such as buying properties through frontmen then renting them out to trafficking networks for dispatching or storing drugs, or by owning freight companies whose vehicles are rented out to traffickers. But the Chavistas’ expert use of straw buyers and Venezuela’s opaque land and business registries make these claims near impossible to verify.

Their principal role, though, is to ensure the drug trafficking system functions to the benefit of the regime by placing corrupt and loyal personnel in strategic political and military positions. Today, the directing roles in key trafficking positions are in some way affiliated to one of the Cartel of the Suns “leaders.”

While several sources speculated that these actors receive a cut of the trafficking profits in return for this patronage, analysts and former military members who spoke to InSight Crime emphasized that drug revenues play a subordinate role in the Cartel of the Suns system. Their purpose is to prop up the state edifice after the Chavista elite bled it dry through corruption.

The evidence suggests some, if not all of these actors have transitioned from trafficking brokers to power brokers, who use their position not to move drugs but to administer the drug trafficking system the Cartel of the Suns has become.

“The regime facilitates all the elements: the security, the connections with local military and civilian actors, the government-run transport, the mayors, governors, representatives, the directors of airports, customs – everything that is necessary [for drug trafficking],” said the ex-Chavista.

*This article is part of an investigative series carried out by InSight Crime over three years involving hundreds of interviews and field work in all of Venezuela’s key drug trafficking territories. It looks at one of the world’s most important cocaine trafficking hubs – and the authoritarian regime that keeps the drugs flowing. Read the full series here.

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