Venezuelan authorities recently announced cocaine seizures of almost three metric tons, illustrating the persistent flow of drugs on the border between Colombia and Venezuela.
On March 8, authorities seized 1,749 kilograms of cocaine in the Venezuelan border state of Zulia and another 877 kilograms in different operations in the states of Monagas, Mérida and Anzoátegui.
InSight Crime has previously noted that Zulia is a strategic entry point for drugs coming from Colombia. The so-called "Hot Route" ("Ruta Caliente") leaves from the town of Paraguachón in the Colombian department of La Guajira, using the Limón River to reach the southern end of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela.
The states of Monagas, Mérida and Anzoátegui in Venezuela are also located on the route from Norte de Santander and Arauca in Colombia to Europe, Africa, Central America and the Caribbean.
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In addition to social, political and economic crises unfolding in Venezuela; the abuse of state resources; and the involvement of the armed forces in illegal activities like drug trafficking; the recent seizures suggest the country is also struggling with problems related to Colombia's increasing cultivation of coca.
According to new US government figures, Colombia could be producing up to 1,316 metric tons of cocaine a year, part of which leaves the country through the porous 2,219-kilometer border it shares with Venezuela.
Following the beginning of the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), cocaine trafficking routes to Venezuela that until recently were mainly controlled by the rebels' Eastern and Magdalena Medio blocks are now up for grabs. This has caused an unexpected territorial struggle for the control of illegal economies in these areas.
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In the case of Norte de Santander -- which borders the Venezuelan states of Táchira and Zulia -- power gaps left by the FARC's 33rd Front, which was concentrated in Tibú, have increased tensions between the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), the People's Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación - EPL) and crime groups known as BACRIM. This has been evidenced by recent reports that the appearance of alleged paramilitary groups in the area has displaced the region's inhabitants to Venezuela.
Another factor that should not be discounted is the possible increase of illicit crops in Venezuela. The most recent figures from the Venezuelan National Anti-Drug Office (Oficina Nacional Antidrogas - ONA) referred to Zulia as the state with the largest number of seizures nationwide (58 tons). In addition, the ONA reported about 25 hectares of coca crops in an area near the Colombian border.
This coincides with a recent field investigation conducted by InSight Crime, which found coca crops controlled by the ELN in Sierra de Perija in Zulia state. The investigation also found that the guerrilla group would be employing local indigenous people in laboratories to process cocaine.
In short, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' optimism that the peace agreement with the FARC, possibly the most important player in the global cocaine trade, could mark a turning point in the fight against drug trafficking seems to be contradicted by reality. Conditions in Colombia and Venezuela could continue to foster cocaine trafficking and boost consumption throughout the region.