Venezuelans like to blame Colombia for their problems with organized crime while Colombians say that Venezuela has its own powerful drug trafficking organizations working closely with members of the country's security forces. Both statements seem to be true.
In fact, in Venezuela, a country of 27 million, many things are deceiving at first glance. Take Merida, a university town some 800 kilometers from Carcacas and 245 kilometers from the Colombian border. The government pays for free rides on the bus rapid transit system and for free meals at the private university. The orange juice bottles have a little red stamp that read “Made in Socialism.” Many public works projects -- hospitals, highways, sports stadiums -- are accompanied by signs announcing that they are backed by the “Bolivarian Revolution.”
But this bustling university town is also a stronghold for opposition parties and a haven for Colombian traffickers and insurgents. Colombian drug trafficker Wilber Varela, alias “Jabon,” was gunned down here in 2008. And last year, police arrested one Colombian rebel commander, who had found refuge in the city.
The assassin cells in Merida are deliberately modeled after the “oficinas” set up in Colombia. They are known to carry out contract killings for as little as 500 bolivares (about $116 in the official exchange rate), Teresa Salazar, a professor at the criminology department of Merida’s University of the Andes, told InSight Crime.
Colombian criminals also populate other states. One of Varela’s successors was captured in central Barinas state while both Colombian drug lords and top leaders of guerrilla groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have found refuge in Venezuela’s border states. Colombian criminal groups are responsible for shoot-outs in Venezuelan towns and have also been accused of killing members of the Venezuelan security forces.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has said that kidnappings and murders in Venezuela have gone up in part because of Colombian criminal groups active in the country. Salazar echoes these views, arguing that the influx of Colombian drug traffickers and rebel groups has done much to drive up insecurity in Merida and the surrounding region.
But while there may be some truth in atrributing the country's security woes to Colombia, there is a fine line between placing blame on outsiders, and taking responsibility for internal security failures.
“You can’t say there’s insecurity in Venezuela just because there’s violence in Colombia. It’s just not true,” said Pedro Rangel, director of Caracas-based conflict think tank Incosec. “It is a factor, but it’s not the entire problem.”
To be sure, Venezuela’s public institutions are crippled by corruption and deeply penetrated by organized criminal groups of all origins. Seven high-level military officers, including the current defense minister, as well as current and former close allies to the Chavez administration, have been blacklisted by the US Treasury Department for drug trafficking.
And while some of these Venezuelans began as facilitators of Colombian traffickers’ operations, some have now become powerful drug trafficking groups themselves. The most prominent example is the so-called Cartel de los Soles (Cartel of the Suns). Named for the epaulets on their uniformed shoulders, this group of high-ranking National Guard officials has deep ties to the drug trade.
“It's no longer a dynamic in which the security forces accept payment from traffickers in exchange for moving product," says Mildred Camero, a former Chavez government drug czar. "The Venezuelan security forces are actually trafficking themselves."
Camero's assertion is backed up by exiled judge Eladio Aponte's descriptions of high-level military complicity with the drug trade. Chavez government supporters say Aponte, the former Attorney General for the military and a Supreme Court justice, is running a smear campaign. Indeed, the former judge’s accusations could be discredited by highlighting his alleged ties to Venezuelan drug trafficker Walid Makled, who is currently on trial. However, there are a number of cases connecting the Guard to trafficking that damage the government. To cite just one, in 2011, a plane carrying 1,400 kilograms of cocaine took off from a military base in Caracas, an incident which the government was never able to properly explain.
What’s more, Colombian traffickers present in Venezuela cannot operate here without some complicity from the security forces, says Camero. Both Varela and Colombian drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco, arrested in Venezuela in 2008, were closely associated with Venezuela's National Guard (the picture above shows Gonzalez's brother, Eudo, and his fake National Guard ID). And one theory about Varela’s death is that he simply could not pay for protection from the Guard anymore leaving him vulnerable to attack from rivals.
As it is in Merida, where the street signs alluding to the “Bolivarian Revolution,” and the free public transport and education feed the impression of a government that is in control of its country -- there is rotten business going on, and outside forces can’t take all the blame.