HomeInvestigationsThe Paraguaná Cartel: Drug Trafficking and Political Power in Venezuela
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The Paraguaná Cartel: Drug Trafficking and Political Power in Venezuela

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

On April 3, 2021, police in the east Venezuelan state of Anzoátegui acted on a tip-off to intercept a silver Toyota Corolla. They interrogated the driver, a middle-aged woman accompanied by a young relative. Under pressure, she led the officers to a residential building where her father, a large, balding man in his late 60s, was residing.

The man claimed to be an ordinary citizen, presenting an identity card under the name of Ramón Guillermo Valera. But under questioning, he admitted the card was fake. His real name was Emilio Enrique Martínez, better known as “Chiche Smith” – one of the most notorious drug lords along Venezuela’s Caribbean coast.

Martínez’s capture sent shockwaves through the country. His arrest marked the fall of one of Venezuela’s longest-standing drug traffickers, whose connections to powerful actors within the state had long appeared to put him beyond justice.

*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.

The story of Martínez’s Paraguaná Cartel is emblematic of the deep synergy between politics and drug trafficking in Venezuela. His rise is a case study in how the interconnections between drug traffickers and local politicians, as well as security forces and national power players can form the basis of entire systems of criminal governance. His fall hints at how factional struggles at the highest levels of the Venezuelan state can bring these criminal empires crashing down.

A Criminal Fiefdom on the Caribbean

Martínez has long been a legendary figure in Paraguaná, a peninsula that juts out into the Caribbean sea from the coastal state of Falcón. The son of a local smuggler, he started out as a member of one of several mafias that moved contraband goods from Falcón to the nearby islands of the Dutch Caribbean in the 1990s.

He was jailed in 1998 but released six years later. By that time, he had his sights on more lucrative products. In 2010, “Chiche Smith” was named in court records as the owner of 600 kilograms of cocaine seized from a small boat off the coast of Falcón.

According to local journalists and political leaders, his buyers included Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel and his business partners included Walid Makled, then one of Venezuela’s most notorious and well-connected drug brokers. But Martínez himself preferred to remain in the shadows.

Then in 2017, Victor Clark was elected Governor of Falcón, and everything changed. Young and ambitious, Clark was considered by political analysts to be an acolyte of President Nicolás Maduro. But his campaign was also personally backed by Diosdado Cabello, the former President of the National Assembly, who has often competed with President Maduro for power.

Clark celebrated his electoral victory with a lavish concert in the beach town of Cabo San Román, on the tip of the Paraguaná peninsula. Local people described to InSight Crime how no expense was spared, with trucks filled with beer and spectacular fireworks. But that was not the only thing to raise eyebrows.

“Chiche Smith’s whole family were there as VIPs and guarded by soldiers,” a local journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity for her safety, told InSight Crime. Several other local residents verified her account.

Soon after the party, Clark was photographed with Martínez’s relatives at public events. Chiche Smith had gone public.

Martínez quickly became well-loved in Paraguaná. Locals describe how he started buying up properties in the municipality of Carirubana, paying handsomely in cash for beachside shacks as he pledged to construct a tourist resort.

He also poured money into the area through his Carmen Virginia Martínez Foundation, named after his late mother. The foundation distributed food and toys among poor families, organized public works such as street cleanings, provided well-paid employment and renovated local infrastructure.

But according to numerous local residents, journalists, politicians and security forces members who spoke to InSight Crime, the communities of Paraguaná were not the only beneficiaries of Martínez’s largesse.

“Victor Clark allowed drug traffickers to make improvements and modifications [to the area] and the regional government then inaugurated them as if they were public works,” said a local military official, who ask not to be named for fear of persecution.

“The [military] commands also received food, telephones, logistics for sporting activities [from Martinez],” he added.

Chiche’s collaboration with Clark also had a darker side for local communities.

“The Paraguaná Cartel knows everything about everyone, so you pay attention when they say not to vote against Victor Clark or to speak badly of him, because they know where you live,” a local resident, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, explained to InSight Crime.

In return, Martínez expected one thing: free rein to move drugs through Falcón.

To do so, he required the complicity of the security forces.

“[Chiche Smith] and his family meet with all the [military] commanders,” explained a Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) official, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. “When a new commander comes in, he meets with those people and then they begin to work together.”

These relationships are facilitated by the governor, another military official who also requested anonymity, told InSight Crime.

“As head of the state, [Victor Clark] is the intermediary,” he said. “He doesn’t get involved, but he allows everything to happen.”

Several sources also alleged there is political influence over who is placed in military command posts in the region, and that Clark has intervened in the process over the years.

“The changes in military command, above all at the state level, are political actions,” said the GNB official. “The people in those positions are more politician than military, and to get to that level you have to be well-connected.”

SEE ALSO: Venezuela Kingpin's Arrest Leaves Power Vacuum on Caribbean Coast

Drug Trafficking and Local Politics

The tight web of connections between Martínez and Falcón’s local government, military and population created a very particular form of criminal governance, a narco-fiefdom where politicians and security forces allied with criminal actors to use illicit profits not only for personal enrichment but also to maintain their power.

