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Venezuela's Opaque Drug-Seizure Figures Don't Add Up

COCAINE / 21 DEC 2022 BY VENEZUELA INVESTIGATIVE UNIT EN

Venezuelan officials have reported seizing over 40 tons of drugs in 2022. But while the government claims this proves Venezuela’s commitment to combating trafficking, a closer analysis of seizure patterns reveals a more complex and pervasive picture.

Venezuela’s National Anti-drugs Superintendence (Superintendencia Nacional Antidrogas - SUNAD) published the results of anti-narcotics operations to date in 2022. Between January and December 3, officials seized 41.6 metric tons of drugs, destroyed 57 airstrips and 58 laboratories, and neutralized 40 light aircraft, SUNAD reported.

Seizures of 3.3 metric tons of marijuana and 200 kilograms of cocaine, and another nearly 1.5 tons of marijuana, as well as several small hauls in the weeks that followed, increased the overall total to 46.9 metric tons, according to remarks made by the head of the SUNAD, Richard López Vargas, in a December 15 press conference.  

InSight Crime’s monitoring of individual seizure reports recorded a total of 33.2 metric tons over the time period covered by the initial SUNAD report, a difference of nearly 8.4 tons from the 41.6 metric tons announced. This may be because not all individual seizures are reported by SUNAD or the media, or because the official figures include calculations not included by InSight Crime, such as small seizures of tens or hundreds of grams, or seizures of coca crops or coca leaf. Alternatively, the difference may partially be explained by the Venezuelan state's often opaque handling of data of public interest.

Below, InSight Crime analyzes the main takeaways from SUNAD’s figures, cross-referenced against our own monitoring of media and official reports of drug seizures over the course of the year.

Zulia: The Seizure Hotbed

The northwestern state of Zulia accounted for over 70% of seizures over the period, with 29.4 metric tons, according to the SUNAD. InSight Crime’s monitoring of individual seizure reports recorded 19.6 metric tons in Zulia, however.

The state also leads the way in the destruction of drug production sites and the clandestine airstrips that are used to dispatch much of the cocaine that leaves Venezuela. 

This concentration of anti-narcotics operations reflects the state’s key role in the Venezuelan cocaine trade: it borders Catatumbo, a major production hub in Colombia, and its airstrips offer easy access to the Central American countries used as stepping stones to reach the US market. What is less clear is what strategy lies behind the operations. 

SEE ALSO: Venezuela's Cocaine Revolution

Many of the drug routes are controlled by the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) guerrilla group, which maintains close ties to elements of the Venezuelan state. There is also substantial evidence that corrupt military officials and political actors profit from the drug trade. But trafficking networks without such state allies also operate in Zulia, while the ex-FARC mafia 33rd Front, which is part of a guerrilla network that has been targeted by the Venezuelan state, also controls routes and production sites in the region. It is likely such independent traffickers and the 33rd Front have borne the brunt of operations.

Falcón: Clamping Down or Taking Over?

The most dramatic change in seizure patterns seen over the last two years has been in the Caribbean coast state of Falcón, western Venezuela. For years, politically connected traffickers such as Emilio Enrique Martínez, alias "Chiche Smith," and his Paraguaná Cartel operated in Falcón with virtual impunity. Chiche’s sudden fall from grace began with operations against his network in 2020, followed by his arrest in 2021. 

However, even with the Paraguaná Cartel on its knees, anti-narcotics operations have continued in 2022, and Falcón recorded the second-highest seizure rate, with 6.5 tons, according to officials speaking at the SUNAD press conference on December 15.

Many of these shipments -- according to authorities -- belonged to the Sabana Alta Cartel, another trafficking network with alleged political connections. But local security forces, speaking to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, say they are not only targeting the Sabana Alta network, and are under instructions to seize whatever quantity of drugs they can in order to remain in the government’s good graces.

The reasons for this abrupt change in strategy are unclear. It is possible that powerful figures in the Venezuelan state want to turn over control of the route to new allies, or even to trafficking cells embedded in the military. But with Maduro also seeking to regain international legitimacy and rebuild regional ties, it is also possible he wishes to shut down a route that has drawn substantial attention from Venezuela’s Caribbean neighbors, especially in the Dutch Caribbean.

