Talk of Mexico’s cartels in Venezuela has become commonplace, so much so that one town has been re-baptized after one of the world's most notorious criminal groups: the Sinaloa Cartel.
In San Felipe, a village near Machiques de Perijá in the northwestern state of Zulia, hearing Mexican accents has become routine. Local residents near the border with Colombia say that the presence of Mexicans is so strong the town has been unofficially renamed Sinaloa.
Sources on the ground provided InSight Crime with a range of evidence they say confirms the presence of emissaries from Mexican criminal groups. Ranchers, local manufacturers and residents have all witnessed luxury vehicles entering town, parties blaring with narcocorridos, increased demand for prostitution and other abnormalities that have changed everyday life.
“Sinaloa isn’t just a random name, many of the pilots [of drug planes] are Mexican. We’ve seen them talking in hotels, and a person with this accent is easy to remember. They call this town of ours Sinaloa,” one local told InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity.
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However, narco-culture isn’t the only thing the Mexicans have brought with them. San Felipe’s residents have been pressured into converting basic landing strips into sites able to accommodate planes carrying large amounts of cash and tons of drugs. Main roads, including that which connects the municipalities of Machiques de Perijá and Colón, have also been co-opted for these purposes, Infobae reported.
Local news outlet La Verdad reported on an incident from September 2019 when Venezuela's Integral Aerospace Defense Command (Comando de Defensa Aeroespacial Integral - CODAI) allegedly detected two drug flights allegedly belonging to the Sinaloa Cartel.
InSight Crime Analysis
Venezuela has played a key role in the international drug trade, attracting the interests of a wide range of organized crime groups dedicated to trafficking drugs. The presence of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel comes as no surprise.
That said, Venezuela is not a primary transit point for US-bound cocaine, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) own data. "US officials have frequently stated that far more cocaine is trafficked through the so-called 'Eastern Pacific' route [through southwest Colombia and Ecuador] than through Venezuela," according to a recent report from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Nonetheless, around 400 clandestine airstrips may have been taken over by Mexican traffickers in Zulia alone, with the help and support of Colombia’s National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- ELN), in order to land flights and send others off to the Caribbean and Central America. The border towns of Jesús María Semprún, Machiques and Rosario de Perijá have become preferred places to buy and sell shipments filled with weapons, money and drugs.
Mexican traffickers arrive at the homes of farmers and local producers offering large sums of money -- in the neighborhood of between $40,000 and $60,000 -- to use existing airstrips or to build new ones for drug planes to land on and take off from, according to several local farmers in Zulia who spoke to InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Those who don’t cooperate, however, reportedly run the risk of being incriminated with propellers, gas canisters and other spare parts left on their land that could later be used against them, according to local sources in Zulia.
And there have been cases of Venezuelan air force personnel collaborating with Mexican cartels. Former captain Gino Alfonso Garcés Vergara, for example, received $500,000 in exchange for allowing narco-flights loaded with drugs to pass through Venezuelan airspace undetected.
National Assembly Vice President Juan Pablo Guanipa has voiced his concerns about the presence of drug trafficking groups in this region, according to El Pitazo. Local farmers and manufacturers are subjected to constant threats, preventing them from speaking out about the issue, according to Guanipa. In 2015, for example, farmer Gaspar Enrique Rincón Urdaneta was murdered after making his own concerns known.
But this isn’t the only evidence of links between the Venezuelan government and Mexican cartel emissaries. In June 2019, Prison Minister Iris Varela confirmed three Mexican nationals had escaped from jail after being captured on drug trafficking charges. The three allegedly secured their escape using information about internal logistics that was filtered to them and through open access to weapons.
The steady flow of Colombian cocaine and the silence of the Venezuelan government has made it so that Mexico’s powerful drug cartels feel right at home in Venezuela.