In Venezuela the drug traffickers wear camouflage. On the Colombian border, Colombian and Venezuelan guerrillas and the army fight for control of the drug trade. Senior military officers have also been accused of having connections to drug trafficking, but none have been convicted, thanks to their ties to their now deceased commander-in-chief, Hugo Chavez.
Juan Guerrero was planning Christmas dinner when his brother Javier de Jesus called. It was late November 2011, and the family had planned to meet outside their house -- a humble brick building with an aluminum roof, in Guasdualito, a small town on the border with Colombia -- to celebrate the holidays. Javier de Jesus, the fifth of 14 children, was the most anticipated visitor. For several years he had lived in hiding as a leader of the Venezuelan guerrilla group known as the Patriotic Forces for National Liberation (Fuerzas Patrioticas de Liberacion Nacional -- FPLN), and he appeared only occasionally. Javier de Jesus had become the commander known as "Moises Carpio."
His brother describes him as a serious and sometimes grim person. His peers said he was a leader and extroverted joker who defended farmers. And in Caracas, the capital, experts speak of him and other guerrillas as armed civilians who exert despotic control over their neighbors in the name of serving the Bolivarian revolution, Chavez's quixotic ideology that combined socialism and the region's historic landed elites. His legacy and personality are contradictory, typical of a man who decides to live in the jungle, accumulate weapons and prioritize a cause beyond himself and his family.
Juan answered his brother's call as he drove to work.
"They are going to disappear me," Javier said calmly to Juan, who listened through the earpiece with resignation. He said nothing.
It was the last time he heard the voice of "Moises."
Throughout Apure, one of Venezuela's most dangerous states due to the presence of guerrillas, the army and drug traffickers, "Moises" was famous for defending the Bolivarian revolution by confronting landowners who controlled gasoline, wood, livestock and drug smuggling routes, and by fighting for the expulsion of the Colombian guerrilla groups -- the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) -- whose imposed control over Venezuelan territory he did not accept, though he shared their ideology. He had received threats for a long time. His family begged him to be careful because he had too many enemies. "Moises" knew, sooner or later, they would kill him. The soldiers of the battalion assigned to the nearby village of La Victoria, led by Colonel Rafael Angel Saldeño Armas -- a soldier neighbors described as the region's main drug trafficker -- followed his movements for five years.
SEE ALSO: FARC in Venezuela
While in countries like Panama and the rest of Central America, drug traffickers steal from each other; in Venezuela the Venezuelan guerrillas take drugs from the military.
"There are generals, colonels, lieutenants and sergeants involved. The drug traffickers can obtain security, transportation, storage, surveillance and military organizational capacity in a place like Venezuela, which for many years was at low risk for drug trafficking," said Jose Machillanda, a former soldier and director of the CEPPRO policy research center, a political foundation that promotes social debate.
In Guasdualito, it was rumored that Saldeño was obsessed with catching "Moises." He was accused of being a "rustler," stealing and smuggling livestock. So Javier de Jesus lived in the jungle, constantly changing his location. He only went into the city occasionally, to visit his family and his ten-year-old son.
"Moises" joined the Bolivarian revolution during the campaign that carried Hugo Chavez to the presidency in 1999. His goal was to support farmers fighting for their rights, so he joined the Ezequiel Zamora Farmer's Front, which includes 15 percent of the entire country's farmers and ranchers. Apure is primarily a plains region, surrounded by rivers and dominated by landowners. Its inhabitants say that God began creating the world there because of the region's natural beauty and agricultural wealth. However, because of its location on the border, it has also been one of the country's most troubled areas.
For many years, farmers were killed and the circumstances of their deaths were never made clear, such as the case of the El Amparo massacre in 1988, when police and soldiers killed 14 fishermen in a confrontation the authorities claimed was against subversive groups. Farmers in the region did not have a right to housing and were subject to widespread labor abuse.
"Moises" was a primary school teacher who had studied in Cuba and exchanged words for weapons six years ago when he felt the political system would not achieve any change. He chose the most extreme method to defend the principles of Hugo Chavez's government. "Moises" had the support of most of the town, which offered him hiding places and food, if necessary.
Of all Venezuela's regions, Apure remains one of the most loyal to Chavez's revolution. Chavez himself took refuge in the area after a failed coup in 1992 against then-President Carlos Andres Perez. Jose Luis, the owner of the El Refugio del Conejo restaurant and one of the city's oldest left-wing militants, still keeps photographs from that era, in which he appears alongside a young Chavez, fresh out of prison and extremely thin.
