Seven current and former Venezuela military officials are to be tried for allowing illegal drug flights to transit through the country, in a small-scale prosecution that continues to leave the highest ranks of corrupt military untouched.
A court in the state of Aragua has confirmed charges against five Venezuelan Military Air Force officials -- a major, a captain and two lieutenants -- and two retired National Guard officials, according to a Public Ministry press release. These individuals are suspected of allowing the entrance and exit of non-authorized aircraft through Venezuelan air space, and will be tried for drug trafficking, conspiracy and the formation of armed groups.
Among the accused is the Air Force Coronel Rafael Ponce Delgado, who was formerly in charge of control tower communications in Las Flecheras airport, in the state of Apure, which borders Colombia.
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The current and former military officials are being detained. Three Colombian nationals and one Venezuelan have been sentenced to five years in prison as part of the same case.
The Public Ministry added that a high ranking military official allegedly offered a substantial amount of dollars per month -- though it is unclear to whom -- in return for allowing the passage of illegal flights.
Investigations began in May 2015 after allegations were presented to the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar - DGCIM).
InSight Crime Analysis
While this investigation into military involvement in criminal activities by a Venezuelan court is encouraging, its focus on low-ranking officials is of little impact, and avoids targeting the military elite believed to be behind the country's drug trafficking operations.
Although such prosecutions aim to take out the lower rungs of the corrupt military, it is largely believed that involvement in drug trafficking reaches the very top military posts -- referred to as the "Cartel of the Suns" (Cartel de los Soles) -- as well as leading politicians (the current Vice-president and former National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello has been on the receiving end of numerous allegations in recent months).
SEE ALSO: Cartel de los Soles News and Profile
This new trial brings to mind the unsatisfactory judicial backlash that followed the historic bust of 1.3 tons of cocaine on a commercial flight from Caracas to Paris in 2013. A number of National Guard members -- including two sergeants and a first lieutenant -- were subsequently detained, although it was suggested that these arrests were merely a façade, while the true brains behind the operation remained free.
The impunity of high-level figures continues despite increasing pressure by the United States' to expose the involvement of elements of the Venezuelan government in illegal trafficking activities. In December 2015, the US Department of Justice announced that it would bring charges against numerous top Venezuelan government officials, naming only the head of the National Guard and former Drug Czar Nestor Reverol, and the former top antidrug official Edilberto Molina.
Furthermore, November 2015 saw the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrest the Venezuelan first lady's nephews in Haiti, and the pair are currently being tried by a New York court on cocaine smuggling charges. The reaction of Venezuela's socialist government has generally been denial, and First Lady Cilia Flores most recently spoke up on the case, claiming that the DEA had "kidnapped" her nephews.
The military represents a key power base for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's crumbling socialist government, so it is unsurprising that the executive choose to turn a blind eye to serious criminal allegations to avoid compromising the army's support for the regime.