Venezuela is now the principal transit nation for Colombian cocaine and the bridge for a large percentage of drugs heading to Europe. Yet it has made some of the most important arrests of drug traffickers in the region. Is Venezuela really signed up to the war on drugs?
The Minister of Interior and Justice, Tareck El Aissami, announced that Venezuela had seized just over 42 tons of drugs during 2011 (of which just 26 tons was cocaine), a drop of more than 30 percent on 2010, which he insisted showed that the flow of drugs through Venezuela was falling. This is unlikely. He also extolled other anti-narcotics activity, like the destruction of 45 illegal airstrips, the seizure of 21 places and the decommissioning of 17 laboratories for processing drug.
In September last year the US decertified Venezuela in the war on drugs, saying it was one of three nations in the world which had “demonstrably failed” to fulfill international obligations in the war on drugs. Chavez stopped working with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2005, accusing them of espionage. The United Nations estimates that some 40 percent of cocaine that reaches the European market passes through Venezuela. Sources within the DEA put the amount of cocaine passing through the country at over 200 tons.
While for political reasons, President Hugo Chavez will not allow US aircraft to monitor over Venezuelan airspace, the president has turned to the Chinese to provide him with radar systems, and suggested a law to shoot down drug smuggling flights, a policy which had great success in Peru in the 1990s.
There have been some very notable arrests of drug traffickers in Venezuela, with 21 foreigners with Interpol "Red Notices"(international arrest warrants) pending being captured during 2011. Perhaps the most notable was the arrest in November of one of Colombia’s most wanted drug traffickers, Maximiliano Bonilla, alias "Valenciano." He was swiftly extradited to the US.
In September 2010, authorities captured one of the last leaders of the Colombian Norte Del Valle Cartel, Jaime Alberto Marín, alias "Beto Marín." In the indictments against him and other members of the Norte Del Valle gang, the group was accused of shipping some 200 tons of cocaine into the US, with a value in the billions of dollars.
Chavez is now having to pay attention to the rise in crime for domestic reasons, not just under international pressure. Almost all types of violent crime are rising, which in part is due to the drugs passing through his country, which not only have a corrupting influence and stimulate local consumption, but have helped give birth to a criminal underclass, which engages in widespread murder, kidnapping and extortion. The murder rate is now over 48 per 100,000 of the population, the highest in South America and Caracas has become one of the kidnap capitals of Latin America.
Chavez's relationship with the Colombian rebel group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has already been well documented. The FARC are believed to smuggling tons of cocaine into Venezuela every month, and enjoy the cooperation of elements of the security forces and Venezuelan political establishment, which not only facilitate their drug activities, but provide weapons, munitions along with medical and logistic support.
What was made clear in confessions by Venezuelan drug lord Walid Makled, captured in Colombia but extradited to Venezuela in May 2011, is that the military play an important role in drug trafficking in Venezuela. He said that he had paid off over 40 generals to allow his drug smuggling business to flourish. The military control the borders, the airports and ports, in short most of the entry and departure points for drug shipments. They also can escort drug shipments that cross the country.
Makled’s allegations were supported by international intelligence agencies which insisted that while Colombian groups still control much of the cocaine passing through Venezuela, they work with powerful elements in the military and the Chavez regime, which act as facilitators.
Chavez has an almost praetorian regime. He relies on a large number of active or former military officers in his government. He cannot take the issue of military corruption head on, as this could undermine his control of the insititutions of state. Many of the military units that guard the border or airports have come to rely on the second “salary” they earn through payments from drug traffickers and would resist any serious attempts to stop the flow of drugs.
So Venezuela is certainly not much of an obstacle to drug trafficking. Those top level traffickers who have been arrested may have failed to pay off the appropriate authorities, or their capture was politically too important to ignore. Either way, Venezuela is now the most important foreign operating base for Colombian transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).
The Colombian TCOs are increasingly diversifying their markets away from the US, which the Mexican TCOs now dominate, into Europe and Asia. And Venezuela is the gateway into Europe.