Apure: War and Drugs

The December SUNAD report claimed that the southern state of Bolívar was the state with the third highest seizure rate, with 1.8 metric tons. But InSight Crime monitoring registered reports of nearly 3.2 tons of cocaine, marijuana, and coca base seized in the central state of Apure on the Colombian border. 

Almost all of the seizures in Apure came against a backdrop of the conflict between the Venezuelan state and the ELN on one side, and the ex-FARC mafia 10th Front -- which controlled many of the region’s drug routes and infrastructure -- on the other. Indeed, almost two-thirds of those seizures came in the first two months of the year, when the conflict was at its peak.

After the 10th Front was largely driven out of the region, leaving the regime-allied ELN to take over its former territories, seizures rapidly dropped away, with not a single significant seizure registered after May.

Táchira: The Microtrafficking Gateway

The state with the highest number of seizures registered by InSight Crime was Táchira, which borders the Colombian state of Norte de Santander. However, although 29 seizures were reported, these only amounted to a total of 493.4 kilograms. 

The most likely explanation for this is that these smaller shipments supply Venezuela’s domestic market. Táchira is not only home to the main legal border crossings between the two countries, but also an estimated 250 clandestine border crossings -- known as trochas -- making it one of the main entry points for microtrafficking networks, according to a former police official and a drug dealer, who both spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. 

Stamping Out Production?

As InSight Crime has revealed, an incipient cocaine production sector has taken root in some areas of Venezuela that border Colombia. This sector was the target of several anti-narcotics operations, above all in Zulia, where raids in February and May saw military officials destroy cocaine laboratories, eradicate 31 hectares of coca plantations with approximately 341,000 coca plants, seize over 12 tons of coca base -- the intermediary product in cocaine production -- and destroy precursor chemicals used in processing. Further operations took place in the state of Apure, and by December, SUNAD reported having destroyed 58 drug laboratories in total. 

The question remains, however, whether the state is committed to stamping out cocaine production before it spreads, or just eradicating production controlled by armed groups and trafficking networks not protected by elements of the Venezuelan state.

The Rise of Transnational Marijuana Trafficking

While Venezuela has long been known as a major transnational cocaine trafficking transit point, officials also seized over 10 metric tons of marijuana over the period covered by the SUNAD report, according to InSight Crime’s monitoring. This included several unusually large seizures, including a 2.8-ton haul in Falcón that officials reported was the largest marijuana seizure seen in Venezuela for a decade. 

In the weeks following the SUNAD’s reporting, this record was broken when authorities seized approximately 3.3 metric tons of marijuana alongside 200 kilograms of cocaine. The operation came a week after a separate seizure of nearly 1.5 metric tons of marijuana, further increasing the total for the year.

SEE ALSO: The Colombo-Venezuelan Guerrillas: How Colombia’s War Migrated to Venezuela

Most of these larger shipments were clearly destined for international markets, most likely in the Caribbean. The growing use of Venezuela as a transshipment point for marijuana is almost certainly linked to the rise of transnational trafficking of high-grade Colombian marijuana grown known as “cripy,” which has been taking over markets in South and Central America as well as the Caribbean. 

The Trafficking Black Holes

There were several major trafficking arteries that barely registered a blip in seizures over 2022. 

In some regions, such as the state of Amazonas, where monitoring recorded the seizure of just 51 kilograms, drug routes are controlled by armed groups with close ties to the Venezuelan military and elements of the state, such as the ELN and the ex-FARC Acacio Medina Front, according to police officials on the Colombian side of the border, as well as local community leaders, journalists, and human rights workers on the Venezuelan side. 

In others, the security forces directly control key trafficking infrastructure such as ports, and there, according to InSight Crime’s investigations, corrupt elements directly profit from drug trafficking. This is most evident in the states that are home to the country’s two main shipping ports: Carabobo, where less than 49 kilograms were reported as seized, and La Guaira, where less than 14 kilograms were reported. 

Other states that are known trafficking routes where seizures were scarce include the northeastern states of Sucre, Delta Amacuro, and Monagas, which offer trafficking routes to the Caribbean and into Guyana. In Sucre, 248 kilograms of seized drugs were reported, while Monagas registered just one seizure of 17 kilograms, and Delta Amacuro did not see a single significant seizure, despite a series of high-profile security operations in the region.

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