US prosecutors have charged Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his closest allies with drug trafficking and corruption, cementing the embattled nation's reputation as a mafia state.
The United States Department of Justice announced indictments against Maduro and fourteen high-ranking Venezuelan officials, including military leaders and the director of the supreme court, who allegedly used their positions of power to line "their pockets with drug money," US Attorney General William Barr said during a March 26 press conference.
The indictment against Maduro details a decades-long relationship between his inner circle and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- FARC) to facilitate drug trafficking in the region. Prominent ex-FARC Mafia commanders, Luciano Marín Arango, alias “Iván Márquez,” and Seuxis Pausias Hernández, alias “Jesús Santrich”, were indicted alongside Maduro.
In the mid-2000s, Maduro used his power as Venezuela's foreign minister to keep the border with Colombia open for drug trafficking, according to the indictment. He allegedly negotiated a deal to pay the FARC guerrillas cash and weapons in exchange for increasing cocaine production. And on one occasion, Maduro received $5 million to help the FARC launder drug money by purchasing agricultural equipment from Malaysia, according to the indictment.
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Maduro rejected the charges, saying on Twitter that the United States and Colombia are "conspiring" and that "they have given the order to fill Venezuela with violence."
Maduro's closest allies are also listed in the indictment, among them the country's former military intelligence director, Hugo Carvajal Barrios, alias "El Pollo," and the former president of its national assembly, Diosdado Cabello. The pair worked with Cliver Alcalá Cordones, a former general, to oversee large-scale shipments of cocaine, as well as to provide the FARC with machine guns, rocket launchers and ammunition, prosecutors said.
After a 1.3-ton shipment of cocaine was confiscated by French authorities only months into his presidency, the indictment says, Maduro authorized the arrests of various low-level military officials in an effort to divert public and law enforcement attention.
In a separate indictment also issued March 26, Venezuelan minister of defense Vladimir Padrino López is accused of conducting drug trafficking operations through Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Mexico.
"(They) supplied authorization codes and cover for the planes and the boats that transported the shipments as they began their journey to the United States," US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Steven Berman said.
Maikel Moreno, the president of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice in Venezuela, is charged in another indictment with money laundering and other financial crimes connected to at least 20 cases that he allegedly fixed in exchange for cash payments.
Bank records obtained by prosecutors show that between 2012 and 2016 Moreno spent more than $600,000 on cars, jewelry and other luxury items in the Miami area despite claiming he only makes $12,000 a year.
In 2017, Moreno personally ordered the government seizure of a General Motors plant with the understanding that he would personally profit from its sale. On another occasion, he was gifted a "luxurious residence" in the El Hatillo neighborhood of Caracas after helping dismiss a fraud case against the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA), according to charging documents.
In conjunction with the indictments, the State Department announced rewards of up to $15 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Maduro. It also promised $10 million rewards for Cordones, Carvajal Barrios and Cabello.
InSight Crime Analysis
While the timing of Maduro's indictment is surprising, the charges against him reaffirm longtime accusations that he heads a drug-trafficking cabal that involves the highest levels of Venezuela's government and military.
In 2018, InSight Crime published an investigation into the Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles), which gets its name from the golden stars that generals in the Venezuelan National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) wear on their uniforms.
The indictments officially lay bare the existence of the cartel, and also reveal the role of defense minster Padrino López, who had not been previously implicated.
According to the Justice Department, Padrino López used his position to interdict certain drug planes while letting pass other aircraft "whose drug trafficking coordinators paid bribes to him to safely transit Venezuelan airspace."
The indictments also detail the alleged links between the FARC and the Maduro administration in trafficking drugs – links that have become all the more significant since three ex-FARC commanders returned to the battlefield in August 2018. The dissident leaders are alleged to be operating from Venezuela’s border region, which provides them easy access to Colombian cocaine production and smuggling routes.
The allegations that Maduro provided the FARC with military-grade weapons means that he could filter the group arms again, just as ex-FARC mafia cells are looking to rearm.
US prosecutors also revealed the magnitude of drugs trafficked through Venezuela and the smuggling routes used to move them. By 2004, some 250 or more tons of cocaine were transiting the country each year, they said. Boats loaded with cocaine were launched from Venezuela's northern coast, and drugs were also secreted into cargo on container ships.
Small aircraft were also used to move drugs to Central America, with the planes taking off from clandestine airstrips in Venezuela's western state of Apure. In 2010, 75 drug planes used what is known as the “air bridge” cocaine route between Venezuela and Honduras, officials said.
Maritime drug smuggling off Venezuela’s coastline is still rampant, particularly to Caribbean island nations. Drug planes also continue to fly unchecked. National assembly representative Juan Pablo Guanipa claimed recently that 400 such runways exist in the northern state of Zulia alone.
The indictments offer further evidence of drug trafficking activities by high-ranking officials who InSight Crime previously identified as being part of the Cartel of the Suns, including Cabello, sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in 2018 for "drug trafficking, money laundering and other corrupt activities."
Former vice president Tareck El Aissami was also sanctioned by the Treasury for facilitating drug shipments on behalf of Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled and for controlling air and maritime drug routes.
Others include Carvajal Barrios, who has since revealed links between several members of the Maduro regime and organized crime; and Alcalá Cordones, the former general accused of overseeing the movement of drugs and weapons with the FARC.
The indictments are unlikely to affect the government’s day-to-day operations. Almost everyone charged has already been sanctioned for drug trafficking and other high crimes with little visible impact. In fact, Maduro has even promoted numerous officials despite their outstanding sanctions.
The move by the Justice Department has likely "thrown a wrench into any efforts to achieve political transition in Venezuela," Geoff Ramsey, Venezuela director for the Washington Office On Latin America, told InSight Crime.
"All of the people in Maduro’s circle are much less likely to have access to any kind of soft landing now," he said, "because they know they can very easily end up in a jail cell in Miami."