Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro spent years seemingly on the brink of losing power as his crisis-hit government faced popular uprisings, coup attempts, and international condemnation as an illegitimate dictatorship. But having survived all attempts to remove him, Maduro spent the past year tightening his grip on power in Venezuela, not only politically, but also by bringing order to the chaotic underworld that was allowed to flourish during the crisis years.
“Now that Maduro has defeated the opposition and feels in a strong position, it seems like he wants to put things in order, to send the message that you do things when I tolerate them and they are under my control, or you do not do them at all,” said Benigno Alarcón, a political scientist and director of the Center for Political Studies at the Andrés Bello University in Caracas.
Crisis and Clientelism
Corruption, armed groups, and criminal economies all helped Maduro survive an escalating series of crises, which began with an economic crash the year after he took power in 2013.
When mass protests swept the streets, armed militant groups known as colectivos were deployed to violently repress them. When the oil sector collapsed, Maduro turned to the illegal gold trade to fill the budget gap. And when the state ran out of money to pay the security forces, the military was permitted to take its cut of profits from drug trafficking, smuggling and other criminal economies to keep them loyal.
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A clientelistic system was born, in which Maduro kept the members of the military and the increasingly factitious United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV) on his side by doling out access to corruption opportunities and criminal economies, and control of territories where they could get rich through partnerships with criminal groups.
But while it helped keep Maduro in power, that system became chaotic and span out of his control.
“There came a moment when [politicians and the military] began generating resources just for themselves and managing dynamics without any sort of control,” said Alarcón. “[And] armed groups became the lords and masters of their territories.”
But times have changed. The economy has stabilized, protests have died down, the political opposition is weak and divided, and Venezuela is slowly reentering the international community. This has allowed Maduro to start taking back control.
2022 began with a declaration of intent from the Maduro government. On January 28, the Twitter account of the national anti-drug chief, Richard López Vargas, published an official statement reporting success in a new operation, Mano de Hierro (Iron Fist).
The communiqué reported that authorities had detained three alleged drug traffickers, and more unusually, their alleged political collaborators: a municipal mayor in the state of Zulia, and two National Assembly representatives.
The statement concluded with a promise to eradicate corruption and what was to become the operation’s official slogan: “Caiga quién caiga” (“Whoever falls, falls”).
The arrests were the first of a series of operations targeting allegedly corrupt state officials, and over the months that followed high- and low-ranking members of the military, police, and justice agencies; political leaders; and officials from state-owned companies were arrested on charges such as fuel smuggling, mercury trafficking, extortion, and taking bribes.
In April, Maduro drove home the message behind the campaign.
“We are going to go after all the mafias, however they are disguised, wherever they are, with an iron fist!” he told those gathered for the PSUV party congress.
Maduro’s proclamation, though, rang hollow. The rampant corruption and ties to the criminality of many of the country’s most senior political and military figures is an open secret in Venezuela and the target of numerous sanctions and indictments abroad. And yet none of the operations touched such actors, leading to questions as to what really lay behind Maduro’s iron fist.
For the various politicians and political analysts consulted by InSight Crime, there are several possible answers to that question, but they all point in the same direction. Maduro is consolidating his power by making it clear that he determines who can benefit from corruption schemes and criminal economies and who cannot.
“Maduro has used Mano de Hierro as a tool to reposition some of the sectors that had escaped from his control and were not representing his interests,” said a former National Assembly representative and dissident Chavista, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of political persecution. “And he is using Mano de Hierro as a means to control the distinct factions that exist within the [Chavista political] system.”
Maduro is also likely looking to combat public perceptions of broad corruption, according to Pablo Andrés Quintero, a political scientist and consultant in Caracas.
“We also have to remember that, in 2024, there will be presidential elections, and the government needs to clean up its image. There is going to be a type of political branding to eliminate the idea that the government is corrupt from public opinion,” he said.
Maduro’s political branding has extended to the international stage, where he has fought back against long-running accusations of his regime’s complicity with drug trafficking with a much-vaunted surge in drug seizures accompanied by fiery declarations about Venezuela would “exterminate” Colombian drug trafficking groups in Venezuela.
