Two sweeping investigations into police units serving along Venezuela’s border were ordered after the arrest of 15 officers, several of whom are accused of participating in drug trafficking and a murder-for-hire plot. The investigations and arrests show that police in this border region are fast joining organized criminal structures.
On October 30, nine officers working in the northwestern state of Zulia were arrested after they were found with 96 packages of marijuana. Of those arrested, five were part of the local police unit in the municipality of San Francisco. Four others belonged to the state police. All were accused of drug trafficking and carrying illegal firearms.
Six other police officers were also arrested for taking part in a murder-for-hire plot to kill State Police Intelligence Officer Benito Cobis. Cobis was shot dead last month.
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Luis Orlando Curiel, who was Cobis’ predecessor in the same job, was among those arrested. Prosecutors accused him of being behind the plot to kill Cobis.
When these facts came to light, a sweeping investigation into the state police was ordered by Néstor Reverol, minister of the interior, justice and peace. Zulia’s local police unit has also come under investigation.
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The assassination of Zulia’s state police intelligence director shows the reach of criminal organizations in Venezuela’s border region. And the sweeping investigations into the police units there are further evidence of strong links between organized crime and police officials — many of them close to high-level government figures.
For example, Luis Orlando Curiel, the alleged author of Cobis’ murder, has long been a confidante to Zulia’s current governor Omar Prieto, who also served two terms as mayor of San Francisco, beginning in 2008.
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What’s more, the northwestern state of Zulia, which shares a border with Colombia, recorded 350 cases of organized crime in 2017, more than a quarter of the cases in Venezuela and the most out of any state, according to the annual report by non-governmental organization Paz Activa. This trend has continued throughout the first six months of 2018.
Zulia is home to diverse criminal structures, which are behind a number of crimes in the region, including gasoline smuggling. The smuggling takes place between Venezuela’s western border town of Paraguachón and the city of Maicao in Colombia’s La Guajira department. Powerful criminal organizations, such as the Guajira Cartel (Cartel de La Guajira), control the smuggling business and move in the region with complete freedom.
Whether the investigation into Zulia’s police will clean up those institutions remains to be seen. Recent events, however, make clear that a portion of Zulia’s police are linked to criminal structures, and that some of its officials have become criminals themselves.
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