Venezuelan authorities charged four National Guard members with plotting to traffic a load of cocaine to Mexico, but the low ranks of the officers point to the government's reluctance to tackle corruption higher up the chain of command.
In an August 6 press release, the Attorney General's Office announced drug trafficking charges against 16 people, including the four National Guard members, a security manager for the airline Aeroméxico and eleven other airport workers.
The press release states that the suspects conspired to ship eight suitcases containing a total of 600 kilograms of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico on a June 16 flight. Authorities seized the drug-laden luggage when the flight arrived in Mexico City's international airport from the Simon Bolivar international airport in the Venezuelan city of Maiquetía.
According to a June 20 report by Venezuelan journalist Javier Mayorca, Mexico's powerful Sinaloa Cartel would have been the recipient of the drugs, which were ultimately destined for sale across the US border in Phoenix, Arizona.
The government press release provided few details about the trafficking scheme or the operation that led to the drug bust. However, it did specify that the accused included a first lieutenant in the National Guard, Higmar Vivas, and three sergeants; Jimmy Useche, Elkin Fuentes and Víctor Molina.
The position of first lieutenant is a relatively low rank for an officer in the Venezuelan National Guard, falling below the ranks of general, colonel, major and captain. The rank of sergeant falls below that of lieutenant.
InSight Crime Analysis
The announcement of charges against the National Guard members in connection with the June drug bust in Mexico contrasts sharply with another recent case of alleged corruption within Venezuela's security forces.
Last week, US prosecutors unsealed an indictment alleging that the former general director of Venezuela's anti-drug agency, Nestor Luis Reverol Torres -- who served as a general in the National Guard -- along with the former sub-director of the anti-drug agency, Edylberto Jose Molina Molina, accepted bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for helping them conduct their illicit business.
The day after the unsealing of the indictment, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro named Reverol as the country's new Interior minister, calling the charges against him an attack by the "North American empire."
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As InSight Crime noted, the Venezuelan government has previously brought charges against other low-ranking National Guard members accused by the United States of drug trafficking. However, Maduro's administration has also moved to protect higher-ranking officials who face US charges.
David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), recently wrote that providing protection to high-level officials accused of criminal activity could be part of a strategy intended to shore up Maduro's political position, which has been weakened by ongoing economic turmoil and a growing security crisis, both of which have added momentum to an effort to recall the president from office.
"Maduro seems to be building a core security team among officials that have in some way been blacklisted by the US," Smilde wrote. "This makes sense since these officials have high 'exit costs' in any transition scenario. Put differently, they will be loyal and fight to the finish because their ability to avoid US justice depends on the survival of Chavismo in power."