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VENEZUELA

Cartel of the Suns

CARTEL DE LOS SOLES / 14 JAN 2021 BY INSIGHT CRIME EN

The “Cartel of the Suns” (Cartel de los Soles) is the term used to describe the shadowy groups inside Venezuela’s military that are involved in a wide range of criminal activities, including gasoline smuggling, illegal mining and other corruption schemes, but primarily drug trafficking.

This is not a hierarchical group, but rather a loose network of cells within the main branches of the military — the army, navy, air force and National Guard, from the lowest to the highest levels — that essentially function as drug trafficking organizations.

It is not clear how the relationship between these cells works, or what interactions exist between them.

History

In the 1990s, accusations emerged of National Guard troops collaborating with drug traffickers, primarily accepting payments to look the other way while traffickers moved their wares.

The term “Cartel of the Suns” was reportedly first used in 1993 when two National Guard generals, anti-drug chief Ramon Guillen Davila and his successor, Orlando Hernandez Villegas, were investigated for drug trafficking and other related crimes. As brigade commanders, each wore a single sun as insignia on their shoulders, giving rise to the name “Cartel of the Sun.” Later on, when allegations emerged that division commanders — given double suns for their ranking — were involved in the drug trade, the term evolved and became the “Cartel of the Suns.”

During the mid-2000s, elements of the National Guard and other branches of the military became much more active participants in the drug trade. Cells in the security forces began to purchase, store, move and sell cocaine themselves, whereas previously their primary role had been to extort drug traffickers moving cocaine shipments. One theory for why this evolution took place is because Colombian drug smugglers began paying the military in drugs rather than cash, forcing the Venezuelans to find their own markets.

Three significant developments then contributed to the rise of organized crime in Venezuela. First, Colombia signed the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia security program with the United States, which allowed Colombian security forces to pressure guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN) like never before. This military pressure encouraged the guerrillas to shift more of their operations to Venezuela’s poorly policed border states.

Then in 2002, there were two key events, one after the other. The first was the ending of the peace process between the FARC and the government of then-Colombian President Andres Pastrana, which meant the rebels lost their huge safe haven in southern Colombia and needed another refuge. The second was the attempted coup d’etat that saw President Hugo Chávez temporarily removed from power. This led Chávez to focus much of his energy on identifying and penalizing coup supporters, while dealing with other intense political battles such as the 2002-2003 oil strike.

The fallout from the coup led the Chávez administration to tighten its circle of trusted supporters. It also meant that many influential government positions or lucrative contract opportunities were given to army loyalists. The government took on the feel of a Praetorian regime, with active or retired military officers taking up positions in state institutions.

Chávez also set up military areas of operations along the western border, citing fears of a US invasion via Colombia. Elements of the army as well as the National Guard became corrupted by the drug trade.

The “Cartel of the Suns” term was brought back to public attention in 2004 by journalist and municipal councilman Mauro Marcano. Before his murder that year, Marcano accused National Guard brigade commander and Intelligence Director Alexis Maneiro, as well as other National Guard members, of having links to drug traffickers. The Marcano affair suggested more systematic corruption in the National Guard, yet the government only made a half-hearted effort to investigate. No investigation was opened against Maneiro, and he was transferred to a less visible position.

Around this time, there were other signs that drug trafficking was increasing inside Venezuela. In 2004, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that around 50 metric tons of cocaine passed through the country. By 2007, that number was estimated to be around 250 metric tons, according to a US Government Accountability Office report.

At the same time, the military’s involvement in facilitating the movement of cocaine came under increased scrutiny. In August 2004, several national guardsmen framed three airline passengers (including a US citizen) for smuggling drugs through Caracas’ international airport. National Guard officials were also arrested in a separate case after being caught loading cocaine into a private plane at Maiquetia airport (now the Simón Bolívar International Airport). Such incidents highlighted the military’s role in the drug trade, and their tendency to only seize drug shipments when they had not received the appropriate pay-offs.

