In 2016, two adopted nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro were found guilty of a conspiracy to bring 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. Their boastful claims that the drug proceeds would fund first lady Cilia Flores’ political campaign made international news.
*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 or download the full PDF.
The “Narco-Nephews,” as they were labelled, became symbols of Venezuela’s new, moneyed, and corrupt oligarchy. But while headlines focused on Venezuela’s political elite, the critical role played by the middlemen who sourced their cocaine was lost in the noise of the coverage.
One of these intermediaries was known by the alias “El Gocho.” El Gocho had access to Colombian cocaine suppliers, Venezuela’s first family, and, prosecutors suggested, Mexican cartels. Yet, even the Flores brothers, who pinned their whole operation on El Gocho’s ability to source the cocaine, did not know his real name.
Deepening the intrigue, prosecutors recounted how the nephews’ drug operation with El Gocho had a side deal: to free incarcerated drug trafficker, Hermagoras González Polanco, alias “Gordito González.” Where El Gocho was an unknown entity, Gordito González was a notorious drug trafficker with a long and storied history and an international profile.
Gordito González could not produce his own cocaine, did not have the infrastructure to move it, and was apparently sat in a Venezuelan prison cell. Yet the Flores nephews’ deal with El Gocho suggested Gordito González had found a new, low-profile, but central role in the drug game. Even from within prison walls, Gordito González could act as a bridge builder who knew all the right people and could connect them – he was a Venezuelan narco-broker.
As the transnational drug trade has evolved in Venezuela, there have been several generations of brokers managing relations and making connections between cocaine suppliers, transporters, and buyers, as well as the corrupt state actors involved in drug trafficking.
Gordito González has been there throughout it all, shape-shifting to ensure he always has a role in Venezuela’s constantly changing drug trafficking landscape. He has been able to survive as his peers, rivals, and successors have been imprisoned or have disappeared.
And as drug trafficking in Venezuela enters a new era shaped by the political, social, and economic crises of the Maduro years, Gordito González has remained one of the country’s principal brokers by ensuring he can always make money for the corrupt state actors that regulate and facilitate the transnational cocaine trade in Venezuela.
The Battle of the Brokers
Gordito González was born to a family from the binational indigenous Wayuu population in the northeast Colombian department of La Guajira, a traditional smuggling hub that Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel turned into a major cocaine dispatch point in the 1980s.
He broke into the drug trade in the late 1990s by partnering with Salomón Camacho Mora, a former Medellín Cartel drug runner who also had connections to the Cali Cartel and the Norte del Valle Cartel, according to US authorities. Together, Gordito González and Camacho led what was dubbed the Guajira Cartel.
A 2005 US indictment against the pair describes how Camacho would buy cocaine from processing laboratories in Colombia and smuggle it over the border to Venezuela, where Gordito González would receive and store the shipments before sending them by sea to Puerto Rico and the United States. The pair supplied buyers in the United States, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, the indictment alleged.
The Guajira Cartel caught the crest of a trafficking wave. Fueled by rising demand for cocaine in Europe and the push by traffickers to open up new routes to escape security forces pressure, Venezuela was rapidly becoming one of the region’s most important transshipment points.
From the start, Gordito González built his success not only on his capacity to move drugs but also on his capacity to build networks.
“The Guajira Cartel had an important role here in Venezuela because it had the best connections with all the small capos in the country,” said Mildred Camero, who at the time of the cartel’s rise was Venezuela’s top anti-drugs official as president of the National Commission Against the Illicit Use of Drugs (Comisión Nacional Contra el Uso Ilícito de las Drogas – Conacuid).
But in Venezuela, it was not just criminal capos, but also corrupt elements of the state that were driving the cocaine boom. These corrupt officials were moving from just taking bribes to let cocaine shipments pass towards actively facilitating and even directly participating in drug trafficking. Their loose-knit and fluid networks were collectively labelled the Cartel of the Suns.
To thrive in this new cocaine frontier, traffickers needed three things: access to the cocaine supply in Colombia – provided primarily by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) – relationships with buyers supplying the US and European markets, and finally connections with the Cartel of the Suns networks to guarantee safe passage for shipments.
Most of those that could meet these requirements were major Colombian traffickers, such as Daniel “El Loco” Barrera, the Norte del Valle Cartel and the Galeano Clan. The expanding role of the state embedded trafficking networks, though, began to change this dynamic.
“As the Chavista government progressed, the Venezuelans, above all the army, took over the routes, removed the Colombian traffickers from Venezuela and took control of their operations,” said Camero.
Gordito González thrived in this changing environment by making himself indispensable to the Cartel of the Suns networks.
He established a partnership with one of the most important players in the Cartel of the Suns, Clíver Alcalá, an influential army general with close ties to the Chavista elite and, according to US prosecutors, to the FARC. Alcalá quickly grew close to the Gordito González clan, bonding not only over business but also starting a relationship with Gordito González’s niece, Martha, whom he later married.