The guerrillas emerged in this area to deal with crime that had sprung up on the border decades ago, as a result of the absence of state control. For decades, gasoline smuggling to Colombia, from a country where a tank of gas costs the same as a bottle of water, has been an extremely profitable business. The guerrillas were able to control petty crime.
"Here, you can walk safely at three in the morning. Nobody will rob you. They (the guerrillas) monitor the area at night," says a mechanic who has always lived in Guasdualito, and who asked to remain anonymous.
But while the cities were calm, more powerful criminal organizations began to establish their presence in the plains. According to acquaintances, "Moises" was dedicated to confronting these groups, which were sometimes made up of members of the military itself, or the FARC and ELN. Whenever the Venezuelan guerrillas heard that a car full of drugs, fuel or livestock was due to pass by, they intercepted it and stole the goods to prevent trafficking. What they did after seizing the contraband is a mystery: in Guasdualito they say the contraband remained in the hands of honest officials, but many experts believe that it was used for illegal business dealings.
"We've been through bad times, and the last thing we expected was to fall back on getting funding from drugs. We know that it harms human beings. You should never spit up in the air because it can fall on your face, so we look for any means to avoid having it come to that," says a spokesman for the Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current, a leftist organization similar to the guerrillas.
Powerful landowners -- many of them retired or active military -- began to notice "Moises" and his followers, and pursue them.
"My brother and the farmers were cutting off their illegal merchandise shipments, commandeering land with government permission and many other things. So then they began to persecute my brother, saying he was a smuggler. They ordered his death," said Juan Guerrero, a 50-year-old man, dark-haired and strong, with thick eyebrows and a meticulously defined mustache.
The guerrillas gave him the name "Moises" for the biblical figure Moses, because he led the people, but to his brother, he is still Javier de Jesus. Juan takes a photo of his brother, 11 years younger, from his wallet.
"Everybody says we looked alike," he says, months after Christmas, in a hotel lobby.
He has carried the photo with him since the last time he spoke with "Moises" on that afternoon in late November. Days later, the prophecy announced over the phone was fulfilled. That Christmas, 2011, "Moises" did not come to dinner.
A woman crosses the border from Colombia with some marijuana in her suitcase. The Venezuelan National Guard order her to stop:
- What do you have there?
-Ah... Go ahead, go ahead.
It's an old joke.
Mildred Camero, a judge for 26 years and the former director of the National Commission Against Illicit Drug Use (CONACUID), tells the joke in a Caracas cafe to describe the country's ignorance of drug trafficking when she began her career.
Camero, an older woman with platinum blond hair and bright red lipstick, returned to Venezuela in the late 1970s after studying in Europe, certain she wanted to specialize in the fight against drug trafficking. A college friend had died of an overdose. Upon her return, she found a country "of very, very rich people, who experimented with LSD and marijuana, and very, very poor people, who used crack, though it wasn't as common as it is now."
But the next decade saw the rise of the large cartels in Colombia, and neighboring Venezuela, swimming in oil and filled with luxuries, became an ideal place to transport and store drugs and money.
Camero investigated the first case of money laundering in money exchanges on the border. The money ended up in the Banco Cafetero, owned by the legendary Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. They also kept track of the operations of the "Medellin Cartel" from Venezuela.
"There in Colombia they pursued them, but here everything was much easier," says the former judge.
Many of her informants had begun reporting that members of the National Guard were involved in drug trafficking: while they were not running the operations, they would turn a blind eye in exchange for a fee.
Two brigadier generals from that group, Ramon Guillen Davila and Orlando Hernandez Villegas, were indicted on charges of drug trafficking. They were finally released in 1993, but they had already left their mark on the popular imagination by giving Venezuela's first cartel its name: the "Cartel de los Soles," (Cartel of the Suns) in reference to the epaulettes military officers wear on their uniforms to signify their rank. The "go ahead, go ahead" from the joke became synonymous with corruption.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cartel de los Soles
"Today the biggest problem of drug trafficking in Venezuela is the relationship between the military and drug traffickers," says Camero. In 1999, when Hugo Chavez chose her as CONACUID's director, she presented five reports indicting senior military officials.
"But he never read them," she laments.
For her and other experts there are two events that marked "the Venezuelan debacle." The first was Plan Colombia, which began in 2001. The huge amount of money the United States spent to fight drug trafficking in that country caused an exodus of drug traffickers, who took refuge in Venezuela to escape Colombian authorities.
