In the latest indication that the country is becoming a major operations center for international organized crime, Venezuelan officials have seized nearly seven tons of cocaine belonging to a Spanish drug trafficking ring.
As Spanish news agency EFE reports, the operation began when Spanish intelligence officials learned in February of a plot to ship construction equipment to the South American country, which drug traffickers would then use to conceal a cargo of cocaine to send back to Spain. This information was relayed to Venezuelan authorities, who began monitoring the boat, until it was loaded with 6.7 metric tons of cocaine in the port city of San Felix Palua on July 7. On top of the seizure, which authorities say is the largest amount of Spain-bound cocaine ever intercepted, officials arrested 13 people from the two countries.
Although the operation is a victory for Venezuela’s fight against crime, it comes at a time when the international community is viewing the country’s anti-drug operations with increasing suspicion. According to the United Nations 2011 World Drug Report, over half of all seized Europe-bound cocaine shipments from 2006 to 2008 came through Venezuela, making the country a major transit hub for the drug.
While the illegal narcotics trade has operated in Venezuela for decades, it is believed that the problem worsened after the 2002 coup attempt that nearly removed Chavez from office. Because he suspected the U.S. of supporting the opposition, the relationship between the president and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began to sour, culminating in his 2005 refusal to admit the agency into the country.
As a result, drug traffickers began to see Venezuela as a good transit point for cocaine flights from Colombia, offering drug-laden airplanes a chance to fly mostly undetected to Venezuela's northern coast. From there, the product is shipped northward or to Europe and West Africa.
This phenomenon has been accompanied by a surge in other violent crimes in Venezuela. As of February, the official murder rate in the country was at 47 per 100,000 people, a figure far higher than that of both Mexico and Colombia, making Venezuela one of the most violent countries in the world.
As InSight Crime has reported, Venezuela’s booming drug trafficking industry has been repeatedly linked to elements in the country’s military, especially among units stationed along the border with Colombia. In 2007, rumors surfaced that a drug trafficking organization comprised of members of the armed forces was emerging in the country. The group has been referred to as the "Cartel of the Suns," named after the gold stars that Venezuelan generals wear on their uniforms.