Recent US indictments have shown in detail how Venezuela was at one point a key stepping stone for cocaine heading to the United States via Central America, and how political, as well as criminal, connections facilitated that flow of drugs.
Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro was indicted in March 2020 for drug trafficking and corruption, among other accusations, while charges filed in late April against former Honduran police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, were but the latest to damage Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández.
But these cases are not as isolated as they may seem. For factions within President Maduro’s regime, reliable associates abounded in Central America.
The recent drug trafficking accusations levied against Maduro and several other members of his administration have provided yet more evidence of the criminal ties between Venezuela and shady allies in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
The Criminal Enclave in Honduras
The operations of some of Honduras’ most powerful organized crime groups, including the Cachiros, Valle Valle clan and the Atlantic Cartel, were in full swing by the time former President Manuel Zelaya came to power in 2006. In fact, former kingpin Hector Emilio Fernandez, alias “Don H,” allegedly bribed Zelaya with some $2 million the year before he became head of state to protect his drug trafficking operations.
However, it wasn’t until Zelaya was ousted in a 2009 US-backed coup d’etat that brought the National Party to power that the Cachiros and Valle Valles gained direct access to the country’s political elite. After the coup, Honduras became the main air bridge for cocaine coming from Venezuela at the same time that the Cachiros and Valle Valle drug clans solidified their power with protection from government officials and a reliable cocaine supplier in Venezuela.
(Graphic c/o InSight Crime investigation)
As Honduras’ criminal landscape really solidified itself starting in 2009, the country also saw the proliferation of drug labs across the country. Some of these, according to US prosecutors, even operated with the protection of President Hernández himself while he was still head of congress.
Around this same time, President Maduro, National Constituent Assembly President Diosdado Cabello Rondón, former intelligence chief Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios and retired general Clíver Alcalá Cordones discussed the potential consequences of Zelaya’s ouster. Cabello Rondón warned, according to the latest US indictment, that the resulting instability could "fuck up the business." Following the meeting, Maduro allegedly traveled to Honduras to try and “intervene” so that the shifting political dynamics “would not disrupt the drug trafficking activities.”
The Honduras-Venezuela drug trafficking relationship didn’t falter. By 2011, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) estimated that as much as 25 percent of cocaine reaching the United States departed from Venezuela, second only to Colombia. What’s more, US authorities identified Honduras as the “main destination” and “primary transit country” for drug shipments passing through Central America en route to the United States.
A year later, a 2012 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) called Honduras the “single most popular point of entry for cocaine headed northward,” with air traffic from the Colombia-Venezuela border having “strongly increased” and been redirected from the Caribbean to the Central American nation following the 2009 coup.
This meant that the Cachiros were the main players at that time with the capacity to move drugs unobstructed west from Gracias a Dios and Olancho departments to the Valle Valle clan in Copán and Santa Bárbara departments, in large part due to the political protection they had secured.
The Powerbroker in El Salvador
Political strongman José Luis Merino of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional -- FMLN) allegedly was one of the most important money laundering associates for the criminal regime in Venezuela.
In 2006, Merino, his brother, Sigfredo Merino, and a number of Salvadoran mayors founded a business conglomerate known as Alba Petróleos. Over the course of more than 10 years, the venture fed off of money coming from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela SA (PdVSA), in order to create shell companies that were used to launder millions of dollars, according to an investigation with El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office. The same investigation also targets President Nayib Bukele, who was formerly a FMLN member and a political ally of José Luis Merino.
At least two US agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) claim that José Luis Merino is a person of interest in ongoing investigations after a US State Department corruption list named him for having suspected ties to corruption and organized crime. At the heart of these suspicions, according to a former Venezuelan prosecutor consulted by InSight Crime in Washington, is the relationship between Venezuela and money linked to PdVSA.
Merino was formerly a high-ranking member of El Salvador’s guerrilla army, which in 1992 transformed into a political party as part of a peace agreement that ended the country’s 12-year civil war. This is where his alias, “Ramiro Vásquez,” came from as well as his contacts with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia -- FARC). The rebel group was another primary ally of the criminal regime in Venezuela, according to US prosecutors.
With the FARC, Ramiro also got himself involved in trafficking weapons from Venezuela at the start of the 2000s, according to various emails uncovered from the computer of Raúl Reyes, one of the strongest guerrilla fighters at the time.
Eventually, Merino distanced himself from Maduro’s regime in Venezuela after authorities began investigating him in relation to some $600 million that had gone missing from the accounts of Alba Petróleos and PdVSA, according to sources with the FMLN, as well contacts in the Attorney General’s Office in El Salvador and Venezuela that were consulted by InSight Crime.
The Ideological Ally in Nicaragua
Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega is one of Venezuela’s closest ideological allies, and accusations that his regime has helped facilitate the drug trafficking activities and money laundering operations of corrupt actors in Venezuela are nothing new.
A 2019 Connectas investigation alleged that Alba de Nicaragua (Albanisa), a subsidiary of Venezuela’s PdVSA, was one of President Ortega’s main fronts for using Venezuelan money to feed political alliances and social programs that have helped keep him in power.
A year earlier, the US Treasury Department sanctioned one of Ortega’s closest allies and the vice president of Albanisa, Francisco López Centeno, for allegedly siphoning state funds and illegally securing government contracts, among other things.
Other security experts have in the past identified financial irregularities involving Albanisa’s revenues and expenditures, which unnamed sources within the company have alleged are the “proceeds of money laundering and a financial support cycle involving corrupt Venezuela officials and drug trafficking organizations,” such as the FARC.
And the recent US indictment alleges that around 2009, President Maduro, Cabello Rondón and Carvajal Barrios met with a FARC representative to discuss a four-ton cocaine shipment that Cabello Rondón allegedly directed the rebels to send to Venezuela “where a jet would be waiting to transport the cocaine to Nicaragua for further shipment to Mexico and importation into the United States.”
The US indictment is just the latest allegation of a Venezuela-FARC criminal relationship, where Albanisa, the PdVSA subsidiary in Nicaragua, was allegedly the vehicle that corrupt Venezuelan officials and the guerrillas used to launder their drug trafficking proceeds with the help of President Ortega.