Gordito González also used his knowledge of trafficking through the Caribbean to forge a role for himself as a bridge between the Cartel of the Suns networks in Venezuela and the Caribbean islands, above all the Dominican Republic, according to Camero.
“The Guajira Cartel had had a base in the Dominican Republic for some time, so they managed relations with the Dominican Republic, Haiti and some other Caribbean islands,” she said. “They had all the connections, the routes, and the contacts.”
With Alcalá’s support and their Caribbean connections, the Guajira Cartel established itself as one of Venezuela’s top drug trafficking organizations. But its aggressive expansion threatened the business of the most important of Venezuela’s first generation of drug traffickers, Walid Makled.
The Makled clan, which based its operations in the state of Carabobo, owned an airline, a warehousing business at Venezuela’s biggest port, Puerto Cabello, and multiple front companies, all of which Makled used to create his own cocaine transport chains. According to his own accounts, he then used his connections with corrupt elements of Venezuela’s military and with the FARC to sell the safe passage of cocaine shipments to the highest bidders.
According to an investigation by Colombian conflict monitoring group Nuevo Arco Iris, corroborated by Camero, Alcalá pushed for the Guajira Cartel to have more control over cocaine routes, including the use of Wakled’s principal dispatch point, Puerto Cabello. The move infuriated Makled.
The conflict between the trafficking networks drew in rival factions within the Chavez regime, members of which were working with one or both sides. As the drug trade rivalry turned political, it claimed the freedoms of both Gordito González and Makled.
Gordito González was the first to fall. He was captured in a joint security forces operation on his estate on Lake Maracaibo in March 2008 and sentenced to 15 years and six months in a Caracas prison.
But Makled’s apparent victory was short-lived. In November 2008, Alcalá ordered his military unit to storm the Makled family’s ranch, seizing 400 kilograms of cocaine and arresting three of Walid’s brothers. To this day, Makled maintains the cocaine was planted to justify the raid. Though Makled managed to flee to Colombia, he was arrested in 2010 and extradited to Venezuela where he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The same year that Makled was arrested, Gordito González’s partner, Salomon Camacho Mora, was arrested in Venezuela and extradited to the United States on drug trafficking and money laundering charges.
The Next Generation
In 2013, Cliver Alcalá suffered a sudden fall from grace. After President Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013, Alcalá retired from the armed forces, fell out with the government and fled to Colombia. There he would go on to play a leading role in a botched attempt to overthrow Maduro in a mercenary coup before later surrendering to US authorities to face drug trafficking charges.
By the time Alcalá fled Venezuela, many of the first generation of traffickers to capitalize on the Venezuela cocaine boom had been captured. Whether these arrests were the result of international pressure, internal conflicts between the different Cartel of the Suns networks – as appears to have been the case with Gordito González and Makled – or part of a deliberate plan to take out competition is unclear.
But no matter the intentions, the results were clear. The FARC began dispatching shipments from their own trafficking infrastructure, principally airstrips, inside of Venezuela. Some of the Cartel of the Suns networks also allegedly began dealing more directly with suppliers and buyers. They had removed the middlemen and dramatically increased their influence in the drug trade.
But this consolidation of drug trafficking was not to last. With Chávez’s death, and then the demobilization of the FARC, power in both the Venezuelan state and the drug trade has fragmented.
In many parts of the country, cocaine is now trafficked by fluid networks comprised of a constantly rotating cast of military and criminal actors that may form to move a shipment then dissolve. Within this system, anyone who can bring together the disparate pieces has become a valuable asset.
A new generation of narco-brokers has emerged to take on this role, and once again the Caribbean, and above all the Dominican Republic is where their presence has been most visible.
The drug trade in the Dominican Republic has changed since the days when Gordito González first turned it into his Caribbean headquarters, but it remains a place rife with criminal opportunities for brokers.
Today, the island nation is what one senior security official in the Caribbean, speaking to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, described as “open to everyone,” meaning all nationalities are welcome as long as they play by the rules. Locals are contracted out to do the dirty work, the ruling elite take their cut to look the other way, criminal groups share the profits and respect each other’s space, and no-one makes noise.
“There’s a code of respect between those who operate in the region and locals because we are a small island. At the end of the day when we talk about crime here, we’re talking about a business,“ one money laundering and organized crime expert, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told InSight Crime.
Amongst the most visible of the new generation in the Dominican Republic were Carlos José Gascón González and his business partner Yoel Palmar, who Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab labelled the “biggest capo in trafficking drugs between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.”
Palmar had been trafficking drugs through the Dominican Republic since at least 2015 and had built up an extensive money laundering network on the island consisting of property investments, vehicle dealers, and other businesses. The centerpiece of his operations was the luxurious Malecón Palace Casino, for which his organization, the Malecón Cartel, would be named.
In 2017, the loss of a large cocaine shipment drove Gascón and the Malecón Cartel, to break the main rule of trafficking in the country – keep the violence low, because it is bad for the business.
