In October 2021, the Venezuelan Ministry of the Interior issued an ordinary looking statement about an antinarcotics operation in the state of Zulia that had extraordinary implications: the military had destroyed eight cocaine laboratories, seizing nearly half a ton of cocaine and nearly ten tons of coca paste in the process. But more than that, they had also eradicated 32 hectares of coca crops, destroying over 300,000 plants.
Venezuela is producing cocaine.
*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.
In the Colombian region of Catatumbo, which lies across the border from Zulia, 32 hectares is nothing more than a mid-sized coca field. But it is far from all the coca in Venezuela. InSight Crime has uncovered evidence of the presence of significant quantities of coca in at least three municipalities in Zulia, and two more to the south in the state of Apure, each time verified and corroborated by multiple reliable sources.
In addition, sources in the field, international agencies, and the Venezuelan government’s own reports show that the crystalizing laboratories used to process coca paste into cocaine hydrochloride have been proliferating in the same areas.
All of these plantations and laboratories are located in territories dominated by Colombian guerrilla groups, which have generations of experience in sowing the coca trade and maintain close ties to elements of the Venezuelan state. And in contrast to the operation taken down in Zulia, most appear to be operating freely.
So far, cocaine production in Venezuela is nascent, representing just a drop in an ocean of coca compared to the historic levels seen in Colombia in recent years. But the country’s border region, poor, isolated, abandoned by the state and dominated by armed groups, represents a perfect petri dish for it to spread. And in a country trapped in an economic crisis, ruled by a corrupt regime, and ravaged by criminality, that is a dangerous proposition.
Catatumbo and Zulia: A Criminal Contagion
Colombia’s northeastern Catatumbo region and Venezuela’s northwestern state of Zulia have long been criminal counterparts.
Here, the border between the two countries is marked by the Sierra de Perijá, a remote mountain range that offers both excellent climatic conditions for coca cultivation and the ideal geography for keeping crops, laboratories, and the armed groups that protect them hidden from the authorities.
Historically, the Colombian and Venezuelan sides of the Perijá range have played complementary roles in this economy.
On the Colombian side, guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) have exploited their ties to local peasant communities to encourage coca cultivation. Today, the ex-FARC Mafia, the dissident FARC groups that do not recognize the 2016 peace deal, continue their involvement in the drug trade.
On the Venezuelan side, Zulia’s access to the Caribbean via Lake Maracaibo and numerous clandestine airstrips have made the state a key dispatch point for drug shipments to Central America and the Caribbean.
This binational criminal economy is facilitated by a porous border that allows both illicit goods and people to move freely between the two countries. While Colombian cocaine flows into Venezuela for export, Venezuelan labor moves in the other direction to work in Colombia’s coca fields.
These migrant workers are so much a feature of life in the border region that officials of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) recognize them by the state of their hands, according to one local resident who asked not to be named for security reasons.
“Coca pickers always have damaged hands; their skin color changes,” he said. “[The GNB officers] know which people are going to pick on the other side and they don’t stop them, but when they come back, they demand an extortion payment.”
These migrant laborers bring back to Venezuela not only much-needed income, but also the knowhow of cocaine production. In Jesús María Semprún, a border municipality of Zulia, InSight Crime spoke to one of these coca pickers as he visited his family. On condition of anonymity, he described how he had found work on an ELN-run coca farm in Colombia and worked hard to rise up the hierarchy.
“It was over there I saw how much money could be made and then I got more involved, watching how they made the [coca] paste,” he said. “A chemist in charge of the paste can make 100,000 pesos [approximately $25] on a good day.”
SEE ALSO: Ex-FARC Mafia in Venezuela
Eventually, he invested the money and skills he had earned into starting his own small coca farm, working with an associate to acquire six hectares of coca in Colombian Catatumbo. He claimed that more than two dozen people from his hometown had followed similar paths to become coca growers in Colombia, laundering the money they earned from coca sales through businesses in Zulia.
And migrant labor is not Venezuela’s only contribution to Colombia’s cocaine production.
“Chemical products are very easy to get in Venezuela,” an opposition politician in Zulia, who didn’t want to be named for security reasons, told InSight Crime. “These go directly to cocaine production.”
Both the politician and the coca picker as well as other residents of the border region described how these chemical precursors move freely through Zulia and across the border, with the complicity or even active assistance of the Venezuelan military. This dynamic was exposed in 2019, when General Aquiles Leopoldo Lapadula Sira, then commander of the army forces in Zulia, was arrested for drug trafficking offenses, including authorizing the trafficking of chemical precursors.