As Venezuela’s economic, political and social crises have deepened, such arrangements have proliferated across the country, playing a crucial role in both propping up the Venezuelan state and ensuring that the drugs keep flowing.

“Crime works with politics; it takes control of the governorates,” said a former Venezuelan antinarcotics official, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity for his safety. “And it converts those governorates into centers of organized crime.”

At its most basic, the relationship between politics and drug trafficking in Venezuela is based on mediating the relationship between security forces and favored criminals. Governors and mayors have a level of control over the activities and determine the leadership of state and municipal police bodies, influence regional military appointments and coordinate with the military on security issues.

By using these powers to install and manipulate corrupt security officers, local politicians can not only ensure impunity for favored traffickers. They also secure the loyalty of the security forces by allowing them to make money from the flow of drugs.

Politicians themselves may also be beneficiaries of these corrupt funds, although direct payments are very hard to trace. However, the synergy between local politics and organized crime in Venezuela runs deeper than simple bribes.

As the case of the Paraguaná Cartel demonstrates, state and municipal politicians can come to rely on drug traffickers to support them politically – by funding their campaigns, getting out their vote, or providing the public services that near-bankrupt administrations cannot.

Sources, ranging from former prosecutors to senior local officials, all spoke on condition of anonymity, describing to InSight Crime the numerous services that local politicians allegedly provide to traffickers. These included leveraging their influence over the security forces to direct operations against criminal rivals and their influence over judicial institutions to protect them from prosecution. It can also involve them using their administrative powers to facilitate trafficking, such as by issuing transport licenses and authorizations or granting concessions that allow access to trafficking infrastructure such as ports.

In the dozens of interviews about political figures conducted for this investigation, InSight Crime heard allegations implicating current or recent governors in more than half of Venezuela’s 23 states. Although most remain unverified, and several were little more than rumors, there is more than enough evidence to show that serious drug trafficking accusations are no obstacle to a political career in Venezuela.

Among the most persistent allegations were those levied against Ramón Carrizales, a former vice-president and minister of defense, who was governor of the border state of Apure for over ten years until losing his position ahead of local elections in November 2021.

Several figures from within the Chavismo regime have alleged that Carrizales’ son worked for drug trafficker Walid Makled, while his wife was in business with Makled’s company, Almacenadoras, at the same time as she was Minister for the Environment. In Apure, meanwhile, numerous sources, including drug experts, local journalists and residents and politicians from both sides of the political spectrum, accused Carrizales of presiding over a virtual free-trafficking zone for allied guerrilla groups and their cartel customers.

Several other former and current governors have also been accused of protecting guerrilla groups as they have trafficked drugs through Venezuela. US authorities have sanctioned former governors Henry Rangel Silva in Trujillo and Ramón Rodríguez Chacín in Guárico and the current governor of Táchira, Freddy Bernal, over such allegations.

Other governors have been investigated by international law enforcement over trafficking allegations, including former Governor of Barinas, Adán Chávez, and the governor of Delta Amacuro, Lizeta Hernánez, who have been investigated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), according to media reports.

Recent cases have also exposed the involvement of municipal mayors and National Assembly representatives. In early 2022, a mayor from Zulia, a representative from Falcón and another from Táchira were arrested in possession of cocaine allegedly belonging to a trafficking cell security forces sources say was linked to the Paraguaná Cartel.

One security forces official familiar with the case, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, said the trafficking network paid the politicians to move drugs as their official cars were unlikely to be stopped.

However, while these connections are widespread, they are also fragile and ever-changing – as Chiche Smith was to find out.

The Fall of Chiche Smith

On 15 April 2020, forces from the GNB and the National Anti-Drugs Office (Oficina Nacional Antidrogas – ONA) stormed properties linked to Emilio Martínez in Falcón and the neighboring state of Carabobo. In 20 raids over the next four days, they seized six properties and eleven vehicles, and made at least 20 arrests.

Outraged residents of Paraguaná took to the streets in protest.

“They went into the foundation and stole everything,” one protester told Primer Informe. “We want an explanation.”

The following weeks were to bring some explanations, but also more questions. In June, the ONA filed drug trafficking charges against Martínez and seven of his associates, accusing them of laundering drug profits through the Carmen Virginia Martínez Foundation.

Intense scrutiny was suddenly not only on Chiche Smith but also his connections to the state. And these went far beyond Victor Clark.

The detainees included two police officials in the state of Carabobo – Raúl Roberto de Gallego Salas and Orlando José Silva Moreno – who stand accused of helping the Paraguaná Cartel dispatch shipments of cocaine from Carabobo’s port of Puerto Cabello.

Police sources and photographs suggested that both were closely linked to Carabobo Governor Rafael Lacava and his security chief José Dominguez, and they had attended events with officials including Attorney General Tarek William Saab, police Criminal Investigations Unit (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas) Director Douglas Rico, and mayor of Miranda municipality, Pablo Acosta.

