The swearing in of Nicolás Maduro for a second presidential term demonstrates just how deeply entrenched organized crime structures are in Venezuela’s government, having helped to sustain a regime marked by unlawful actions, human rights violations and support of criminal groups.
In the weeks leading up to Maduro’s inauguration on January 10, a string of events further called the legitimacy of Maduro’s presidency into question -- a characterization that goes back to his controversial declaration of victory in the May 2018 election, which provided him a second term.
On January 6, Cristian Zerpa, a Venezuelan Supreme Court judge, made a shocking escape to the United States and has accused the Maduro government of illegal acts, such as violating the separation of powers. Speaking from Orlando in several interviews with media outlets, Zerpa said that a small group of people in the executive branch dictates court rulings in Venezuela in order to keep Chavismo in power and cover up illegal acts. The people Zerpa named include the president, first lady Cilia Flores, Vice President Tareck El Aissami, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, Communication Minister Jorge Rodríguez and president of the National Constituent Assembly (Asamblea Nacional Constituyente – ANC), Diosdado Cabello.
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Zerpa, once an important Chavista collaborator with close ties to Maduro and the first lady, also revealed the regime's connections with drug trafficking, though he did not give many details.
“Venezuela is an important country on drug trafficking routes, and that wouldn’t be possible without the complicity of certain authorities,” said the former judge, adding his own drug trafficking accusations to the many that have already been lobbed at Maduro government officials grouped under the moniker Cartel de los Soles (Cartel of the Suns).
As Zerpa opened up about the Maduro administration’s hijacking of Venezuela’s government institutions, the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) updated its Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List, adding seven people, most of them business leaders known to be in the intimate circles of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez.
At the top of the list is Raúl Antonio Gorrín Belisario, president of television news network Globovisión. He was added to the SDN list for his alleged ties to a corruption network suspected of bribing Venezuelan government institutions in order to conduct illegal currency exchanges that yielded some $2.4 billion. In a news release, OFAC also alleged that Gorrín and former national treasurer Claudia Patricia Díaz Guillén participated in a mafia-like structure linking business leaders and high-level government officials.
Gorrín also made headlines in July 2018 for his suspected participation in Operation Money Flight, a case in which upwards of $1.2 billion was laundered from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA). In that case, Gorrín is alleged to have been behind a series of financial transactions that placed approximately $200 million into accounts belonging to the first lady Cilia Flores’ children.
The US sanctions also reached Globovisión itself, long a symbol of Venezuela and once a defender of the country’s opposition during the Chávez presidency. However, Gorrín and his partner Gustavo Perdomo (also sanctioned) were able to acquire it as compensation for important currency transactions they conducted with the Chavista government. While the acquisition may have been the least profitable that Gorrín and Perdomo carried out under Chávez, it ensured the government’s domination of Venezuela’s communication sector. The media giant may have also been used to cover up criminal operations.
Another element feeding into the political situation in Venezuela is the connection between the government and various criminal structures that have emerged from the shadows of Chavismo. Pro-government armed groups called “colectivos” have been deployed in an apparent effort to demonstrate what the government is capable of doing to keep Maduro in power. Since January 7, several groups have paraded down the streets of Caracas, showing off military equipment in front of the presidential palace.
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The co-opting of government institutions, direct links between the Maduro government and Venezuelan economic elites replete with ill-gotten profits, and the government’s open encouragement of armed groups to intimidate the population are three signs that Venezuela’s crisis is deepening. The situation has reached the point of a humanitarian emergency, and the government has degenerated into a mafia state.
Although Maduro is set to start another 10 years as president, Venezuela's opposition and at least 50 national governments rejected the official results of the elections held on May 20, 2018. The main reason given was that there were not enough guarantees for the election to be considered truly free and fair, and therefore Maduro is an illegitimate president.
Venezuela's economic crisis has led to an inflation rate that the International Monetary Fund says will reach 10 million percent in 2019, and crime and violence have hit levels usually seen in times of war. In 2018, there were 23,047 homicides, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV). Security forces committed 7,523 killings; all those killed were categorized as “resisting authority.” With a rate of 81 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Venezuela is the most violent country in Latin America.
The company Delphos conducted an opinion survey in November 2018 that evaluated Maduro’s popularity. It found that 61.1 percent of those surveyed felt the situation in Venezuela had worsened after the government adopted new economic measures in August 2018. Fifty-eight percent identified the government as primarily responsible for the country’s problems.
To address the public discontent, the Maduro government has resorted to state violence, whether by killing alleged criminals or using armed pro-government groups to terrorize the residents of Venezuela’s towns and cities.
Further complicating the situation is the increasing presence of criminal groups from Colombia in Venezuelan territory, including the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrilla group. The ELN has now spread to at least 12 states, but for now have mainly stuck to the mining regions.
Massive forced migration is one of the most striking signs that Venezuelans have rejected Maduro’s policies, his government's corruption, and the organized crime structures that have held up the regime. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported in November 2018 that there are now 3 million Venezuelan migrants worldwide.
Given that colectivos and other repression and social control mechanisms were on full display during Maduro’s inauguration, it seems clear that no policy changes are on the horizon for his second term. Legitimate or not, the new Venezuelan government will continue to rely on armed groups to act in mercenary fashion in so-called defense of the revolution. The government will also depend on criminal structures involved in drug trafficking and other criminal economies, enriching those with the right connections.