The “Cartel of the Suns” (Cartel de los Soles) is the term used to describe drug trafficking cells embedded within the Venezuelan military.
Despite the name, it is not a hierarchical group, but rather a network of networks within the main branches of the military -- the army, navy, air force and National Guard, from the lowest to the highest levels – that are frequently protected by, coordinate with or in some cases are even directed by political actors. These networks are highly fluid and in constant flux, with their composition dependent on the rotations of military personnel and political patronage.
In the 1990s, accusations emerged of National Guard troops collaborating with drug traffickers, primarily by 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 early 2000s, political developments led to the deepening involvement of elements of the National Guard and other branches of the military in the drug trade.
In Colombia, the President Álvaro Uribe, backed by billions of dollars of US military aid, launched an unprecedented military assault against the country’s leftist guerrilla groups, above all the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), which pushed the guerrillas to shift more of their operations – including their growing cocaine trafficking operations - to Venezuela’s poorly policed border states. There, they built ever closer ties to the government of President Hugo Chávez, who saw the guerrillas not only as ideological allies but also a strategic bulwark against an increasingly hostile Colombia and its backer, the United States.
In Venezuela, meanwhile, President Chávez was briefly ousted from power in a US-recognized attempted coup. In the aftermath, Chávez sought to shore up support with the military by filling many influential government positions or lucrative contract opportunities with army loyalists, and by turning a blind eye to the military’s growing corruption.
With the military actively cooperating with the guerrillas in the border region, and with carte blanche to take part in criminal activities, the stage was set for it to get ever deeper into the drug trade. Soon, cells in the security forces began to not only charge drug traffickers to allow them to move shipments but also to leverage their alliances with the guerrillas and other criminal actors to purchase, store, move and sell cocaine themselves.
As the amount of cocaine flowing through Venezuela surged, evidence mounted that a growing number of senior members of the Chávez administration were also facilitating or even directly participating in drug trafficking.
Some, such as intelligence officer Ramón Isidro Madriz Moreno and political leader Amilcar Jesús Figueroa Salazar, were sanctioned by US authorities as Cartel of the Suns members less for drug trafficking and more for their alleged collaboration with the FARC. Others, such as then intelligence chief Hugo “El Pollo” Carvajal, and former military General Cliver Antonio Alcalá Cordones, were accused of directly collaborating with Colombian and Venezuelan drug traffickers, not only by protecting their operations but also by investing in their own cocaine shipments and arranging trafficking operations.
The accusations of official involvement in drug trafficking culminated in March 2020, when the US Justice Department indicted President Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro, former Vice President and the man widely considered to be the second most powerful man in the Chavismo movement, Diosdado Cabello, and several other current and former Venezuelan officials, as well as members of the now demobilized FARC’s leadership, on “narco-terrorism” charges.
However, the indictment’s portrayal of the Cartel of the Suns as an organized drug cartel led by President Maduro and executing a strategy of “using cocaine as a weapon against America” bares little resemblance to how the Cartel of the Suns has evolved since the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013.
Since Maduro took office, Venezuela has endured a series of economic, political, and social crises, which Maduro has had to manage without the loyalty inspired by Chávez, neither within the military nor within Chavismo. Against this backdrop, the Cartel of the Suns has evolved into a system of criminal patronage in which cocaine is used to help prop up the Maduro government.
Today, the catch-all term “Cartel of the Suns” masks the fact that the state-drug trafficking axis is now less a network run by the military and Chavista politicians and more a system that it regulates. It is composed of a series of regional military-political-criminal nodes that are bound together by a national regime that guarantees impunity for its allies. Within this system, the regime rewards loyalty through assignment to regions known to offer a wealth of opportunities for enrichment through drug trafficking and other criminal economies.
Drugs can now pass through the hands of several different trafficking nodes as they move through the country. The military plays different roles within these nodes in different regions, while local, rather than national, politicians directly or indirectly manage relations between the military and criminal groups and control the environment traffickers operate in.
In each of these regions, those in charge of the state component of these trafficking nodes often change frequently, as military commanders are rotated through and political power is awarded and withdrawn. But the system continues regardless.
The available evidence suggests that the Maduro regime maintains control of this system at the national level not by brokering cocaine deals, but by allocating and distributing concessions, choice appointments and assuring protection.
The Cartel of the Suns is a drug trafficking operation, although those that participate in it are often involved in other criminal economies such as fuel smuggling, illegal mining, black markets, and extortion.
The military participates in drug trafficking in four key ways. The most common way is simply to take pay offs to turn a blind eye to or guarantee impunity for trafficking operations. This may come in the form of regular payments to ignore the operations of partner traffickers or through military cells creating free movement corridors for traffickers. These can be aerial, for example by turning off radars to allow drug flights to pass or providing special codes for the flight to be registered as legal, terrestrial, for example by facilitating passage through networks of checkpoints, or maritime, for example by halting patrols at certain times to allow drug boats to pass.
In some cases, the military facilitates trafficking through its control of key infrastructure, above all shipping ports and airports. And in others, above all along internal movement corridors, military cells transport shipments themselves, often in official vehicles.
Sometimes, these efforts are coordinated directly by organized trafficking cells under the command of military officers, in other cases, the participation is ad-hoc by low-ranking officials who are expected to kick up a share of their takings to the command.
Numerous senior members of the Chavista political movement have been accused of being leading members of the Cartel of the Suns and who continue to wield power today. Among them are President Maduro himself and Diosdado Cabello. While the evidence of Maduro directly participating in trafficking is scant, Cabello has faced the most persistent accusations of active involvement in the drug trade, accusations which are still common today.
Others include former National Guard head and current Minister for Energy Néstor Reverol, former Vice President and current Minister of Industries and National Production Tareck El Aissami, current Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, and former Caracas Mayor and current Governor of Táchira Freddy Bernal.
However, within the Cartel of the Suns system active today it is unclear whether these actors directly participate in drug trafficking or, more likely, use their power to secure access to the cocaine trade for their political and military allies.
A more active leadership role is instead likely played by state governors and local mayors in key trafficking zones, as well as the military commanders that rotate through regional postings in strategic territories.
The elements of the military most deeply involved in Venezuela’s drug trade are, unsurprisingly, concentrated along the western border with Colombia, especially the states of Apure, Zulia, Táchira, and Amazonas. Other key territories are the Caribbean coast, especially the state’s of Falcón, Sucre, Delta Amacuro, and Carabobo, which is home to Venezuela’s principal shipping port, Puerto Cabello. However, military involvement in cocaine trafficking along the multiple internal transit corridors that link the border to dispatch points is also common.
Allies and Enemies
The past connections and trafficking relationships between the Cartel of the Suns and the FARC guerrillas has continued since the guerrillas’ 2017 demobilization through cooperation with some factions of the FARC dissidents groups, known collectively as the ex-FARC Mafia, above all the Acacio Medina Front, and the Second Marquetalia. However, the relationship with other factions, above all the 10th Front, have soured, and they and their drug trafficking operations have since been targeted extensively by the military.
The guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacíon Nacional – ELN) have also emerged as a key ally as they have taken advantage of the FARC demobilization to expand their presence in Venezuela and their participation in the drug trade in the region.
Military and political actors involved in drug trafficking also maintain connections to a range of criminal groups and trafficking networks around the country as well as powerful narco-brokers such as Guajira Cartel chief Hermagoras González Polanco, alias “Gordito González.” However, these relations can change quickly and allies become enemies, such as in the case of the Paraguaná Cartel, which once enjoyed political protection and cooperated with elements of the military, but in recent years has been repeatedly targeted by security forces.
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 moving forward.