The Venezuelan government has accused opposition leaders of ties to drug trafficking, but, as with the latest claims about elements of the government itself being involved in the drug trade, it is difficult to separate self-interest from the tangled reality of the country's criminal networks.
Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami announced that the authorities had dismantled a massive money laundering network with ties to opposition leaders, which he said had processed about $10 million, as BBC Mundo reported. The minister told reporters that investigators believe both Henrique Salas, governor of the state of Carabobo, and Morel Rodriguez, governor of the state of Nueva Esparta, are linked to the network. According to El Aissami, the network operated across several states and used various companies and individuals as fronts, exchanging the laundered dollars for bolivars through the black market and then introducing the money into the Venezuelan economy.
Both men have rejected the charges, saying that the government is trying to distract the public from Chavez’s medical troubles and from recent claims made by former Supreme Court justice Eladio Aponte about the role of Chavez's own government in drug trafficking.
After being dismissed from his post for alleged links to a prominent drug trafficker, Aponte left Venezuela for Costa Rica, before being flown to the US on a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-chartered flight.
Chavez has denied Aponte’s allegations, calling him "a criminal," and Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz said that Aponte’s accusations against government officials will not be investigated, telling reporters that his statements “are not sufficient to initiate an investigation in Venezuela.”
Aponte was removed from his position as a Supreme Court justice on March 20, reportedly due to evidence that he helped drug trafficker Walid Makled obtain an official identification card, which Makled then used to run several businesses in the country. Makled recently called Aponte an “associate” in his Aeropostal airline, and said he had paid Aponte nearly $70,000 per month. For his part, Aponte has been pointing fingers at General Henry Rangel Silva, recently-appointed defense minister, whom Makled has also implicated in involvement in the drug trade. The former judge has also accused Diosdado Cabello, head of Chavez’s ruling party, and General Cliver Alcala of links to the drug trade and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Aponte is currently in the United States, where he is cooperating with the DEA.
Makled himself has also been a bother for the Chavez regime, telling authorities on his arrest in Colombia in 2010 that he had provided Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela with campaign funds, and worked with the state oil company and the national assembly, where he claims to have had five members on his payroll. He also spoke of paying off members of the military, elements of which have long been believed to make extra money via drug trafficking when they are unable to make it into Chavez’s inner circle, forming a group known as the "Cartel de los Soles" or the “Cartel of the Suns,” so named because of the gold stars generals wear on their epaulets. None of these claims are likely to be investigated anytime soon, due to Makled's extradition to Venezuela instead of to the United States.
As with El Aissami's allegations against the opposition, Makled's and Aponte's claims are made, at least in part, for their own gain. Both would benefit greatly from being seen as important to the United States in its so-called “war on drugs." Makled wanted to avoid extradition to his home country, preferring the US system, where he might have been able to trade his knowledge for a lighter sentence. Aponte, for his part, has fallen from grace in Venezuela and seems to have decided to take his chances in the US instead.
The Venezuelan government, of course, is casting around for ways to discredit the opposition. With less than six months until Venezuela’s presidential elections, Chavez is fighting cancer, while his opponent, Henrique Capriles (pictured), governor of Miranda state, is the picture of health, frequently seen playing basketball or riding his motorbike. Chavez is currently leading in the polls, with a 13-point advantage in polls published in March. However, Capriles, who handily won February’s primary with an estimated 62 percent of the vote, is seeking out Venezuela’s many undecided voters and disillusioned Chavistas. His energetic image is the antithesis of Chavez, who has been splitting his time between Caracas and Havana, where he has been undergoing cancer treatments for the past year.
Capriles has the support of his erstwhile opponents from the primary, who have come together in the hope that a unified opposition can defeat Chavez in October. By discrediting members of the opposition, Chavez's team may be hoping to break that unity, and turn undecided voters towards Chavez.