Today, in Apure -- a network of small towns connected by a highway that can be covered in two hours -- there are clear signs of the presence of armed rebel groups that share control over the local population. Guasdualito is controlled by the FLPN, as is El Amparo. The towns of San Cristobal, Ureña and San Antonio are in the hands of the FARC and the paramilitaries. El Rubio is under the command of the ELN and the paramilitaries, and La Revancha, the ELN.
The second turning point that sent the situation in Venezuela into a tailspin was the decision of Hugo Chavez, who died in March, to promote members of the military to powerful positions in government. He increased this trend following the attempted coup against him in 2002, when he decided to surround himself with fellow soldiers who had accompanied him throughout his rise to power.
Over the past five years, the US Treasury Department froze assets and bank accounts of four senior officers in the armed forces, a member of the police and two elected representatives for their alleged ties to the FARC and drug trafficking. Hugo Chavez blamed the news on the US government's "imperialist manipulation." He never opened an investigation, and, in fact, many of them went on to be promoted. Henry Rangel Silva (pictured above), one of those involved, eventually became Minister of Defense. [Rangel Silva, retired, is now governor of Trujillo state.]
Mildred Camero's judicial career ended in 2005, when she was dismissed from office in the same year that the Venezuelan government expelled the US counter drug agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other anti-drug entities from the country. She says a large number of her investigations pointed toward the involvement of ever more high ranking military officials. Her conclusions depicted them as brokers for the FARC, exchanging drugs and money for weapons.
When she confirmed these suspicions, an alarmed Camero went to the office of Vice-president Jose Vicente Rangel, also a former Minister of Defense and former Minister of Foreign Affairs:
"Look, vice president, this is what is happening," said Camero.
"Wow, you've got balls," he responded.
According to Camero's version of the story, Rangel grabbed the papers, crumpled them into a ball and threw them away. The former judge still has a lawsuit pending against her for treason. In her safe, she jealously guards reports that, she says, incriminate several important figures from Chavez's administration. She calls them her best life insurance policy.
An Air France flight that had departed from Caracas was seized in Paris on September 13 carrying more than 30 suitcases full of cocaine. Two weeks ago, five policemen were sentenced to 26 years in prison for drug trafficking. Last year, a small plane with 1.5 tons of drugs left from the La Carlota military base. The vast majority of aircraft seized in Honduras are registered in Venezuela. In 2012, the government destroyed more than 100 clandestine airstrips in the country. Until three years ago, Walid Makled, Venezuela's most famous drug trafficker, who owned the airline Aeropostal and a large portion of Puerto Cabello -- the most important seaport in the country -- managed to send up to five tons of drugs from Maiquetia International Airport to Ciudad del Carmen, in Tabasco. People say he was able to do it was thanks to his connections with "The Federation," a consortium of the cartels run by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.
At some point in the last decade the news about Venezuela and its role in international drug trafficking began to flood newspapers. So much so that, earlier this month the former president of the National Drug Commission, Bayardo Ramirez, declared that Venezuela was "the number one drug trafficker in Latin America."
Regarding that analysis, Hernan Matute, one of the country's leading researchers on security and drug trafficking, said: "Now it's normal to see overseas seizures of shipments that left from Venezuela, the destructions of drug production laboratories -- something that was unthinkable 10 years ago -- or the discovery of marijuana and opium crops in the border areas. Also, precursor chemicals under the strict control of the Venezuelan state are being used in processing cocaine, and the US Treasury Department continues to make accusations and find links between Venezuelan politicians, members of the military and bankers, and drug trafficking. "
When Walid Makled, better known as "The Turk," was arrested in Colombia, he was asked how he had been able to bypass airport security and send drugs abroad. He replied, "Do you think you can transport 500 bags of cocaine without help?"
SEE ALSO: Walid Makled Profile
Venezuela fought Colombia for Makled's immediate extradition. In an interview with RCN, a leading Colombian television channel, the dealer said he had a list of all the people within the Chavez government that he paid in order to continue operating, but since he was extradited he hasn't spoken of it again.
"The clearest example of narco-militarism is Makled," says Jose Machillanda, the CEPPRO director. "The case explains how he had exclusive access to petrochemical products, an airline with international flights, a port, how he supported Chavez's government and how he supported regional governments and told the governors what to do."
