Venezuela authorities are touting their seizure of 28 alleged drug planes as a triumph in the fight against drug trafficking, but the increased seizures may indicate an uptick in narcotics smuggling throughout the country.
The head of Venezuela’s National Anti-Drug Office (Oficina Nacional Antidrogas – ONA), Major General Juan Grillo González, announced that as of November 2, 2018, authorities have seized 28 aircraft tied to drug trafficking.
Grillo González provided no detailed information about the seizures but did manage to issue a warning that “Venezuela will not allow Colombia, the top drug producing country, to use our territory for international trafficking primarily to the United States.”
To put things into perspective, Venezuela’s seizure of the 28 aircraft this year represents an astounding 460-percent increase over a mere five taken in 2017. Meanwhile, drug seizures have held steadier, with the ONA reporting 39.4 metric tons seized in 2017 and Interior Minister Néstor Reverol announcing that 37.2 metric tons have been seized as of November 2018.
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Such a significant increase in drug plane seizures might hint at a government's success in the war on drugs. But given that Colombia produced more cocaine than ever before this past year, this is highly unlikely. Instead, it seems that the amount of drugs passing through Venezuela has simply increased.
Venezuela’s higher official drug seizure figures could also be a logical reflection of increased circulation due to the porous border it shares with Colombia, making it an attractive territory for drug traffickers to use as an exit point for shipping their illicit cargo out of South America.
Mildred Camero, former president of the National Commission Against the Use of Illicit Drugs (Comisión Nacional Contra el Uso Ilícito de las Drogas – Conacuid) in Venezuela, explained that negligence or complicity by the authorities themselves has made the country the safest and most economical drug corridor available to international criminal organizations.
“Approximately 400 metric tons of cocaine circulate around the country per year,” the expert told InSight Crime.
Another factor that could be boosting the amount of drugs in Venezuela is the increasingly widespread presence of Colombian guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and dissident elements of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
Undermining Venezuela’s procedures for seizing drug-related aircraft is the risk of the planes being clandestinely released and reused for further trafficking. On November 4, Panama registered the activity of a YV-1863 aircraft with prior links to drug trafficking that had supposedly been neutralized by the Venezuelan Defense Ministry in 2013.
Additionally, in March 2016, a small plane that had been seized in 2011 after being used drug trafficking and was in the custody of the Venezuelan armed forces was caught moving 350 kilograms of cocaine from Venezuela to the Dominican Republic.
Rocío San Miguel, president of Venezuelan NGO Control Ciudadano believes that in many cases the aircraft seizures may be false positives because too much information is left unknown, such as where the planes are being kept, who was arrested, who flew them, where they were confiscated and what routes they flew.
For one, official reports are usually incomplete, straining their credibility. Furthermore, is it difficult to think the government of Nicolas Maduro has decided to take the fight to drug traffickers, just as the country is undergoing its worst-ever economic crisis, largely due to corruption, and while many officials face US sanctions due to alleged links to the drug trade.