Another former Venezuelan official now in the United States has accused President Nicolás Maduro's son of drug trafficking, and connected powerful members of the regime to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel. But are his claims against the notorious regime genuine?
The accusations were raised by Sunny Balza Dugarte, a former captain of the Venezuela National Guard, during an interview by the television channel NTN24 on August 9.
Balza was reportedly commander of a military unit stationed on Margarita Island off Venezuela's Caribbean coast in 2014 and 2015. He claims he witnessed bags of unknown content, unchecked by customs, being loaded from pickup trucks onto private planes owned by the Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA) state-owned oil company. These planes were the ones on which Nicolás Maduro Guerra, the Venezuelan president's son, also known as "Nicolasito," allegedly traveled to the island. Balza said the content may have been cocaine, but could not be certain.
The loading occurred at night and in the military area of the island's international airport, according to Balza. Security forces accompanying the president's son would carry out the loading, and the planes did not communicate any flight plans. The former captain says the operation took place every time Nicolasito came to the island to attend parties, which was roughly every two weeks.
Tareck El Aissami, the current vice president who has been sanctioned by the United States for his alleged involvement in drug trafficking, would also load unidentified shipments from pickups trucks onto his own private plane, Balza alleged.
The former captain also said that family members of Diosdado Cabello, one of the ruling party's most powerful figures and former president of the National Assembly, met with members of the Sinaloa Cartel on at least one occasion. Balza said he personally saw two sons of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán at the resort. And he said that the drug lord himself, who is currently awaiting trial in the United States, made trips to the island every two or three months.
InSight Crime Analysis
The allegations from Balza must be considered in the context of Venezuela's increasing international isolation and its rising tensions with the United States, where Balza is seeking asylum. Venezuela has issued an arrest warrant for the former member of the National Guard, according to El Nuevo Herald, although it isn't clear for what. What is evident is that it is in Balza's personal interest to provide the US government with incriminating information about Nicolás Maduro and his inner circle.
A number of sanctions against key members of the Venezuelan regime have been issued this year, some of the most recent against Maduro himself, and more than a dozen former or current high-ranking members of his government have been accused of crimes connected to drug trafficking.
Balza provides no hard evidence for his claims, at least one of which appears highly doubtful. El Chapo was in prison from February 2014 until July 2015 -- the years that Balza says he was a commander on Margarita Island -- and then a fugitive until his recapture in January 2016, undermining the believability of Balza's claims regarding supposed frequency of his visits to Margarita.
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That said, the US government also asserts that the Sinaloa Cartel was involved in Venezuela's drug trade. And Balza's claims do seem to fit with the recent "narco nephews" case, in which two nephews of first lady Flores were convicted by a US court for conspiring to traffic cocaine into the United States.
Balza's testimony adds to the list of former Venezuelan officials now in the United States who are incriminating members of the regime in drug trafficking. The former head of presidential security Leamsy Salazar has accused Diosdado Cabello and his brother of controlling a shadowy drug trafficking network of corrupt military dubbed the Cartel of the Suns. A former judge and governor have levelled equally incriminating accusations at the regime. It is testimony of this kind that helps form at least some of the evidence gathered by US law enforcement to facilitate sanctions and indictments of those suspected to be active in criminal activity and drug trafficking.