A record number of drug labs have been dismantled in Venezuela's border region with Colombia, suggesting that Colombian criminal organizations are increasingly using their politically unstable neighbor to process and move cocaine.
According to El Nacional, 43 drug labs discovered in the country in 2013 represented an increase of 79 percent on the 24 discovered the previous year. So far this year, 10 labs have been discovered, with all 53 dismantled since the beginning of 2013 found in the border state of Zulia.
According to retired coronel Jairo Coronel Figuera, formerly in charge of the Venezuela National Guard's antidrug program, Zulia is a prime cocaine processing location because coca leaves can easily be moved from the nearby Colombian regions of Norte de Santander and Cesar, with chemicals for processing coming from Venezuelan cities.
The labs recently dismantled are far more sophisticated than those discovered previously, which were mostly sheds to process and store unrefined cocaine paste. Mildred Camero, ex-president of Venezuela's National Commission Against the Use of Illicit Drugs (Conacuid), told El Nacional the new labs are processing cocaine hydrochloride, or fully refined powder cocaine.
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The near-doubling of cocaine labs discovered inside Venezuela's borders suggest that drug traffickers may be taking advantage of the country's growing political instability. With protests and unrest in major cities drawing the attention of security forces, the government's ability to effectively monitor outer regions has likely been stretched.
Colombian guerilla forces and criminal organizations known as BACRIM (from "bandas criminales," or criminal bands) have long maintained a presence in the border regions of Venezuela. But now it seems their activities may be growing in the face of a corrupt and inadequate security presence incapable of addressing the situation -- standing in stark contrast to Colombia's relatively well-equipped and effective security forces.
SEE ALSO: BACRIM in Venezuela Profile
Venezuela is also a key trafficking route for cocaine moved to Central America and Western Africa, so shifting production to its borders brings the product closer to export points. While the operations to dismantle the labs do show that Venezuela is achieving some level of enforcement, the increase in facilities suggests President Nicolas Maduro's border control strategies -- including a multi-agency force made up of civil and state actors -- are not addressing the situation effectively.