However, the pattern of anti-narcotics operations suggests a much more complex dynamic, where Maduro’s ultimate objective is not to eradicate trafficking completely but to control who can move drugs and where they can move them.
According to figures reported by anti-narcotics authorities on December 3, security forces had seized 41.6 metric tons of drugs up until that point in 2022. But the seizures were unequally distributed, and not in a way that corresponds with trafficking routes.
Drugs flood into Venezuela along the length of its border with Colombia, are moved along a maze of internal transit routes and leave by water, air, and land from sites all around the country. But over 80% of the total quantity seized was in just two states: the Colombian border state of Zulia, which accounted for around 70% of seizures, and the Caribbean coast state of Falcón where around 11% of seizures have occurred, according to official figures.
Both states are home to drug trafficking groups that had once enjoyed the protection of elements of the Venezuelan state but more recently have become targets: the ex-FARC Mafia in Zulia, and the Paraguaná Cartel in Falcón.
Falcón, in particular, was a traffickers’ paradise, where, as InSight Crime has reported previously, the politically connected Paraguaná Cartel operated in collusion with the security forces. Now, though, security forces have been ordered to crack down hard on trafficking, one National Guard official recently deployed there told InSight Crime. And the orders, officials believe, come right from the top.
“Those of us that are here are looking for whatever quantity of drugs so we can position ourselves with the president, we have to show results somehow, that we have achieved something, even if it’s a little,” said the official, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
“There are a lot of politicians and military officials involved in trafficking drugs, scrap metal, and fuel. But there is also a group that is trying to discover them in order to get in Maduro’s good graces,” he added.
The Real Iron First
For Maduro’s talk of his iron fist smashing corruption, the real full force of the state has been deployed elsewhere: against criminal and armed groups that once operated in Venezuela with impunity and, in some cases, with the blessing of the Maduro regime. The results have showcased Maduro’s willingness to use violence to realize his objectives but also the limitations of his security forces, as well the complexities of managing the state’s relationships with criminal actors.
In the state of Apure, along the Colombian border, the Venezuelan military continued its campaign against the ex-FARC Mafia 10th Front, a dissident guerrilla group that had once been allied with the Venezuelan state but has been a major military target since early 2021.
However, the decisive intervention in the conflict did not come from Venezuelan security forces but from the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), who announced they had joined the fight against the ex-FARC with a New Year’s slaughter of suspected 10th Front collaborators in the neighboring Colombian department of Arauca.
The ELN coordinated with the Venezuelan military, even carrying out joint operations, according to a Human Rights Watch report and InSight Crime sources in the border region. Within a matter of months, they were able to do what the Venezuelan military alone could not in a year of military campaigns, and drive the 10th Front from the country.
The military defeat of the 10th Front and the weakening of the broader dissident network it belonged to in both Colombia and Venezuela has left the border in control of guerrillas with close ties to the Venezuelan state, the ELN and the ex-FARC Acacio Medina Front in Amazonas.
“The fact that they have displaced the 10th Front from the Venezuelan border has led to other groups taking control of the zone, and these are groups that coordinate with the Venezuelan government and armed forces,” said an Apure social leader from a political movement with traditional ties to guerrilla groups and Chavismo, who requested to remain anonymous for security reasons.
But the fact that the guerrillas could do what the military could not raises questions about where the power now lies in their relationship.
“Venezuela, in the case of Apure, is moving towards being a territory where the border is not controlled by the Venezuelan Army or the National Guard but by irregular Colombian groups,” the social leader said. “The Venezuelan government talks about sovereignty, but it is allowing these groups to operate in our territory, it is surrendering the sovereignty of our country.”
The year also saw renewed military operations in another key state where Maduro has been trying to bring order to criminal chaos, namely the gold mining hub of Bolívar. Capturing Bolívar's mineral wealth for his political allies and for the state coffers has long been a priority for Maduro, but with the gold trade in the grasp of armed groups known as sindicatos, he has had limited success against what are deeply entrenched, heavily armed groups with both financial and social influence.
Local sources in disputed mining zones say this time the security forces are not only confronting unaligned sindicatos such as the R Organization (Organización R – OR) and El Perú, but are also targeting the mines themselves as well as the miners that work in them.
