The Los Roques Archipelago -- a group of islands off Venezuela's northern coast known for their white sand beaches and turquoise waters -- has become a staging ground for smuggling drugs and gold through the Caribbean.
On October 29, José Luis Pirela, the president of the Subcommission for the Fight Against Drugs, Terrorism and Organized Crime of Venezuela's National Assembly, said that an organized crime gang was operating from the islands off shore from Venezuela's Vargas state to move drugs and gold to Caribbean nations, especially Bonaire, El Pitazo reported.
Speaking to the National Assembly, Pirela alleged that the gang includes Carlos Betancourt and Noel Lugo, identifying them as the cousin and brother of Stella Betancourt. Since 2017, Stella Betancourt has been the head of government for the Francisco de Miranda island territory, which includes Los Roques. Between 2008 and 2017, Betancourt was governor of the state of Falcón, which is close to Los Roques and the Dutch Caribbean islands.
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Pirela said that the gang was acting in partnership with an Italian businessmen with hotels and bars in Los Roques, and Venezuelan José Ramón Llavanera, who has been convicted of drug trafficking in the United States, according to El Pitazo.
Llavanera, according to Pirela's testimony, acts as an intermediary, organizing drug shipments between Los Roques and Bonaire. Pirela said that Llavanera "uses his own King 200 aircrafts" and that details of the planes would be given to appropriate "international organizations so investigations could be carried out."
Pirela said he planned to meet the governor of Bonaire, Edison Enrique Rijna, to exchange information on how the gang operates.
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The use of Los Roques to get drugs out of Venezuela makes sense. The archipelago lies only 176 kilometers -- or a 30-minute flight -- from Caracas and 167 kilometers from Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles.
The Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are increasingly being used to smuggle illegal gold and move cocaine coming from Colombia via Venezuela. A tugboat registered to a Venezuelan company, for example, was recently seized off the coast of Aruba after two tons of cocaine were discovered onboard. After dozens of migrants drowned when their boat wrecked on its way to Curaçao, it was discovered that local gangs were using the migrant transports as cover for cocaine shipments.
The island nations, which have ties to the Netherlands, serve as a transshipment point to feed cocaine to Europe. They have also long been used as a transshipment point for drugs that are then moved to the United States.
Los Roques has been in the spotlight before. In September 2019, the Venezuelan Ecological Society (Sociedad Venezolana de Ecología -- SVE) denounced the government of Nicolás Maduro for granting illegal concessions for infrastructure projects in the archipelago. The SVE acted after the Ministry of Tourism offered domestic and foreign investors the opportunity to build “high-level tourist accommodation" in Los Roques, despite Venezuelan laws prohibiting new construction inside national parks.
If Pirela's accusations prove correct, it could mean that the presence of foreign-run hotels in the region may be used to facilitate drug trafficking in the Caribbean.