The easy availability of these precursors, coupled with a boom in coca production in Colombian Catatumbo, has sparked a rapid proliferation of cocaine laboratories on Venezuelan soil. In November 2021, the Venezuelan government reported anti-narcotics officials had destroyed 60 laboratories so far that year. In 2020, officials reported destroying 79 laboratories. The vast majority were in Zulia.
In this context, the spread of coca crops into Zulia was perhaps only a matter of time.
Coca has been creeping towards Zulia for some time. A low level of coca cultivation was recorded in the state as far back of the 1990s, and mapping of Colombian coca production in 2020 by the United Nations Office against Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that one of Catatumbo’s most productive coca enclaves runs along the border with Jesús María Semprún.
While the operation in October 2021 was the first major coca eradication of recent times, it has not been the last: Venezuelan authorities eradicated a further 31 hectares in two more operations in Zulia in February 2022.
In interviews undertaken during 2021, more than eight sources, including local residents, ranchers, journalists and researchers, confirmed to InSight Crime that coca crops are now taking root in Zulia’s municipalities of Jesús María Semprún, Catatumbo and Machiques de Perijá. The scale of the plantations is unknown, as they are located in remote areas and often guarded by armed men.
In many cases, the sources alleged, these fields are controlled by ELN guerrillas who acquire land suitable for coca production by buying out or extorting local farmers. Since the demobilization of the FARC in 2017, the ELN have come to dominate coca cultivation in Colombian Catatumbo while also consolidating their presence in Zulia, where they appear to operate with near-total impunity.
“Here the ELN dominates; they’re the ones who control the whole area from Río Bravo to Río Abajo,” one resident of Catatumbo municipality, who didn’t want to be named, told InSight Crime. “They have been buying hectares from farm owners for [coca] cultivation.”
“If you have a farm they want to buy, you have to sell it to them whether you like it or not, because they are going to plant coca,” another resident of the area, who also requested anonymity for security reasons, agreed.
In some areas the guerrillas have even forcibly displaced landowners, according to two local ranchers who spoke to InSight Crime anonymously for fear of retaliation.
“Groups of guerrillas are occupying lands together with Indigenous people or local residents who are then used as forced labor,” one said. “They are supported by state security forces.”
In some cases, according to the second rancher, security forces have accused landowners of drug trafficking to force them to leave their land.
“There have even been cases where they planted parts of a plane or things like that on a farm, in order to accuse and extort the landowner,” he claimed.
Apure, Venezuela’s Guerrilla Heartland
To the south of Zulia, the state of Apure, in the western plains of Venezuela, seems an unlikely candidate for coca cultivation. Compared to Zulia’s tropical mountains, Apure’s low-altitude grasslands are ill-suited to the crop.
In other ways, however, Apure shares many of Zulia’s criminal characteristics. Bordering the Colombian department of Arauca, a historic guerrilla stronghold, its sparsely populated savannas have for decades served as a refuge for FARC and ELN guerrillas and a departure point for drug flights to Central America.
According to Mildred Camero, a former president of Venezuela National Commission Against the Use of Illicit Drugs (Comisión Nacional Contra el Uso Ilícito de las Drogas – Conacuid), small-scale coca plantations have occasionally been found in the state since at least the early 2000s. And now, as in Zulia, there are signs that the region’s cocaine production is picking up pace.
A social leader in Rómulo Gallegos municipality, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, explained that coca cultivation in Apure started tentatively, with soil studies and tests on small plots to identify the varieties of coca best suited to the region’s geography and climate. Although coca generally grows best at altitudes of 1,000 to 1,200 meters, in recent years drug producers have developed more versatile strains that open possibilities for coca cultivation in regions previously thought unviable.
In Apure, these trials appear to have yielded results. Today, coca plantations are found scattered throughout Rómulo Gallegos and Pedro Camejo municipalities, particularly along the banks of the Capanaparo, Cinaruco and Riecito rivers, according to local residents, political leaders and researchers.
“They are planting a lot; they plant a bit over there, they find a good bit and plant two hectares over here, another hectare over there, half a hectare further down,” one of the politicians said. “Where they can plant 50 [hectares] they plant them; where they can plant 20, they plant them.”
The sources could not give details on the size of the plantations, as they are closely guarded by guerrillas, mostly members of FARC dissident groups, and often concealed behind other crops.