In 2005, then-President Chávez’s espionage accusations against the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also contributed to the strengthening of organized crime networks inside the country. This brought US-backed counter-narcotics projects to a halt, including one initiative which would have updated screening technology in Puerto Cabello, one of the country’s most important exit points for drug shipments.

In 2008, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated former intelligence chief Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios — who was later arrested at the request of US authorities by security forces in Aruba, but was quickly released after the intervention of the Dutch government — for “materially assisting the narcotics trafficking activities” of Colombia’s FARC rebels.

Other incidents — such as the “narcoavioneta” case of 2011 — also fed the impression that there was complicity with organized crime at the very highest levels of the government and military. A small aircraft captured in the northern state of Falcón while carrying some 1,400 kilograms of cocaine was discovered to have taken off from La Carlota military base in Caracas in August 2011. Spokespeople for the military, air force, and government-issued different explanations for what had taken place.

Another case that began in September 2013, this time involving a commercial airliner, led to the arrest of 28 people, among them a lieutenant coronel and other National Guard members. On September 10, an Air France plane landed in Paris with 1.3 tons of cocaine packed into 31 suitcases on board. The plane had taken off from the Maiquetia airport in Caracas, which is closely controlled by the National Guard. Although a string of National Guard arrests were made in connection to the case, all were of low-ranking officers.

This was followed by yet more scandals in 2015. Leamsy Salazar, the former head of Chávez’s presidential security, accused National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello of being a Cartel of the Suns leader. Two former high-level police officials were also indicted on drug trafficking charges by the United States that year. In August 2016, the United States unsealed federal indictments against the former general director of Venezuela’s anti-drug agency, Nestor Luis Reverol Torres, and the former sub-director of that agency, Edylberto José Molina Molina. The day after the indictments were made public, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro named Reverol as the new interior minister.

Longstanding accusations of official involvement in drug trafficking culminated in March 2020, when the US Justice Department indicted President Maduro, several current and former Venezuelan officials, as well as members of the FARC’s leadership, on “narco-terrorism” charges. Maduro and others “abused the Venezuelan people and corrupted the legitimate institutions of Venezuela — including parts of the military, intelligence apparatus, legislature, and the judiciary — to facilitate the importation of tons of cocaine into the United States.”

Criminal Activities

The most frequent role played by the Venezuelan military in drug trafficking is to allow the safe passage of cocaine shipments, as well as to approve the arrival and departure of aircraft that transport the drug to other countries. Given that the Armed Forces are in charge of protecting national territory and borders and leading the charge in the fight against drug trafficking, among other duties, they are the main officers well-position to detect illicit movements and either report or turn a blind eye to them.

Although it is almost impossible to keep the extensive and porous Colombia-Venezuela border under complete surveillance, reports indicate that the Venezuelan military officers stationed in the border region play a key role in allowing drug shipments to pass through by land, and often even protecting them along the way. This is especially true with clandestine airstrips in the border states of Zulia, Apure and Táchira, from where cocaine-laden aircraft depart for Central America and the Caribbean.

The Venezuelan military also permits the illegal arrival and departure of aircraft, mainly through managing aerial radars. Drug trafficking reports and case files accessed by InSight Crime show officers often demand payments from drug traffickers to turn off radars at the necessary time to avoid registering the flight, or to provide special codes for the flight to be registered as legal to ensure authorities do not pursue such aircraft further.

Officials are also involved in allowing cargo to sail and take off from official seaports and airports. Although there is no clear evidence of this, there are strong indications of their participation. Such facilities are usually run by the military and the force maintains a strong presence for surveillance.

Leadership

The Cartel of the Suns does not have a clearly defined leadership structure. Rather, there is only a list of names of people working in the primary branches of Venezuela’s armed forces that US officials have identified as being involved in the government’s criminal activity. InSight Crime has its own list of 123 senior officials, active and former, that have been involved in cocaine trafficking.

Some of the early indications from government sources that officials at the highest levels of the country’s security forces were deeply involved in organized crime came in 2008. In September of that year, OFAC sanctioned three individuals who supposedly served as contacts for the FARC in a drugs-for-weapons scheme.

Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, at that time the director of military intelligence; Henry de Jesús Rangel Silva, whom Chávez named general-in-chief and then defense minister in January 2012; and Ramón Emilio Rodríguez Chacín, the former minister of interior and justice, were all targeted.

Among other things, the officials allegedly provided the FARC “official Venezuelan government identification documents that allow FARC members to travel to and from Venezuela with ease,” in addition to having reportedly “materially assisted” the FARC’s drug trafficking activities.

These were not the only officials OFAC targeted. In September 2011, the office sanctioned four more Venezuelan officials for reportedly “providing arms and security to the FARC.”

Those designated included Cliver Antonio Alcalá Cordones, later appointed as head of the army’s Guiana Integral Strategic Defense Region (REDI Guayana); congressman Freddy Alirio Bernal Rosales, a former Caracas mayor; intelligence officer Ramón Isidro Madriz Moreno; and Amilcar Jesús Figueroa Salazar, a politician described as “a primary arms dealer for the FARC and … a main conduit for FARC leaders based in Venezuela.”

Supporters of the Chávez administration argued that the OFAC list is based on unsubstantiated evidence from computer documents seized from the bombed camp of FARC commander “Raul Reyes,” and that there exists no concrete evidence of this “Cartel of the Suns” actually carrying out criminal operations. Others have criticized the OFAC list as a political tool used to smear the administrations of Chávez and his successor, current President Nicolas Maduro.

That said, it’s noteworthy that the security forces did not carry out fully transparent investigations into the alleged misconduct of Maneiro, Alcalá and other officials when they had the chance. What’s more, while Venezuelan authorities have charged some lower-level members of the armed forces for drug crimes, higher-level members accused of involvement in the drug trade have not been pursued as intently.

Aside from OFAC’s efforts, other US government agencies and former Venezuelan officials have also pointed to a number of important figures tied to the highest levels of the Venezuelan government as helping facilitate criminal activity.

The children of Venezuela first lady Cilia Adela Flores de Maduro — Walter, Yosser, and Yoswal — are alleged to be involved in criminal activity, specifically a corruption scheme run by Colombian businessman Álex Saab, one of Maduros’ most trusted money men before his arrest in June 2020. Saab’s network sent overpriced, inedible food packages to Venezuela and employed shell companies to steal millions of dollars from food import contracts. He allegedly “funneled money in exchange for access to contracts with the Government of Venezuela” to Maduro’s step-sons,” according to the US Treasury Department.

Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s minister of industries and national production, also figures prominently into the government’s criminal activity. In 2017, the US Treasury Department sanctioned El Aissami for “playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking.”

Specifically, the Treasury Department alleges El Aissami “received payment for the facilitation of drug shipments belonging to Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled,” in addition to “providing protection to Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera and Venezuelan drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco,” among other criminal activity.

In 2019, the US Justice Department went on to charge him for violating the Treasury Department’s designation due to his alleged use of US-based companies to charter private flights, according to the indictment.

Former anti-drug chief Nestor Reverol is also alleged to have directly facilitated the government’s involvement in drug trafficking. A 2015 indictment said that he used his position of authority between January 2008 and December 2010 to tip off traffickers about upcoming drug raids, secure the release of persons and property linked to drug trafficking, obstruct anti-narcotics investigations and operations, and accepted bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for helping them conduct their illicit business.

“Drug trafficking and corruption were commonplace, managed by top figures such as Néstor Reverol,” said Hugo Carvajal, the former head of Venezuela’s military intelligence service, in 2019.

In sum, the Cartel of the Suns’ criminal activity runs deep within the Venezuelan government, stretching across everything from drug trafficking to illegal gold mining and outright corruption.

Geography

The elements of the military believed to be most deeply involved in Venezuela’s drug trade are, unsurprisingly, concentrated along the western border with Colombia, especially the states of Apure, Zulia, and Táchira. The power of these cells comes from their access to Venezuela’s major airports, road checkpoints and ports, including Puerto Cabello in Carabobo state.

