In 2013, Nicolás Maduro became president of one of the world’s most important cocaine hubs, inheriting a unique drug trafficking ecosystem where the line between the underworld and the state had become blurred. Since then, both the drug trade and state involvement in it, have strengthened.
*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 Maduro era has seen the Venezuelan cocaine trade atomize as criminal actors seeking access to its riches have proliferated. And the country’s role in the global supply chain has expanded as Venezuela has taken its first, tentative steps towards becoming not only a transit zone but also a cocaine producer nation.
Over the same period, drug trafficking has become an important component of the strategies Maduro has used to cling onto power as his government has been rocked by constant social, political and economic crises. His objective has been not to capture the riches of the transnational cocaine trade for himself, but to control and channel their flow, using it to reward the political, military and criminal powers that Maduro needs to maintain his hold on government.
Today, tensions are building within the drug system that has evolved under Maduro. Criminal groups that have grown wealthy and powerful from cocaine are growing ever more difficult to control, state actors scrabbling for resources compete as much as they cooperate, while new trafficking phenomena, such as the developing cocaine production in the country, spread. And Maduro is trying to bring order to the growing criminal chaos.
The US government estimates that around 250 tons of cocaine are trafficked through Venezuela each year, representing roughly 10 to15 percent of estimated global production. Over three years of investigations involving field work in trafficking hotspots, hundreds of interviews, and daily monitoring of seizures, arrests, and anti-narcotics operations, InSight Crime has mapped the flows of this cocaine through Venezuela, and the criminal networks that keep it moving.
Venezuela’s cocaine routes pass through nearly every state in the country. Most shipments begin their journey in Colombia before crossing into the border states of Zulia, Táchira, Apure and Amazonas. It is also here in the border region that Venezuela’s incipient cocaine production industry is taking root.
Some shipments are then dispatched directly from the border region aboard light aircraft, while others continue inland towards the Caribbean coast or to Venezuela’s ports or airports. From there, the cocaine travels north to Central America or the Caribbean islands, or southeast to Brazil, Guyana or Suriname. Eventually, it will end up supplying the world’s two biggest cocaine markets, the United States and Europe.
In the border region, these routes are dominated by Colombian guerrilla groups. The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), and dissidents from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), known as the ex-FARC Mafia, control border crossings, trafficking corridors and clandestine airstrips that they charge independent drug traffickers to use. Their dominion over cocaine production zones and connections to Mexican and Brazilian buyers mean some guerrilla factions also produce, transport, and sell their own cocaine shipments.
Outside of the border region, it is Venezuelan traffickers that dominate the trade.
The western Caribbean region is the domain of groups such as the Paraguaná Cartel and the La Guajira Cartel, the leaders of which broker transnational cocaine deals, control routes and act as mafia godfather figures to local communities.
Along internal transport routes and in the east Caribbean meanwhile, ultra-violent gangs known as “megabandas,” including Tren de Aragua, Tren del Llano, the San Juan de Unare gang and Los 300, have tapped into the transnational drug trade, either by charging traffickers to move through areas they control or by seizing strategic territories and setting up their own export networks.
But while these criminal organizations move most of the cocaine, it is actors within the state that shape and control the world they operate in. And the traffickers are dependent on access to these state embedded networks and the blessings they bestow.
“Criminal organizations have infiltrated all of the institutions of the state,” said a former official with the Attorney General’s Office, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. “They all have a number of officials paid off so they can move their shipments.”
SEE ALSO: Cartel of the Suns Profile
Trafficking cells embedded within the military and the police, collectively referred to as the Cartel of the Suns – which is explored in depth in Chapter 3 of this investigation – transport drugs through the country on behalf of traffickers, control exports through ports and airports and facilitate and protect trafficking networks. The country’s corrupt judiciary sells freedom from prosecution. And, as revealed in Chapter 4, local governments manage the trafficking environment in key territories.
As it moves along these routes, cocaine money strengthens these criminal groups and deepens the corruption. In most countries, this is seen as a cancer that corrodes both the institutions of state and the social fabric as it spreads. But in Venezuela, Maduro and his regime have turned it to their advantage.
After years of kleptocracy and economic mismanagement, and subject to one of the harshest sanctions regimes in the world, the Venezuelan state is near bankrupt and desperate for hard currency. And cocaine can do what it cannot – pay people. Whether it is ensuring that Venezuela’s soldiers can earn enough money to eat, buying the loyalty of corrupt political chieftains, or incentivizing armed groups to defend the regime, drug money can provide.
