A new book documenting alleged links between Venezuela officials and the drug trade is astounding in the scope of its accusations, and alleges that corruption and involvement in drug trafficking have penetrated the upper echelons of the country's government.
In Boomerang Chavez, Emili J. Blasco, the Washington DC correspondent for Spanish news agency ABC, offers a devastating critique of the legacy of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, arguing that the contradictions and falsehoods of his Bolivarian Revolution are leading to the collapse of Venezuela.
Throughout the book, Blasco focuses on several key strands -- mostly pertaining to Venezuela's political, economic, and ideological behavior under Chavez -- which he holds responsible for the country's unraveling. One of these strands is the government's alleged sponsorship of drug trafficking, which Blasco asserts started under Chavez.
Relying heavily on conversations with Leamsy Salazar, the former head of security for National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and a former member of Chavez's security detail, Blasco accuses several top officials, including Cabello, of participation in the drug trade. Salazar -- who fled Venezuela in late 2014 and arrived in Washington DC in January, where he has reportedly been providing testimony for a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation into Venezuelan officials -- recounts several scandalous stories involving Chavez and Cabello from his time working as a bodyguard.
According to the book, Salazar graduated in 1998 from Venezuela's Naval Academy, where his exceptional performance earned him a position as one of Chavez's personal bodyguards and assistants. During his time protecting Chavez, however, Salazar claims he came to learn of the complicity and active participation of government officials in drug trafficking. Most notably, Salazar describes a scene that took place around the year 2007 at a farm in the Venezuelan state of Barinas, near the border with Colombia. There, Salazar says he witnessed Chavez negotiate with FARC leaders, arranging to buy drug shipments from them in exchange for weapons and military supplies.
Following Chavez's death, Diosdado Cabello selected Salazar to be his bodyguard. According to Blasco, Salazar singles out Cabello as the facilitator of the Venezuelan government's drug trafficking and criminal activities. For instance, Salazar tells a story from 2013, when he accompanied Cabello on a nighttime trip to the peninsula of Paraguana. There, according to Salazar, Cabello inspected four go-fast boats that were loaded with several tons of cocaine. Among the heavily armed and masked men they met in Paraguana was Hugo Carvajal, Venezuela's former director of military intelligence. It was Cabello, however, who Salazar says gave final instructions to the crew of the drug boats before they departed.
Some days later, Blasco writes, a truck from Venezuela's tax agency (SENIAT) arrived at Fuerte Tiuna, a military complex in Caracas where Cabello had an office. Salazar, who was present at the time the truck was being unloaded, claims that inside he saw a number of identical suitcases, all of which were closed with locks. Curious, he went to a room where one of the suitcases had been taken. The suitcase was open, and inside, he alleges, were stacks of $100 dollar bills. According to Salazar, trucks from SENIAT -- whose director is Cabello's brother, Jose David Cabello -- arrived on more than one occasion.
Salazar also describes an experience he claims he had at a farm on the border between the states of Barinas and Apure where Cabello liked to go hunting. Salazar was accompanying Cabello and his personal assistant, Lansford Castillo, during a nighttime excursion, when Cabello ordered Salazar to stop and wait. The other two continued ahead, walking for another 100 meters or so before stopping. Their flashlights suddenly went out, and, after a period of time, came back on. They returned to tell Salazar they were going off to hunt deer, and after they left, Salazar walked to the site where their flashlights had gone out.
There, he allegedly encountered a trap door in the ground, which opened to reveal a staircase. He descended, and found a room completely filled with stacks of money. When he told a co-worker about his discovery, the co-worker said they had seen similar hidden rooms belonging to Cabello in the state of Monagas and in the city of Ciudad Bolivar.
Following a series of such incidents, which Blasco narrates in the book, Salazar came to fear for his safety. In the fall of 2014, he established contact with the DEA, and began making preparations for his departure from Venezuela. In late 2014, he fled the country, and eventually made his way to Madrid, Spain (where Blasco first interviewed him) before arriving in Washington DC on January 26. In March, he reportedly made a statement as part of an ongoing case against Diosdado Cabello -- opened by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York -- which, according to Blasco, accuses the National Assembly President of operating a drug trafficking network created by Hugo Chavez with the support of current President Nicolas Maduro.
The creation of this drug trafficking network, Blasco contends, is tied to the immense wealth generated by high oil prices over the last decade, which he says has created opportunities for bribes, embezzlement, and fraud, fueling corruption. This economic corruption, Blasco argues, has been accompanied by judicial corruption, paving the way for activities like money laundering, which in turn enables drug trafficking.
According to Blasco, it was under Chavez's government that drugs began to flow through Venezuela, forming part of Chavez's strategy for his Bolivarian Revolution. That is, drug trafficking provided a means to help the guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fight a Colombian government wary of Venezuelan leadership, as well as allowing Venezuela to undermine the United States.
Ultimately, Blasco argues that drug trafficking, growing authoritarianism, and financial troubles in Venezuela are a result of the "maturation" of chavismo, a boomerang that has returned to its starting point: to a Venezuela where the lower classes increasingly suffer from poverty, shortages of basic goods, and crime. By opening the door to drug trafficking, Blasco argues that Chavez and other officials have caused the country immense harm.
InSight Crime Analysis
While Emili Blasco is a respected journalist, the stories of egregious corruption among Venezuelan officials included in his new book are almost beyond belief, and are sure to antagonize many in Venezuela's political elite.
Indeed, Diosdado Cabello recently announced that he was suing four news outlets over coverage provided of a story -- which Blasco wrote for ABC -- that appeared in January and publicized Salazar's drug trafficking accusations.
However, this is not the first time Cabello has faced allegations of corruption and drug trafficking. Eladio Aponte, a Supreme Court judge who was dismissed in March 2012 -- and has also been accused of collaborating with drug traffickers -- reportedly told the DEA back in 2012 that Cabello ran drug trafficking operations. Then, documents and audio tapes leaked in 2013 implicated Cabello in a massive government corruption scandal, and in 2014 a human rights activist filed a lawsuit in Miami that accused Cabello of receiving $50 million dollars in bribes from a Venezuelan engineering firm in exchange for public works contracts.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles
US cables posted on Wikileaks have labeled Cabello as "one of the three major poles of corruption close to or within" the government, and described him as "amassing great power and control over the regime's apparatus as well as a private fortune, often through intimidation behind the scenes." Such descriptions have led to him being described as "Venezuela's Frank Underwood" -- a reference to the protagonist of the popular US TV show House of Cards.
Nonetheless, Cabello is not alone when it comes to accusations of drug trafficking being leveled against high-ranking Venezuelan officials. The Venezuelan military has also routinely been implicated in the drug trade -- with top military brass allegedly making up a criminal organization known at the Cartel of the Suns. When it comes to investigating or prosecuting government officials for such activity, however, impunity tends to rule the day.
SEE ALSO: Cartel of the Suns News and Profile
Still, as economic distress and corruption scandals continue to roil the country -- which has become one of the most dangerous in Latin America -- it remains to be seen if Cabello truly is the Venezuelan "capo of capos," as Blasco suggests in his book. Indeed, it appears the final chapter has yet to be written, with Roger Noriega -- former US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs -- recently stating that the United States has a series of ongoing investigations that have generated "a substantial volume of evidence" demonstrating the involvement of Cabello, and other high-level Venezuelan officials, in drug trafficking.