A Venezuelan island in the Caribbean that is a popular tourist destination was used by a Colombian trafficker to move drugs to the United States and Europe, in another example of Venezuela's coastal islands serving as transshipment points.
Colombian trafficker Henry Carrillo-Ramirez, who pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in a US federal court in early November, moved Colombian cocaine to the island of Margarita, about 25 miles northeast of mainland Venezuela. He then arranged to have small boats shuttle the drugs to offshore fishing vessels that ultimately smuggled them to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and even as far as Spain, according to the US Justice Department.
The cocaine was produced in Colombia's Catatumbo region, along the northern Venezuela-Colombia border.
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Carrillo-Ramírez, alias "Barriga," was a well-known businessman in the Colombian city of Cúcuta when he was arrested in 2017. Colombian authorities have seized about five billion Colombian pesos (around $1.5 million) in assets belonging to him, according to La Opinión.
During the four years that Carrillo-Ramírez's drug trafficking group was under investigation, law enforcement interdicted nearly two tons of cocaine belonging to it. Major busts included the seizure of 960 kilograms of cocaine on a boat headed to Europe; the interdiction of two boats carrying drugs to Puerto Rico; and Spanish authorities capturing a boat carrying 728 kilograms of cocaine in international waters.
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With drug trafficking through Venezuela skyrocketing amid the country's collapse, its Caribbean islands have increasingly served as both a waystation and a springboard for drug traffickers.
Carrillo-Ramírez's trafficking group was able to produce cocaine on the Colombia-Venezuela border in the municipality of Tibú, in the department of Norte de Santander. There, the drugs were guarded by Víctor Ramón Navarro Serrano, alias “Megateo,” the leader of a Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación -- EPL) faction. Carrillo-Ramírez's alliance with Navarro Serrano, who was killed in 2015, also facilitated the shipment of drugs across the border.
Afterward, the drugs were moved across Venezuela to Margarita island. Given the long journey with numerous checkpoints and the difficulty of accessing the island -- which can only be reached by ferry, plane or motorboat -- it is likely that Carrillo-Ramírez's organization was paying off Venezuelan officials to allow for transport.
The island of Margarita, known as the “Pearl of the Caribbean,” is a particularly attractive staging ground, providing access not only to other island nations, but also Europe. Carrillo-Ramírez's group was moving drugs directly to Spain.
The island has served as a common drug stopover point for decades. It previously served as a safe haven for Colombia's Norte del Valle drug cartel kingpin Jaime Alberto Marín, alias “Beto Marín,” who was captured there in 2010.
Amid the surge in cocaine trafficking out of Venezuela and to the Caribbean, other paradise islands off the country's coasts have become transshipment hotspots. Another chain of Venezuelan islands, known as the Los Roques Archipelago, has also been used to traffic gold and drugs, according to reports from a member of the National Assembly.