It is unlikely Maduro is aware of specific cocaine deals, much less personally involved in them. But he has positioned himself and his regime as the gatekeepers of the cocaine trade. The regime’s clientelist control over political, military and judicial institutions means it can decide who is allowed to profit from drug trafficking, as well as other criminal economies such as contraband smuggling, embezzlement, arms trafficking and the gold trade.
“The state has substituted the resources it does not have for tolerance towards illegal activities,” said a Venezuelan political scientist, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of persecution. “The state knows that as long as someone obtains resources through these mechanisms, they have no interest in overthrowing the government.”
By facilitating their involvement in transnational drug trafficking, Maduro also makes sure the most important players are deeply invested in maintaining the status quo for their own protection.
“The International Criminal Court, trials in the US, investigations, internal trials,” he said, , listing the threats looming over public officials involved in the drug trade and other criminal activities. “The costs of political change are too high.”
For Maduro and his allies, maintaining control of this complex drug trafficking eco-system is a delicate balancing act.
The Venezuelan drug trade, the state and the Chavismo political movement are all increasingly fractured and divided. There are too many actors and too much competition, not only between rival drug trafficking operations, but also between rival security forces units and political factions.
The system periodically breaks down in local power struggles, miscommunication between trafficking nodes, or because those involved do not want to play by the unspoken rules.
And there is frequent turmoil between and even within state agencies, as security forces commanders rotate into zones where they do not understand local dynamics and loyalties, or one branch of the security forces stumbles upon – or deliberately targets – the trafficking operations of another.
“Sometimes these economic dynamics get out of hand because everyone starts doing what they want, managing things in their area under their own criteria, and this means the government loses control,” said the political scientist.
Such chaos is bad for governance, but more than that it is bad for business. While cocaine can be moved through the country with the tacit approval of the country’s highest leaders, traffickers lack two of the things they prize most: trust that a shipment will arrive, and accountability if it does not.
“In the end, you don’t know who you have to talk to in Venezuela,” said a drug trafficking expert in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander, which borders Venezuela, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “You might make arrangements with one National Guard commander but then another one stops you – traffickers have lost big shipments like that in Venezuela.”
The Maduro regime has several tools it can use to try and impose order on this system.
One is its control over Venezuela’s highly corrupted judicial system, which allows political leaders to grant impunity to favored actors – and remove it if they fall from grace.
“The judicial system has been totally taken over by politics,” said the former Public Ministry official. “Politics subjugates the prosecutors.”
Perhaps the state’s most visible attempts to corral and control cocaine trafficking, though, is through its deployment of security forces in anti-narcotics operations. The strategies behind these deployments are evident in the wildly divergent patterns of drug seizures.
“Loads are lost when Caracas blows the whistle – when the orders come from the top,” said an official from the Ministry for the Interior, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
The southern Colombian border state of Amazonas, for example, is one of the most stable territories for cocaine trafficking. Its drug routes have long been controlled by the ex-FARC Acacio Medina Front. There is strong evidence of collusion between these guerrillas and the military, and the state is governed by a Maduro loyalist.
InSight Crime’s review of media and official sources found zero seizures of significant amounts of cocaine in this state between January 2019 and April 2021.
The northern states of Zulia and Táchira, in contrast, accounted for the bulk of the seizures registered between 2019 and 2021. These are disputed territories that have been overrun with warring criminal gangs, paramilitary successor groups, rival guerrilla groups, and independent drug traffickers.
The pattern is repeated across the country. Where there are reliable trafficking partners paying off the right people and operating without too much noise, seizures and other indicators such as arrests and raids remain low. But where there is criminal chaos, or actors that break the rules, then they surge.
The strategy has been clearly on display in the most dramatic underworld conflict to hit Venezuela in recent years – the battle for the state of Apure.
For years, drug seizures were almost unheard of in the state, even though it has been a major cocaine exit and entry point for more than a decade. But since relations broke down between the Venezuelan military and the ex-FARC 10th Front in 2021, authorities have seized hundreds of kilos of cocaine and destroyed clandestine airstrips and cocaine processing laboratories.
These security operations and judicial investigations are a demonstration of Maduro’s power – but also his weakness, especially if they cannot immediately crush dissenting groups. While actors that fall foul of the system can be removed, the system itself might be too unruly and too powerful to ever truly control.
What are your thoughts?
Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.
We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.