Venezuela’s northeastern state of Monagas has shot up in the country’s drug seizure rankings in 2023, a sign traffickers may be seeking alternative routes as authorities crack down in other states.
Venezuela's national drugs agency (Superintendencia Nacional Antidrogas - Sunad) seized 24 tons of drugs between January and June 2023, Interior Minister Remigio Ceballos Ichaso wrote on Twitter.
In all, Monagas accounted for over 12% of those seizures, behind only Zulia, a western state on the Colombian border, which had 53% of all seizures. Approximately 2.85 tons of drugs were confiscated in Monagas, a staggering leap from the 17 kilograms found in all of 2022.
Raids by authorities revealed that drug traffickers have set up advanced logistics in the state. In early June, a joint raid by the Venezuelan police and army dismantled one camp in the municipality of Maturín. The camp was allegedly used to produce cocaine and to build “narco-submarines” to ship the drugs.
Three months earlier, one such vessel believed to have been built in Maturín was caught with 2.8 kilograms of drugs in a jungle river between the states of Monagas and Sucre.
InSight Crime Analysis
While the dramatic increase in cocaine seized in Monagas this year may be partially due to traffickers seeking alternate routes, it is also likely a result of increased scrutiny by authorities.
Over the last year, large-scale operations by Venezuelan security forces have targeted drug trafficking in other coastal states, which may have pushed traffickers to shift their activities to Monagas. In September 2022, Operation Manaure was launched to crack down on active drug trafficking along the Paraguaná peninsula in the state of Falcón. It followed on the heels of Operation Cacique Cayaurima, which focused on reducing drug trafficking in eastern Venezuela, especially Sucre.
Monagas is also strategically located for moving drugs, with a long stretch of Caribbean coast not far from Trinidad and Tobago. Many of the drug shipments passing through Monagas go through La Pica, a parish within the municipality of Maturín, which has access to the Caribbean Sea and the site where the narco-submarine camp was found in June. Investigations by InSight Crime have revealed that cocaine has been sent from La Pica to Mexico, the United States, and Europe. In addition to its location, La Pica has a minimal police presence.
“There is no type of check or control," a retired police officer told InSight Crime, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "There is no police or coast guard base there. That makes logistics and mobilizing operations easier.”
Further inland, the area of La Bruja in the municipality of Punceres is known for housing clandestine landing strips for drug flights. The southern municipalities of Libertador and Sotillo have been used to move cocaine by river into the neighboring states of Bolívar and Delta Amacuro.
Monagas' strategic location has also recently caught the attention of transnational groups. In early 2022, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), Colombia's last remaining guerrilla group, reportedly clashed with a local gang known as the Barrancas Syndicate (Sindicato de Barrancas) in the town of Barrancas del Orinoco in Sotillo.
While the latest shipments have not been linked to the ELN, shipments of cocaine from Colombia are currently moved into Venezuela, pass through states where the ELN has a heavy presence -- such as Amazonas, Apure, Guárico, and Bolívar -- and to the Caribbean coast.