Recent drug charges against a little-known but powerful Venezuelan businessman come as a surprise given that he allegedly operated with impunity for decades on the country's northern coast.
Emilio Enrique Martínez, alias "Chiche Smith," has been charged with drug trafficking, money laundering, sexual abuse of minors and criminal association, according to an April 3 tweet by Venezuela Attorney General Tarek William Saab.
Martínez, 68, is allegedly the leader of the Paraguaná Cartel, a drug trafficking mafia native to Falcón state, which is home to the Paraguaná Peninsula on the Caribbean coast.
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Preliminary reports suggest an informant tipped off officials with the anti-drug unit of the Bolivarian National Police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana —PNB) about Martínez's presence in the nearby state of Anzoátegui. A red alert had been issued for Martinez's arrest, and he was carrying a false identification when police detained him.
About a year ago, Venezuelan police and military personnel raided 20 properties in Falcón that were allegedly connected to the Paraguaná Cartel.
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Martínez is the most powerful and politically connected of the independent players that make up the Paraguaná Cartel, meaning his absence in the region will be felt.
He has, for years, obscured his alleged drug trafficking activities through political and business interests. For example, he has cultivated local support through his foundation in his hometown in Carirubana. When authorities raided the foundation last year, residents came out to protest.
Martínez also has maintained links with local officials in Falcón, including the state's governor, Victor Clark, according to a report by Primer Informe. He has also been tied to important figures in the regime of President Nicolás Maduro, according to the same report.
The power Martínez wielded raises questions about the impact that his capture will have on the Paraguaná Cartel. Other players, which include the family clans of Simón Álvarez and José Ángel Cruz, have long been sidelined. Álvarez was murdered in 2014, and Cruz was arrested in 2016.
Martínez's capture leaves a vacuum in Falcón, a major trafficking hotspot. Falcón's proximity to the Dutch Caribbean island nations of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, also known as the ABC Islands, make it an ideal exit point for maritime trafficking.
Clandestine airstrips are also scattered over the western part of Falcón. Drug planes are said to launch from there for Central America.
Other criminal actors in the region that currently enjoy favor with Maduro — such as rebels with Colombia's National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional —ELN)— may look to take over trafficking in Falcón. But Martínez -- who enjoyed years of unchallenged power and high-level connections -- won't be easy to replace.