Both Rico and Lacava denied any wrongdoing – but former Carabobo police chief Salvatore Luchesse claimed otherwise.

"The shipment that left Puerto Cabello was authorized by Rafael Lacava and supervised personally by 'El Portu' José Dominguez," he wrote on Twitter. Both Dominguez and the director of the Carabobo police were forced to resign over the scandal.

Luchesse also claimed that the crackdown had been triggered by a flare-up of tensions between the divergent political factions within Chavismo that have emerged since the death of the unifying figure of President Hugo Chávez in 2013.

“What’s going on in Valencia [capital of Carabobo] over the last three days is a power struggle between the gangs of Rafael Lacava and Diosdado Cabello,” he alleged in a separate tweet.

Similar claims were made by several local residents, journalists, security force members and former employees of the Martínez family, who insisted to InSight Crime that the crackdown represented a move by President Nicolás Maduro to bring to heel Martínez’s operations, which had been a source of conflict between local political factions.

They also believed that Martínez had been allowed to flee, and would return once calm was restored. But on that, they were wrong. A year later, he was arrested in Anzoátegui.

In Paraguaná, the raids and then the arrest of Martínez overturned what had seemed to be a firmly established order.

“It’s like a triangle, Maduro orders the military to obey the regional government and the regional government ordered us to protect and guard those people [of the Paraguaná Cartel],” a local anti-narcotics officer said, under the condition of anonymity. “So when they told us to arrest them we felt bad because those people had stopped us going hungry.”

The reasons for Martínez’s sudden reversal of fortune remain shrouded in mystery.

One theory is that Martínez was targeted to prevent him from surrendering to the DEA and supplying compromising information against Venezuelan government officials.

"If Chiche was captured by the DEA, a lot of heads would roll for drug trafficking, from soldiers to mayors and governors,” a police official in Falcón told InSight Crime, under the condition of anonymity for his safety. “Detained in Venezuela, the government can play around with the case until people forget about it.”

Other sources believe the arrest was connected to a five-ton cocaine seizure from a boat off the coast of Aruba, which had caused the government international embarrassment and had drawn unwanted attention to drug trafficking from Paraguaná.

“The Maduro government gave the order to arrest him to show that drug trafficking is being combatted in the country,” said another GNB officer, who also requested not to be named.

SEE ALSO: The Criminal Ties of Maduro's New Military Chiefs in Venezuela

Drugs and the Balance of Power

While sources consulted had different theories about why Martínez was detained, all agreed that the decision must have come from the highest levels of the Venezuelan state. Chiche had become a pawn in a game that stretched far beyond Paraguaná, in which access to drug trafficking profits is used to buy, balance and break political loyalties in a state divided on itself.

The main divide is between President Nicolás Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, who have competed for influence ever since they both staked a claim to succeed Hugo Chávez as president, forming rival poles of power within Chavismo. Other senior Chavistas also maintain their own sub-factions, such as former vice president and current Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami, while some, such as Governor Lacava in Carabobo act as unaligned free agents.

“[These factions] evolve, connect or clash with each other,” a Venezuelan political analyst, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, explained to InSight Crime.

Several analysts and former Chavista politicians described to InSight Crime how the strength of these factions is in large part determined by their ability to channel resources to loyalists by maintaining them in key military and political positions.

In the near-bankrupt Venezuelan state, the transnational cocaine trade is one of the few remaining sources of hard currency. So for these factions, control of trafficking zones translates into political power.

In 2021, the map of political power in these drug trafficking zones was redrawn in November’s regional elections. And the main winner was President Maduro.

Allies of Diosdado Cabello lost the governorship of Apure to a Maduro loyalist, and the governor of the northern Colombian border state of Zulia to the political opposition, compounding a year in which Cabello suffered a series of blows to his influence in both politics and the military.

The elections also saw Maduro loyalists claim a string of other victories that left his faction in charge of all but a handful of Venezuela’s most important states for drug trafficking.

“Maduro continues to have control of the situation, at least for now, and I think with the election he’s gained additional control over the process,” a political scientist, who asked to remain anonymous, told InSight Crime. “But the whole government has an interest in staying in power; they are able to overlook their internal differences if those differences threaten their stay in power.”

Among the winners in the November 2021 elections was Victor Clark, whose political trajectory has been unaffected by the Chiche Smith scandal.

And for the moment at least, he rules over a state where Paraguaná Cartel continues to traffic drugs even as Chiche Smith is in prison.

“[Chiche’s] people keep moving everything and the euros from Europe keep coming,” said a fisherman in Paraguaná, who asked not to be named for security reasons.

Whether the network is still operating with Clark’s authorization or not, it has not lost its capacity to corrupt.

“There are still many [security force members and politicians] who collaborate with those people,” one of the GNB officials said. 

“Of course there’s interest in working with them,” he added. “Where else would a soldier get money to have ranches, trucks, houses, businesses and everything else?”

*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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