“In front of the [coca] crops they put two, three hectares of plantain or yuca to conceal the plantation behind,” the social leader in Rómulo Gallegos said.
“The area where they have the crops is impenetrable; they have a tight ring of security all around,” he added. “Nobody can enter with a telephone, or camera, or watch. If you go there, they strip you naked and if you are not approved by the organization they don’t let you enter.”
Many of the plantations are located in Indigenous regions, where the guerrillas exploit local communities for cheap or even forced labor.
“The FARC use peasants or Indigenous groups to prepare the soil, plant and harvest the crops,” a former member of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV) in Apure, who did not want to be named, told InSight Crime. “The best cheap workforce are the Indigenous people. They pay them when they feel like it; when they don’t want to pay them, they threaten them.”
As in Zulia, there is evidence that the expansion of coca cultivation in Apure is being facilitated by guerrilla groups using frontmen to buy up tracts of land from impoverished local farmers, threatening those who refuse to sell. A member of Apure’s cattle ranchers’ association alleged to InSight Crime that these forced purchases are taking place with the knowledge and complicity of state authorities, in what he called “the colonization of the Apure countryside.”
As coca crops have proliferated in Apure, so have cocaine laboratories. In the first four months of 2022 alone, authorities reported destroying 17 laboratories.
“They have been working to install laboratories in Apure since 2014, but it has picked up pace since 2016,” the former PSUV member said.
“They brought some men they called ‘the chemists’ from Putumayo, near [Colombia’s] border with Ecuador,” he added. “They were giving classes to young people on how to prepare cocaine.”
He claimed that around 20 to 25 local youths were recruited to learn the process, and offered a cash payment of $5,000 each. Mildred Camero corroborated his story, stating that she had received similar information of young people recruited to learn cocaine crystallization processes in Venezuelan laboratories, many of which are now operating with a high degree of sophistication.
Venezuela, Latin America’s Next Cocaine Producer Country?
The extent to which cocaine production has taken hold in Venezuela is still unclear. While InSight Crime only has substantial evidence of plantations in two states, further production is rumored throughout the Colombian border region and even beyond.
In the far southwestern state of Amazonas, which borders both Colombia and Brazil, an Indigenous representative, who didn’t want to be named for security reasons, told InSight Crime that coca crops have been seen in the municipalities of Autana and Maroa, with crystallizing laboratories in Autana.
“The [coca] crops started to appear about three years ago,” he said, during an interview in 2020. “They are planted in unprotected areas that do not have legal titles. [The guerrilla groups] recruit Indigenous people to plant, harvest and take care of the land.”
The geography and climate of the state make the claim plausible, but its extreme remoteness means InSight Crime has so far been unable to verify the claims.
Former anti-drug tsar Camero stated that in her years of experience, she has registered coca crops in Amazonas and the border state of Táchira, and even occasionally in central states such as Guárico. She has also received reports of small cocaine processing facilities in the states of Guárico, Falcón, Bolívar and Monagas, although it is unclear whether these were crystallizing laboratories, or merely sites where processed drugs are prepared for retail.
But no matter the scale currently, the risk remains high: once cocaine production takes root in a country, it is very hard to go back.
As the experience of neighboring Colombia shows, coca crops offer irresistible revenues to criminal groups and impoverished farmers alike – and once the practice is firmly established, attempts to eradicate it only foment conflict, resentment, and deeper ties between armed groups and rural communities.
Currently cocaine production in Venezuela is being driven by the same groups that have so expertly capitalized on these dynamics to foster cocaine production in Colombia. And these guerrilla groups have a powerful motivation to drive it across the border: the chance to control self-contained supply chains where they can grow coca, process cocaine and dispatch international drug flights all within an area where they can operate with virtual impunity thanks to their ties to corrupt elements of the state.
As Venezuela has slid ever further into economic ruin and criminal chaos, it provides fertile ground for such dynamics to take hold. Added to this volatile mix there is also a cash-strapped and internationally isolated government that has long shown itself willing to tolerate or even facilitate drug trafficking.
And while most Venezuelan cocaine production so far seems no more than a junior offshoot of Colombian operations, the country is also host to a plethora of homegrown criminal actors that, as appears to be happening in Zulia, may seek to stake a claim in this nascent economy.
“[The Venezuelans] have more capacity than before,” Camero said, when asked about the factors driving escalating cocaine production in Venezuela. “They have learned; they have their own contacts. They know where the routes are and can manage themselves independently without depending on the Colombians.”
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.