Drug traffickers have a problem exporting drugs from Venezuela. There are few commercial flights, little container shipping, no tourists and a collapsed fishing sector. But the Dominican Republic, 1,400 kilometers away, has it all.
As cocaine pours largely unopposed across the border from Colombia, with production in the Andean nation at a record high, so organized crime has developed one of the region’s most prolific drug pipelines into the Dominican Republic. While there are some illegal flights that swing past, the lion’s share of the drug streaks across the Caribbean in go-fast boats. The Dominican Republic offers the drug trade some of the Caribbean’s biggest container ports, a lively tourist sector with commercial flights across the globe, and a booming property and banking sector, ready to wash narco-dollars.
The Caribbean route had rather fallen from favor since the heady days of the Medellín Cartel, when Pablo Escobar and his associates used the island of Norman’s Cay in the Bahamas to refuel the planes laden with cocaine, bound for the United States. In the mid-1980s, over 75 percent of the cocaine seized on its way to the United States was taken in the Caribbean. By 2010, that number was down to 10 percent, and Central America was registering over 80 percent of seizures.
The reason for the resurgence in the Caribbean is explained by two factors: increased US investment in the drug war in Central America and Mexico, and the growing importance of Venezuela as a regional cocaine hub.
The United States has dedicated resources via the Mérida Initiative in Mexico, which began in 2008, and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which has been pumping money principally into the Northern Triangle nations of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. This has also had an effect on the cocaine air bridge from Venezuela to Honduras, pushing more drug consignments onto the high seas of the Caribbean. (For more information on this, see our investigation "Honduras and Venezuela: Coup and Cocaine Air Bridge.").
While the United States set up the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative in 2010, this has seen far fewer resources dedicated and attention paid, failing to curb the growing cocaine trade via the Caribbean. The US State Department has identified the Dominican Republic as one of the principal transit nations for cocaine shipments headed to the United States, with maritime trafficking, involving the use of go-fast boats and commercial containers, as the primary method of smuggling drugs to and from the island. It was also the country most frequently identified by European agencies as the transit nation for cocaine shipments destined for Europe.”
Why the Dominican Republic?
The Dominican Republic (DR) sits in the heart of the Caribbean. It is the region’s most populous nation with 10.5 million inhabitants and has its strongest economy. Up to five million tourists enter the country through the international airports and the dozens of cruise liners that pull up to its ports every year. From a trade point of view, the Dominican Republic’s six ports make it a regional hub for container shipping. Some of these ports can handle the "neo-Panamax" ships, the largest size able to negotiate the Panama Canal.
Santo Domingo is one of the oldest, as well as the largest, cities in the Caribbean, with its metropolitan area registering a population of almost three million. It boasts world-class hotels, resorts, restaurants and casinos, everything an aspiring narco needs. The Dominican Republic has far and away the biggest economy and GDP in the Caribbean, along with a booming property market, thus offering plenty of money laundering opportunities.
For departing cocaine shipments, the Dominican Republic has a plethora of different routes to offer. For the US market, there is Puerto Rico, just 381 kilometers away. As a US territory, if smugglers can get cocaine onto this island, it makes for an easier ride to the mainland, being inside the US customs barriers. Similar dynamics apply with the French territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe for shipments into mainland Europe. British overseas territories like Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, as well as former colonies like Jamaica, are springboards into the United Kingdom. Yet thanks to linguistic advantages and a significant Dominican diaspora, Spain is still the principal entry point into Europe for drugs leaving the Dominican Republic. Spain has traditionally been the European nation with the highest cocaine seizures.
Another reason the Dominican Republic is a preferred transit nation for cocaine is the increasing sophistication of the native drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). Dominican criminal structures used to act principally as transporters for Colombian and Mexican organizations. Those days are gone. Dominican DTOs have moved into the big league. Nowadays, the Dominicans are buying cocaine in Venezuela, contracting Venezuelans to make the hazardous journey across the Caribbean, then taking direct control of loads as they hit the island. Dominican reach does not stop here. Their DTOs can move drugs up to the eastern seaboard of the United States. There, a large Dominican diaspora sells the drugs, even going down to retail level. This means that the Dominicans now control a large number of links in the drug chain, and are able to maximize their profits from each kilogram of drugs. Dominicans, working with Colombian and Mexican cartels, are also acting as intermediaries for international mafias looking to secure large cocaine loads. International intelligence agencies in Santo Domingo have flagged the growing presence of Russian organized crime figures.
US law enforcement sources admitted to the growing importance and reach of Dominican DTOs.
“We have at the moment four to five cases of high-level Dominican crews moving significant quantities of drugs into the mainland United States,” stated one source on condition of anonymity.
The Dominican Republic is immensely attractive to Venezuelans looking to flee their collapsing homeland, or stash their money beyond the reach of hyperinflation and government expropriation. The culture on this Caribbean island is a lot like that in Venezuela, so they feel right at home.