A while after Makled's capture, Eladio Aponte, a soldier and judge in the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, was removed from his office, fled to Costa Rica and requested DEA protection. The former judge confessed that on several occasions he received direct orders from Miraflores Palace [the presidential office] to free members of the military involved in drug trafficking.
This political pollution that has plagued the Venezuelan government in recent years reaches all the way to the border. The former governor of Apure, Jesus Aguilarte, was forced to resign in 2011 by the Chavez administration itself as a result of mismanagement. Last year, he was killed in a McDonalds in the city of Maracay. In another restaurant, a couple of months later, a man approached a couple sitting at a table and asked, 'Are you General Moreno?' After the man answered, 'Yes,' the stranger pulled out a gun and killed him. His full name was Wilmer Antonio Moreno, a soldier and Chavez supporter since 1992. Later, it was discovered that both men had links to drug trafficking.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles
"They're burning all of those files," says Roberto Briceño, director of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an institution that publishes studies on violence and corruption in the country. "Aponte left because of this, because he knows a lot."
In Apure, says Briceño, drugs enter from the Colombian Amazon and are then transported through Puerto Cabello or Sucre en route to Honduras.
"The connection between drugs, government and military is so strong that there is no real anti-drug policy," Briceño says.
The next time Juan had contact with his brother was in the Guasdualito morgue, a few days after that last call. The medical examiner showed him the body so he could identify him. Juan then asked him to show him the wounds. The commander "Moises" had a dent in his skull from a blow inflicted with a rifle butt; raw wrists that showed signs of having been tied up and dragged; bruises and scratches over his entire body; and four bullet wounds in his chest.
The official report sent to Caracas described an altercation between the army and several thieves.
"But it was not a confrontation, they tortured him, it was a massacre," says Juan in front of his brother's grave, a simple tombstone, decorated with two bouquets of flowers that have been drying in the city's humid heat.
Three other fighters share the cemetery with their commander, one of them in a crude grave with no name. The family was so poor that they could not provide anything for a more dignified burial. Near the cemetery there is graffiti that agree with Juan's version of the story: "Saldeño murderer," "Smuggler," "They are not rustlers they are revolutionaries." In Guasdualito, although authorities disagree, the people are convinced that Saldeño, the soldier they accused of being the area's largest dealer, settled a score.
Twenty days before being gunned down, "Moises" and his unit received reports that a group of soldiers under the command of Colonel Saldeño were transporting four barrels of contraband: two of cocaine, one with Colombian pesos and another full of dollars. The guerrillas attacked them and stole the goods. This was when Javier de Jesus called his brother and told him they were going to kill him. The morning of November 24, he disappeared.
The night before, commander "Moises" and his men arrived at Bocas del Rio Viejo, a rural area about an hour and a half from Guasdualito, which can only be accessed by river in small boats. They stayed at a neighbor's house in the area, with a man known as "The Devil," who lived with his wife and 15-year-old son. They had dinner and went to sleep. The next morning "Moises" had to oversee a meeting with some farmers. According to the survivors' story, at five o'clock in the morning a group of men in civilian clothing, equipped with night vision and rifles, attacked the house.
The next day they arrived in Guasdualito with four bodies, including that of "Moises." Two other fighters were wounded; so were "The Devil," his wife and his son, who had his hand crushed.
"They were saved because the boy clung to his mother," says Juan, who says that there were two other guerrillas who were thrown into the river.
The Ministry of Defense statement published after "Moises'" death was proud of the work of the Armed Forces, "the permanent guarantor of national sovereignty, ever more connected to the Venezuelan people, organized, prepared, trained and well-equipped."
Months later, Saldeño was relieved of his duty and sent to Caracas. So far he hasn't been tried, not for drug trafficking or for the murder of "Moises" and his companions. Graffiti in the city says: "Cursed is the soldier who shoots at his people."
We asked Juan to make some calls to visit Bocas del Rio Viejo. Although he has never belonged to any armed group, everyone in town knows each other, and it is not difficult to contact someone who knows the area. He promised to do so and we said goodbye until the morning. The next day we met in the hotel lobby. He brought bad news.
"They told me it is impossible. Right now it is very dangerous. Yesterday they heard gunshots," he explained. "The fighting there has started again."
* Jose Luis Pardo and Alejandra S. Inzunza are journalists who have traveled the region chronicling drug trafficking and its impact. Follow them on Twitter at @Dromomanos, and see more of their work at https://www.dromomanos.com. This article originally appeared in El Universal Domingo. It was republished with permission. See original article here.