For the second time in six months, a former head of Venezuela’s military intelligence service has made major revelations about the links between President Nicolás Maduro’s administration and organized crime.
General Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera was the most prominent Venezuelan official to desert the regime during a failed opposition uprising on April 30, 2019. Figuera subsequently fled to the United States, where he spoke to the Washington Post about the rampant internal criminality that, he claims, convinced him to defect from Maduro’s government.
Having served for six months as head of the notorious Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional – SEBIN), Cristopher Figuera was a member of Maduro’s inner circle and privy to the regime’s most guarded secrets of criminal collusion and corruption.
Many of his statements echo those made by General Hugo Carvajal Barrios, another former head of the SEBIN who spoke out in February regarding Maduro’s links to organized crime.
Below, InSight Crime examines four key quotes from the Cristopher Figuera interview.
1. “Maduro is the head of a criminal enterprise, with his own family involved.”
A shadowy drug-trafficking network known as the “Cartel of the Suns” is embedded deep into the Venezuelan military, implicating officials in the highest ranks of the Maduro administration and even the president’s own family.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela: A Mafia State?
In 2016, the nephews of Maduro’s wife were convicted of attempting to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States, sourced from the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia -- FARC).
Figuera told the Washington Post that he had also seen intelligence implicating Maduro’s son, Nicolás Maduro Guerra, in a gold racket exploiting small mines in the south of the country. Figuera claims he was warned not to pursue the investigation. Four days after Figuera’s interview, Nicolás Maduro was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for his role in the “illegitimate” National Constituent Assembly, a body that serves to undermine the opposition-controlled National Assembly and further entrench Maduro’s regime.
2. “The minister of industry is involved. The minister of finance is involved. The president of the Central Bank is involved.”
Figuera listed senior Venezuelan officials involved in this state-run “criminal enterprise."
In particular, Figuera mentioned the Minister of Industries and former Vice President Tareck El Aissami, claiming his involvement in money laundering. El Aissami has already been sanctioned in the United States for allegedly coordinating drug shipments from Venezuelan airstrips and ports, including to the Zetas Mexican drug cartel. Declarations by drug trafficker Walid Makled in 2010 pointed to El Aissami as having been the link between the FARC and operatives of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in Venezuela, an accusation corroborated by Carvajal.
Other officials singled out in Figuera’s testimony are Finance Minister Simón Zerpa and Central Bank President Calixto José Ortega Sánchez. Zerpa is currently under US sanctions for suspected involvement in the massive corruption associated with Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA). Ortega is implicated in allegations that the Central Bank has helped to keep Maduro in power by facilitating illegal gold sales.
3. “I found that the issues of narco-trafficking and guerrillas were not to be addressed.”
Figuera spoke of his distress at the arbitrary arrests conducted by his own department and insisted that investigations into genuine criminal collusion were obstructed at the highest level of government.
As well as affirming the presence of drug traffickers within the administration, he also claimed to have seen intelligence demonstrating government protection for armed guerrilla organizations, including Colombia’s National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and Hezbollah.
The ELN has been expanding rapidly in Venezuela and is involved in a plethora of criminal activities, including drug trafficking, illegal mining, extortion and smuggling. The ELN forms part of a broader panorama of irregular armed groups propping up Maduro’s government. These include a Venezuelan guerrilla organization known as the Patriotic Forces for National Liberation (Fuerzas Patrióticas de Liberación Nacional -- FPLN) and the paramilitary groups known as "colectivos."
4. “[Iris Varela] said that she had trained male prisoners. That she was their commander.”
The former intelligence chief also described a meeting at which Prisons Minister Iris Varela demanded 30,000 rifles to start a private army of convicts. Figuera’s allegations against her reflect recent reports of power struggles within the Maduro administration, which have purportedly led Varela to build her own force comprised of the prisoners under her ministry’s jurisdiction.
In an interview with InSight Crime, Varela denied Figuera’s claims, stating: “Do you know how many weapons I’ve seized in the prisons I’ve closed since I arrived in this ministry? Many, thousands. And I’ve given them all in. If I’d wanted weapons, I would have had plenty with those.”
Varela has presided over a series of prison reforms that enabled prison gang leaders, known as “pranes,” to gain unprecedented control over the penitentiary system. These crime bosses now run extensive criminal structures both inside and outside the prison system, charging fellow prisoners for access to necessities and privileges and directing the activities of street gangs.
Varela also rejected the alleged creation of a parallel army of prisoners. "To do that would be to admit that I [Varela] would be creating a parallel government and that is not the case. I have great respect for the Constitution, which he [Figuera] does not," she stated.
However, Varela admitted she was willing to use prisoners to defend Venezuela in case of foreign military intervention. "I am clear that, independently of the legal situation facing any Venezuelan, there is no obstacle for them to go to defend the nation in case of a foreign aggression," she told InSight Crime.
"If they threaten us with 5,000 marines, we have 45,000 prisoners. Not 30,000, and I correcting that idiot [Figuera]," added Varela.