Wealthy Venezuelans have long invested in vacation homes and other properties in the Dominican Republic. As they sought to protect their assets from possible seizure back home, investment increased. Between 2010 and 2015, Venezuelan investment in the Dominican Republic totaled $5 billion, principally in tourism resorts, residential and commercial real estate, as well as in shopping malls. But few Venezuelans actually took up residence on the island. A 2012 census of immigrants in the Dominican Republic found just 3,434 Venezuela-born persons living in the country, 12 years after Hugo Chávez came to power.
However, that dynamic changed after President Nicolás Maduro took office and the country was plunged into an economic crisis in 2013. The first to arrive in the Dominican Republic were upper- and middle-class Venezuelans fleeing the uncertainty. They generally established medium-sized service companies and got jobs as professionals. But lately, the stream has turned into a flood. Many of the later arrivals have entered the informal economy, selling Venezuelan maize cakes known as "arepas" and fast food on street corners, engage in sex work or driving taxis. The arrival of Venezuelans through Dominican airports jumped 40 percent in 2016 compared to the year before, for a total of 142,540 people, although there is no clear data on how many went for tourism purposes and how many stayed.
In an attempt to stem the flow, in December 2016, the Dominican government announced new restrictions on Venezuelans arriving as tourists, such as proof of financial means or paid hotel reservations. A foundation that helps Venezuelan immigrants in the Dominican Republic estimated that there may as many as 200,000 Venezuelans residents now.
Several Dominican sources pointed out that Venezuelans linked to the Maduro government are buying up luxury villas in top-notch resorts such as Casa de Campo in La Romana, possibly purchased with ill-gotten gains from the drug trade or the kleptocratic sacking of state coffers.
US sources stated that Venezuelan criminal structures are now present in the Dominican Republic, working with their Dominican, Mexican and Colombian counterparts.
“They are actually in control of major organizations, orchestrating the money laundering, the movement of the cocaine, transport, even down to distribution,” said a Caribbean-based US law enforcement source.
Add to this high levels of corruption among the political class and the security forces and the Dominican Republic has the potential to be a drug trafficking paradise.
Routes From Venezuela to the Dominican Republic
As the crow flies, the Dominican Republic is about 1,400 kilometers from Venezuela’s northern coast. The drug traffickers are using this direct route, sending go-fast boats laden with up to a ton of cocaine from the Guajira and Paraguaná peninsulas. The Paraguaná peninsula in particular, located just 27 kilometers from the island of Aruba, still has infrastructure capable of building and maintaining boats, used not just to ferry tourists, but to feed a booming contraband trade between Aruba and the Venezuelan mainland.
Another route taken by boats laden with drugs, is island hopping across the Caribbean archipelago. There are 834 kilometers from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago, and from there, islands line up all the way to Cuba, among them Grenada, Martinique and St. Kitts and Nevis. Then you hit the big islands starting with Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, which the Dominican Republic and Haiti share, and finally Jamaica, before hitting the biggest island in the Caribbean, Cuba.
The Venezuela-Dominican Republic Drug Links
Perhaps the most emblematic recent Venezuelan drug scandal is that of the “narco nephews.” Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efraín Campos were convicted in November 2016 by a court in New York for conspiring to traffic 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States.
They are the nephews of Venezuela’s First Lady, Cilia Flores. They were originally arrested in Haiti, next door to the Dominican Republic, where they had been flown in a plane piloted by a member of the Venezuela National Guard. Once there, they intended to receive a down payment for a drug deal, which was going to involve cocaine allegedly provided by the largely demobilized Colombian rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). The Dominican connection was proven with a raid on a mansion owned by Francisco Flores at a luxury Dominican resort property, where 127 kilograms of cocaine and 10 kilograms of heroin were pulled from a 135-foot yacht named “The Kingdom,” docked alongside.
At the end 2016, 10 drug traffickers were captured on a Lear jet arriving in the Dominican Republic carrying 450 kilograms of cocaine. The aircraft belonged to Aeroquest, a company owned by José Gregorio Vielma Mora, governor of the Venezuelan state of Táchira on the border with Colombia, and a member of the ruling United Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela).
In mid-2016, a captain in the Venezuelan military, Yazenky Antonio Lamas Rondón, also connected to First Lady Cilia Flores, was arrested in Colombia on a US indictment, accused of having conducted more than a hundred narco flights in the past decade, many to the Dominican Republic. Airplanes were sent without cargo from Mexico to the Venezuelan state of Apure, which borders Colombia. The planes were received by Lamas, who then loaded them with cocaine and dispatched them to the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Bahamas. Lamas was extradited to the United States in July 2017.
Venezuela's director of Interpol, Eliecer García Torrealba, was arrested by Venezuelan authorities and charged, in April 2016, with organizing the transport of a shipment of cocaine to the Dominican Republic. García Torrealba allegedly used his post to coordinate the loading and takeoff of a plane from the airport in the city of Barquisimeto, the capital of the state of Lara. Five police agents and three airport security guards were also involved in prepping the Cessna to depart with cocaine aboard. Venezuelan citizens Juan Lanz Díaz and Pablo Cárdenas, were alleged to have financed the operation. Cárdenas was also linked to another shipment of 349 kilograms of cocaine that were seized at the airport in La Romana, in the Dominican Republic, in March 2016.