“The military is taking over mines and they are hunting the main gangsters,” said a miner in the municipality of El Callao, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “They are taking us out of all the mines.”
Tough on Crime Politics
The Maduro government is also fighting to bolster its crime and security credentials among the Venezuelan public ahead of upcoming elections.
The past year saw a series of large-scale security operations in areas where criminal control is affecting the legal economy and perceptions of insecurity, which are likely to be top concerns for many voters.
States such as Guarico, Aragua, Miranda, and Zulia, as well as the Caracas Metropolitan Area have seen deployments of hundreds of security officials with orders to pursue gangs dedicated to extortion, kidnapping, and micro-trafficking, such as Tren del Llano, the Carlos Capa gang, and the Wilexis gang.
The operations have been highly aggressive, and the reported results of alleged criminals killed or captured have been tarnished by widespread allegations of extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, and abuse of the civilian population.
The aggressive tactics have produced mixed results. While some gangs, such as the El Curi gang in the Caribbean state of Monagas appear to have been wiped out, in other cases, such as with Tren del Llano in Guarico, operations taking out the gang’s leadership have only led to fragmentation, leaving the security forces to confront several autonomous cells instead of one unified structure.
Other groups, such as Carlos Capa’s gang in Miranda and the Wilexis gang on the outskirts of Caracas, have proven even more resilient, and multiple operations appear to have done little to undermine their grip on communities or threaten their top leaders.
Even Maduro’s most prominent success yet -- driving Venezuela’s most notorious gang boss Carlos Luis Revete, alias "El Koki,” out of Caracas, then killing him while he was hiding out in the mountains of Aragua -- has not led to sustainable improvements in security.
A year and a half after El Koki fled Caracas and nearly a year since his death, the Cota 905 neighborhood he once occupied remains heavily militarized after a previous withdrawal led to the rapid return of gangs to the territory.
Residents told InSight Crime that now are police and national guard checkpoints almost every 500 meters along the neighborhood's main transport artery and more in the interior of the sector. The neighborhood has become so militarized, said one local, who requested anonymity for security reasons, that gang members attempting to retake the area “would be suicide.”
Such a presence, though, comes at a huge cost to the security forces. And similar struggles to find long-term solutions can be seen wherever these operations take place.
“These hardline policies don’t work,” said Jorge Govea Cabrera, director of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV) in the state of Zulia, which has seen multiple mega-operations over the last year. “It’s not just a question of human rights or morality - they just don’t work. Quantitative data shows that there’s no significant change in criminality. There might be a small temporary fall in criminality, but then it quickly goes up because groups fracture and more new ones are formed.”
Towards a New Criminal Clientelism
Despite the setbacks, weaknesses, and contradictions, Maduro’s security strategies have helped put him in a stronger position than at any time since he first succeeded Hugo Chávez as president.
Chávez was able to maintain power in Venezuela by uniting disparate forces and interests around himself with a mix of charisma and canny coalition building. Maduro is now moving towards the same levels of personal authority, but through scheming, corruption, and brute displays of power.
He is advancing his position in the political, economic, and criminal spheres, putting himself in the position where these different sectors intersect, and ensuring that none of them can thrive without him.
“There are mafias of interests, of self-preservation, of hegemony and the extension of power, but these generate their own subordinate networks, which complicates how these interests interconnect,” said the dissident Chavista. “Maduro is creating controls over these subordinates who believe they have more autonomy than he wants to give them.”
The ground is now shifting around Venezuela, and the year ahead will present new challenges for Maduro at home and abroad, ranging from the beginning of the presidential election campaign to Venezuela’s role as an intermediary in the peace talks between Maduro’s criminal ally the ELN, and what he hopes will be a political ally in the government of Colombian President Gustavo Petro.
The indications are he is preparing for these challenges by tightening his personal control.
“He is still playing the game of redistributing power, but it is increasingly towards himself,” said the dissident. “Sometimes he cedes, sometimes he imposes. There are still these political formulations that show he does not have total hegemony, but I believe he is on the path to having total hegemony.”