In June of that year, the bodies of two Dutch nationals – Rachid Benbouker and Cuma Ceviz – were found buried in a shallow grave in a cane field near the Dominican district of El Seibo. Authorities named six suspects of various South American and European nationalities, with Gascón and an Englishman, Michael Murphy, accused of masterminding and carrying out the killing.
Violence connected to the transnational drug trade is relatively rare in the Dominican Republic, and the murder of Europeans caused a stir on the island. Within a year, both Palmar and Gascón had been arrested in connection to the case.
Since his detention in 2017, Palmar has been held in Colombia, whose government continues to deny Venezuela’s extradition requests. Gascón was detained in Santo Domingo in 2018 and, after being charged, was put in preventative detention. Then he disappeared.
Rumors persist that Gascón’s Dominican connections arranged for him to be let out of preventative detention, allowing him to escape to Colombia, but that once there he was killed in a case of underworld score-settling. But InSight Crime could not confirm this account, and all other traces of Gascón disappear from 2018.
While Gascón and the Malecón Cartel’s time at the top table of the Caribbean drug trade may have been brief, there are signs they likely represent just the first of a more transnational generation of Venezuelan narco-brokers to be identified and taken down. Over the last three years, InSight Crime sources in national and international security agencies have also reported the presence of Venezuelans coordinating trafficking operations in countries such as Costa Rica, Peru and the islands of the Dutch Caribbean.
A Cartel of Contractors
The Malécon Cartel case contained a peculiarity. Carlos José Gascón González had a familiar alias – “El Gocho.”
The real name of the El Gocho who had brokered the Narco-Nephews case was Juan Carlos González Contreras, who is identified in Venezuelan court documents as one of Gordito González’s frontmen, with his name appearing on the legal documents of properties and businesses traced back to the cartel boss. But all trace of him disappears in the early 2010s.
The first traces of Carlos José Gascón González appear shortly after. When he was arrested, he was in possession of multiple passports in different names, one of which, several news sources suggest, was Juan González.
InSight Crime could not confirm whether there were two El Gochos brokering drug deals in the Caribbean or just one, and the name is commonly used to describe people from Venezuela’s Andean region. But even if they are not the same person, González Contreras’ maneuvers in the Narco-Nephews case exposed the continuity between the generations, as he was almost certainly not doing a favor for a retired trafficker – he was working with someone still very active in the drug trade.
Operating from prison, Gordito González could not re-build the Guajira Cartel’s infrastructure nor attempt to recruit a large base of new members. Instead, he turned it into a cartel of contractors that can put together tailor-made teams for each shipment. Its new base of operations was the principal dispatch point for cocaine shipped to the Dominican Republic and the Dutch Caribbean: the state of Falcón.
In Falcón, Gordito González and other traffickers, such as his occasional business associates in the Paraguaná Cartel, organize shipments through coordinators, who contract residents of local communities to store, guard and transport cocaine.
“You don’t know who the shipment belongs to, you don’t have direct contact with them, there is always an intermediary” one local fisherman, who asked to remain anonymous, told InSight Crime. “It is one person who recruits you, another who pays you, another who hands over the merchandise, each one you see only once.”
The brokers themselves, though, work far from the action and are never seen anywhere near the drugs.
“[González] Polanco is one of them but almost nobody has seen him,” said the fisherman. “All of us who move merchandise get paid when we hand it over, and that is it.”
Despite his drug trafficking conviction, Gordito González’s main advantage is his ongoing alliances with corrupt state actors. Multiple sources in the region and nationally told InSight Crime he had close ties with the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB).
“[González] Polanco is a heavyweight with the National Guard, he has a lot of allies in the ranks,” said a military officer in Falcón, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. “The GNB commanders in Falcón help him move the merchandise and he has political support as well.”
How Gordito González salvaged his state connections, even as his niece settled in Colombia with one of the regime’s most reviled traitors, is a mystery. The same goes for how he continues to operate from prison – or even if he truly is in prison.
In early 2020, several sources told InSight Crime that Gordito González was running his operations from a prison in Barquisimeto in the state of Lara, though one source named him as being at Vista Alegre Prison in Anzoátegui. By 2021, multiple sources were convinced that Gordito González was, in fact, in El Helicoide, the prison that houses political prisoners and other high-profile inmates in Caracas.
Several others claimed that he now lives with his family in Panama. Media reports are no clearer and include reports that he escaped prison as long ago as 2013. One source even suggested that Gordito González’s whole imprisonment is a ruse.
Many of those consulted said they would not be surprised if any of those versions turned out to be true, but all were convinced of one thing – wherever he is he is not confined to a prison cell.
No matter his location, the fact that Gordito González is still one of the most powerful traffickers in Venezuela over a decade after his arrest is testament to his ability to adapt to the evolving role of broker in the Venezuelan drug trade. But the real secret to his longevity has been his capacity to continue making himself useful to the Cartel of the Suns networks and the regulators of the drug trade at the upper levels of the Venezuelan government.
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