In April 2015, four members of Venezuela’s National Guard and a prominent businessman were arrested in Venezuela in connection to a 450-kilogram shipment of cocaine flown in a private jet from Venezuela to the Dominican Republic. The drugs were seized by Dominican anti-drug police. The private jet’s five passengers -- all Venezuelan nationals -- were taken into custody in the Dominican Republic, as were four members of the Dominican military, including a captain and a lieutenant.
Verny Troncoso, the lead prosecutor in charge of narcotic cases for the province of Santo Domingo, said that every week since late October 2016, officials have arrested three to four Venezuelans arriving at the country's airports with drugs either ingested or hidden in suitcases. They all arrive on a daily Acerca flight direct from Caracas to Santo Domingo's Las Americas airport.
"It has broken all records," Troncoso told InSight Crime, noting that authorities had never previously detected mules from Venezuela. Venezuelans now account for 90 percent of the drug mules captured in the Dominican Republic, according to one source in the Dominican Republic’s drug control agency (Dirección Nacional de Control de Drogas – DNCD). On average, Venezuelans who have ingested drugs bring in a kilogram of cocaine, or if they are carrying it in a suitcase, an average of five kilograms, said the same source.
During questioning, several of the mules told Troncoso they were taken over the border from Venezuela to Colombia to load up with drugs (either ingested or packed in their luggage). They then flew out of the international airport in Caracas. The drive to Caracas from Catatumbo in Colombia, where coca is booming, is more than 10 hours, and it takes a similar time from the Colombian Guajira -- too long for mules to risk having the drugs in their stomachs. This could mean that they are boarding domestic flights in Venezuela’s border states, undetected or unmolested, and making connections to the Dominican Republic through Caracas’ international airport.
The mule operation is largely run by Colombians and Dominicans residing in Venezuela, according to Troncoso. Most of the mules caught at the airport in the Dominican Republic said they were obliged to carry the drugs due to the desperate economic situation at home, Troncoso said. He also said the same dynamic lay behind a spike in Venezuelans crewing go-fast drug launches. Current indications show that between three and four out of every five go-fast boats arriving near the Dominican Republic include Venezuelan crew members.
The scale of the maritime route between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic is hard to estimate, but speaking to law enforcement officials from the United States, the United Kingdom and the Dominican Republic, we built up a picture of around three go-fast boats coming into Dominican waters every week, carrying between 700 kilograms and a ton of cocaine. Using these figures, one could estimate that the maritime route alone from Venezuela is bringing in 9.5 tons of cocaine a month, which is 115 tons a year, to the Caribbean island. On top of this are the “contaminated” containers passing through the Dominican Republic’s ports.
Vice Admiral Félix Pimental, the head of the DNCD, told InSight Crime that at least 120 tons of cocaine were passing through the island every year, a huge percentage of which goes to Europe. This is an extraordinary amount of drugs, equivalent to about 15 percent of annual global cocaine production.
The average amount that Dominican organized crime charged traffickers to transit the island is $1,400 per kilogram. That would mean that Dominican organized crime is making over $200 million a year. The real figure is sure to be much higher, as in many cases the Dominicans are owners of the cocaine shipments and are selling each kilogram for more than $25,000 in the United States or $35,000 in Europe. They are also handling a significant flow of heroin and fentanyl passing across the island.
Even if President Maduro is defeated in the upcoming elections, the conditions in Venezuela are unlikely to change quickly. This means that the drug pipeline to the Dominican Republic is likely to grow and strengthen, certainly in the short term. While US authorities like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are well aware of the flow of narcotics, there is little they can do, as they are not officially present in Venezuela and receive zero cooperation from Venezuelan authorities.
Interdiction across the Caribbean is tough. The go-fast boats usually depart at dusk, and then as the sun rises, they throw blue-green tarpaulins over the boats, making them all but invisible. When darkness falls again they continue their journey. When they get near the Dominican Republic, they are met by Dominican traffickers at sea, who transfer the loads. The mainly Venezuelan crews then return back to the South American mainland. And the process is repeated.
What is interesting is that the vast majority of cocaine seizures occur on the way into the Dominican Republic. This means that once on the island, organized crime is able to move and export drug shipments with relative ease and security. This suggests high-level corruption in local law enforcement, the national anti-drug agency and the port authorities, perhaps including political top cover. Almost all sources consulted agreed on this, but were reluctant to go on the record.
The longer this cocaine pipeline remains active, the more sophisticated and powerful Dominican and Venezuelan DTOs will become. The Dominican Republic is no longer just a transshipment point, but a venue where international mafias can purchase large drug consignments. This means the Dominican Republic will evolve as a cosmopolitan drug-trafficking hub, with growing Venezuelan criminal presence. There is already evidence that DTOs here are unrestricted by national boundaries, have partners from many different nations, and are able to change their smuggling patterns and modus operandi to avoid law enforcement detection.