Venezuela's role as a hotbed for organized crime in the Americas has deepened this year. The country’s political, economic and social crises have fueled crime and strengthened illegal economies, while international sanctions against government officials including President Nicolás Maduro have failed to weaken the regime’s power and have helped solidify its leaders’ ties to transnational crime.
InSight Crime’s field research has shown that drugs produced in Colombia continue to pass freely through Venezuela’s border. Following the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), trafficking routes are now under the control of several new criminal groups. In August, for example, experts told InSight Crime that another Colombian rebel group, the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), has established a presence in Venezuela for the first time this year. The Rastrojos, once one of Colombia’s most powerful criminal groups, have also begun to emerge in Venezuela after practically disappearing in their home country.
“The Rastrojos have started recruiting Venezuelan nationals and have increased their presence in Venezuela,” we reported in July. “The ongoing instability and rampant corruption in the Venezuelan security forces provides fertile ground for Colombian organized crime, and the Rastrojos have taken advantage of these dynamics.”
The role of Venezuelans in trafficking drugs through the Caribbean has also grown, as observed this year in the Dominican Republic. Venezuelans are now replacing Colombians as drug mules and speedboat operators.
In June, InSight Crime reported that “four out of every five speedboats arriving on the DR’s coasts carrying cocaine shipments now have Venezuelans on board.”
Verny Troncoso, the lead prosecutor in charge of narcotic cases for the province of Santo Domingo, told InSight Crime that “every week since late October 2016, officials have captured three to four Venezuelans arriving at the country’s airports with drugs either ingested or hidden in suitcases.”
This year also laid bare Venezuela’s role as a base for drug flights. In May, InSight Crime reported on a map presented by Costa Rica Security Minister Gustavo Mata Vega that illustrates cocaine trafficking routes through Central America. The yellow lines on the map, which indicate aerial drug trafficking routes, clearly show that Venezuela is the main starting point for flights headed mostly to Honduras and Mexico.
(Map showing drug trafficking routes, courtesy La Nación)
Maduro’s ‘Iron Fist’
“Venezuela, unfortunately, is now a failed state and narco regime," Mike Vigil, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent with decades of experience in Latin America, told InSight Crime in August -- just two days after National Assembly elections strengthened the Maduro administration’s power.
With the support of the National Assembly, Maduro was largely able to overcome 2017’s political conflicts. However, in moments when the administration appeared to be weakening, it clung to power with “mano dura” or iron fist policies, including repression of political protests and the continuation of a controversial security initiative known as “Operation Liberation and Protection of the People” (Operación de Liberación y Protección del Pueblo – OLP). The OLP security strategy led to more than 500 killings by security force officials, in addition to reports of torture and other human rights violations.
In January, Maduro announced a new package of security measures in which he proposed arming civilians in the fight against organized crime. Although no evidence ever surfaced indicating that the government actually provided these arms, the administration has relied on “colectivos,” or collectives of armed civilians. The government has allowed these colectivos to use force and some have participated in official security operations. The colectivos are also known to engage in a variety of criminal activities.
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Between April and July, the colectivos became key actors during a wave of massive anti-government protests. They violently intervened in the protests and have been accused of murdering of several opposition protesters. As InSight Crime reported in April, “despite mounting evidence of the colectivos’ involvement in criminal enterprises, they are becoming an essential tool for the government to maintain its grip on power.”
The Maduro administration’s hard-line security policies appear to have contributed to a stabilization of the political sphere ahead of the year’s end. However, the iron fist approach has not had any significant impact on crime reduction. In 2017, there were more than 20,000 homicides, according to estimates. The 2017 figure will likely come close to that of 2016, when the Attorney General’s Office registered 21,752 homicides. This represents a rate of 70 homicides per 100,000 citizens for 2016, one of the highest in the region.
Former DEA agent Vigil also warned InSight Crime that “with all the anarchy, with all the chaos spilling out into the street, that is going to be taken advantage of by the criminal groups there. It will definitely increase drug trafficking … and a lot of people will go into the drug trade because they have no option -- there’s no jobs, no money, no supplies.”
Sanctions Lack Impact
The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned more than a dozen current and former Venezuelan officials in February and July.
Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami was perhaps the most notable official included on the OFAC list. In February, the US Treasury Department sanctioned El Aissami for his alleged involvement in drug trafficking, making him the highest-level government official to be accused of this crime. He has also been implicated in a “criminal-terrorist pipeline” that allegedly involving militant Islamists and the transfer of illicit funds and drugs to the Middle East.
El Aissami’s assets and those of his business frontman Samark López Bello, were frozen by the US government, for “providing material assistance, financial support, or goods or services in support of the international narcotics trafficking activities of, and acting for or on behalf of, El Aissami,” according to the press release announcing the sanctions.
Nonetheless, both individuals have continued their activities. In fact, the sanctions did not affect their ties to organized crime. López remains in the business of importing food products for the government’s nutrition program.
As vice president, El Aissami has gained more power. During the October elections for governorships, El Aissami helped place several of his allies at the helm of key states for drug trafficking and other criminal activities, such as Sucre and Aragua.
Following these elections, InSight Crime wrote that “the real winner of the controversial vote seems to be organized crime, as the current administration has both supported and received support from criminal elements to which it is closely tied.”
The state of Aragua, where El Aissami served as governor and where one of his allies was recently elected, is also the base of operations for the Tren de Aragua, a heavily armed “megabanda,” or mega-gang, run from inside the Tocorón prison.
Another wave of US sanctions came in late July amid political protests. These sanctions included President Nicolás Maduro, whom the US Treasury Department described as a “dictator.” In December, two of Maduro’s nephews were sentenced to nearly two decades in prison by a US court for plotting to ship 800 kilograms of cocaine to the United States.
Among the other officials sanctioned at this time was Néstor Reverol, the former head of Venezuela’s anti-drug agency and a former commander of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB). In August, just one day after US federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment accusing Reverol of participating in a transnational cocaine trafficking network, Maduro appointed him interior minister. Reverol is also one of El Aissami’s staunchest supporters.
Former Prison Minister Iris Varela was also among those sanctioned. Varela has been accused of helping criminal networks to flourish by allowing inmates to control the country’s prisons. In May, Varela admitted that she called on inmates to “neutralize” a violent riot in their prison that left at least 9 dead.
Multiple cases this year have illustrated the magnitude of control exercised by inmates in the country’s prisons. In an investigation published in September, InSight Crime described the power of the “pranes,” or prison gang leaders, and their ties to organized crime.
“Ironically it seems the pranes run a more efficient government than Maduro. Justice is swift, and while food is scarce on supermarket shelves, the pranes seem able to get all the food they need,” InSight Crime wrote in the investigation.
Expanded Military Control
Militarization has been a constant feature of the administrations of former President Hugo Chávez and his successor Maduro. The current administration set a record by appointing 12 military officers to positions as ministers, the most of any Venezuelan cabinet in the last 17 years.
In July, Maduro appointed Generals Carlos Osorio Zambrano, Juan de Jesús Toussaintt and Luis Motta Domínguez to join his cabinet. These generals have been accused of involvement in the trafficking of food, drugs, gold and diamonds.
“The ongoing militarization of the Venezuelan state is worrying, given that the country’s security forces have lost much of their legitimacy due to widespread criminal activity within their ranks,” InSight Crime wrote following a cabinet reshuffling in June.
In a March 2017 report, former judge and drug czar Mildred Camero described the evolution of military involvement in drug trafficking and identified high-level officials allegedly participating in the criminal activity.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Rights
The trend of militarization does not bode well for the country’s high levels of violence, which include reports of human rights violations committed by security forces. As InSight Crime wrote in June, “reports indicate that the government’s policy of involving military elements in the fight against crime has engendered repeated cases of extrajudicial killings.
As 2017 comes to an end, Maduro and those around him have become even stronger. Vice President El Aissami, who has become one of Maduro’s closest confidants, announced that his boss will run for reelection in 2018. Ahead of the election, Maduro has made further changes to his cabinet, appointing more military officers to top positions. With the help of these military officials, Maduro hopes to shield himself and protect the fragile hold on power that has characterized his administration.
Maduro and El Aissami have appointed trusted soldiers, mainly from the National Guard, to key posts. The National Guard is one of the main branches of the military allegedly involved in the Cartel of the Suns, shadowy groups within the country’s armed forces tied to cocaine trafficking and other criminal activities such as the contraband smuggling of gas, minerals and food.
Top photo by Associated Press/Ariana Cubillos