Cocaine shipments are purchased in the Venezuelan border states of Apure and Zulia, or in the Colombian border states. Because dollars are in short supply in Venezuela, and because the local bolívar is frequently devalued in the black market, it is rare for the purchases to involve cash. Cocaine is often swapped for weapons, especially in past deals with the FARC. Otherwise, the Venezuelans act as partners with the Colombian-based traffickers, agreeing to split the profits from the sale of cocaine overseas.

The most popular trafficking routes are by air to the Dominican Republic and Honduras. Another route is to move the cocaine by land to Suriname, then by air or boat to West Africa and onwards to Europe. When moved by land, the cocaine is usually stored in local ranches and farms owned by civilian contacts.

Allies and Enemies

In the past, these military organizations were thought to source some of their cocaine from Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, particularly the Eastern and Magdalena Medio Blocs. However, since the rebel’s demobilized in 2016, it’s now the dissident fighters that refused to lay down their weapons, known collectively as the ex-FARC Mafia, that have a firm grip on the transnational reins of drug trafficking and illegal mining in Venezuela.

The National Guard also worked with civilian drug trafficker Walid Makled in order to move drug shipments out of Venezuela. Makled claimed to have worked with dozens of top-level military officials. The National Guard and army both used him as their “broker” to organize the movement of cocaine shipments outside the country.

After Makled’s arrest in Colombia in 2010 and extradition back to Venezuela in 2011, it seems as though corrupt elements in the military have more or less successfully co-opted his trafficking networks in Zulia state. The National Guard, meanwhile, is strongest in other western parts of Venezuela, including along the country’s border with the Colombian departments of Arauca and Norte de Santander.

There is also evidence to suggest that members of the Cartel of the Suns count on the complicity, or even the active involvement, of high-level elements of Venezuela’s civilian government. In 2016, for instance, two nephews of Venezuelan first lady, Cilia Flores, went to trial to face drug charges in US federal court. A DEA agent testified that the nephews’ planned drug deal was facilitated by Cilia Flores’ brother, Bladimir. Throughout the trial, evidence emerged to suggest the nephews may have been acting as political cover for the Cartel of the Suns.

However, in August 2020, one of the first lady’s nephews, Francisco, appealed to the US Supreme Court to walk back the 18-year prison sentence he received in 2016 for conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. His attorney “argued the jury was misled when they were told … that the men should’ve known the cocaine was bound for the US — a requirement for conviction under US law,” according to the Associated Press. This request was ultimately struck down.

The Cartel of the Suns has also found close allies in the ELN, whose presence in Venezuela the government has tolerated since the Chávez years. The group has found sanctuary in Venezuela, even more so in recent years.

In its 2019 Country Reports on Terrorism, the US government said “Maduro and his associates use criminal activities to help maintain their illegitimate hold on power, fostering a permissive environment for … the ELN.” The guerrilla group has been known to pay off members of Venezuela’s armed forces to protect their interests, including illegal mining and fuel smuggling.

Los Rastrojos, on the other hand, who had established control of a range of criminal economies along the Colombia-Venezuela border, have not been as lucky. Apart from fighting a losing battle against the ELN in Venezuela, government officials have repeatedly attacked the group in targeted operations and likened them to “terrorists.”

In particular, evidence suggests that Freddy Bernal, the so-called “protector” of the border state of Táchira, has teamed up with Venezuelan security forces and the ELN to find a common enemy in the Rastrojos.

Prospects

Although the United States has made efforts to bring the Cartel of the Suns activities to light in recent years, and has even sanctioned and charged some alleged members, the Venezuelan government has not pursued serious investigations or prosecutions of these suspects. In fact, it has in some cases promoted military officials accused of involvement in drug trafficking.

Given this and Venezuela’s worsening political and economic crises, it seems likely that the operations of the Cartel of the Suns will continue largely unimpeded, and could perhaps expand moving forward.

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