Thursday 21 June 2018

The ‘Cartel of the Suns’, Drug Trafficking Within The Venezuelan Regime

Written by Venezuela Investigative Unit, InSight Crime

In Latin America, criminal entrepreneurs in the form of cartels, have traditionally run drug trafficking. In Venezuela, it is managed from within government, and if Nicolás Maduro wins another term in office, Venezuela’s position in the global cocaine business will solidify. *

Drug traffickers have long sought to penetrate the state, to facilitate business and if possible, put resources of the state at their disposal. But sometimes, corrupt state actors decide that turning a blind eye to drug trafficking in return for payoffs is not enough, and that direct participation is warranted. This is what has happened in Venezuela and we call the drug trafficking elements within the Venezuelan regime the “Cartel of the Suns.” 

The term “Cartel of the Suns” (Cartel de los Soles) came from the golden stars that generals in the Venezuelan National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) wear on their epaulettes. The term was first used in 1993 when two National Guard generals, anti-drugs chief Ramón Guillén Dávila and his successor Orlando Hernández Villegas, were investigated for drug trafficking. Today the name is used to describe all government officials involved in the drug trade. And there are many, stretching across all the organs of the state. 

For the last three years, InSight Crime has been building files on senior officials, current or past, that have been involved in the trafficking of cocaine. We have 123 files. However, for legal reasons we will not publish our entire list. Instead attached here are details of those we feel we have very strong evidence against. 

Instead of sidelining those accused of drug trafficking, Maduro has promoted them to the highest offices, perhaps calculating that they have the most to lose if his regime falls and will therefore fight the hardest to preserve it. 

The most powerful figures in the Bolivarian regime now have the taint of drug trafficking to differing degrees. 

Diosdado Cabello is touted as either the second-most powerful figure in the Venezuela regime, or the puppet master — the power behind Maduro. Either way, with his influence over the appointment of officials to key posts, especially within the military, there is no way that he is not aware of the drug trafficking dynamics in the country. Sources in the US Justice Department spoke to InSight Crime about Cabello on condition of anonymity.

“Look, this guy is up to his neck in all sorts of illegal activity in Venezuela and we are building a case against him. But he knows how to protect himself and keep a distance from the dirty work,” said the source. 

In May 2015, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Cabello was being investigated for drug trafficking and being a leader of the Cartel of the Suns. Evidence has been provided by, among others, Leasmy Salazar, who used to work as Cabello’s chief of security. He has testified that Cabello plays a leading role in drugs passing through Venezuela. 

Salazar with Cabello and former President Chávez

Cabello immediately sued the Wall Street Journal for defamation, but a US court in April this year rejected the case. Also named in the article was his brother David Cabello. 

On paper, the second-most important man in government is Vice President Tareck El Aissami. He has also been accused of illegal activity, including drug trafficking. Before becoming vice president, he was governor of the state of Aragua, and InSight Crime was collecting testimony on his links to organized crime in this strategic province on the Caribbean coast.

Once of the most important positions in terms of internal security is the head of the National Guard. That position was held by Major General Néstor Reverol — now Interior Minister — who has been indicted in the United States for drug trafficking.  His indictment states that Reverol warned drug traffickers of operations against them, blocked investigations, released arrested narcos and ensured that seized drugs were returned to traffickers. 

Cilia Flores, the wife of President Maduro and therefore first lady, has also been implicated in drug trafficking by association. Not only have her nephews been convicted in the United States of cocaine trafficking, but her son, Walter Jacobo Gavidia, a Caracas Metropolitan Area judge, is also under investigation. She has also been linked to the case of Captain Yazenky Antonio Lamas Rondón, a Venezuelan pilot extradited from Colombia the United States to face drug charges. He has been accused of more than a hundred narco flights in the past decade from the Venezuelan state of Apure to the Caribbean.  

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The Development of the Cartel of the Suns

The drug trafficking structures in the Venezuelan state are not a cartel, they are a series of often competing networks buried deep within the Chavista regime, with ties going back almost two decades. 

Venezuela was always going to play a role in the drug trade, positioned as it is alongside the world’s principal producer of cocaine, Colombia. However initially it was Colombian narcos who ran the business within Venezuela, paying off military officials along the border to look the other way as cocaine flowed across the frontier. Then inevitably, the corruption ran deeper. Instead of just looking the other way, Colombian drug traffickers asked elements of the GNB to protect and even move shipments.  Their role protecting the frontiers, airports and ports made them the perfect partners for the traffickers.  

But Colombia was not content with simply exporting cocaine to Venezuela. By the 1990s, it was also exporting its civil conflict, with the rebel armies of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) taking up residence in Venezuela’s border states. Both groups have long been involved in the drug trade and developed close links with Venezuelan officials, often with the blessing of President Hugo Chávez. Files seized from the camp of FARC commander Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias “Raul Reyes,” killed in an aerial bombardment in Ecuador in March 2008, revealed the names of several senior Venezuelan officials. Some of these have been linked to drug trafficking activity, including: 

-Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, who was Minister of Justice and the Interior in 2008, met with FARC members many times and was known by them by the alias “El Cojo.”  

-Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, director of military intelligence, and Henry Rangel Silva, director of the intelligence police (DISIP), liaised with the rebel army. Both were later sanctioned for “for materially assisting the narcotics trafficking activities of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a narco-terrorist organization.”  

-Freddy Bernal, a former mayor; Cliver Acalá Cordones, an Army General; and Ramon Madriz Moreno, a key intelligence officer, all met with FARC leaders and helped coordinate their security when on Venezuelan soil. Bernal and his right-hand man Amílcar de Jesús Figueroa allegedly helped arrange urban warfare and explosives training for the Bolivarian Circles/Colectivos with the FARC.  

The links between the Cartel of the Suns and the FARC were instrumental in the development of drug trafficking in Venezuela. While the FARC demobilized in 2017 after signing a peace agreement with the Colombian government, there are growing dissident elements still in Venezuela, deeply involved in the drug trade.  (For more information on this read “Colombia and Venezuela: Criminal Siamese Twins.”) It is believed that these elements are still working with members of the Cartel of the Suns. 

A key moment in the strengthening of drug trafficking in Venezuela came with 2005 expulsion of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), after Chávez declared that it was “using the fight against drug trafficking as a mask to support drug trafficking, and to spy in Venezuela against the government.” This, combined with the suspension of the flyover agreement for drug flight monitoring, meant that Venezuela suddenly became a black hole for US intelligence gathering in the counternarcotics fight. Organized crime was quick to take advantage of this, with drug trafficking organizations increasing their use of Venezuelan territory. 

Also in 2005, the passing of a new drug law (Ley Orgánica Contra el Tráfico Ilícito y el Consumo  de Sustancias) decreed that counternarcotics investigations and operations would no longer been the exclusive remit of the National Guard but would include all other branches of the armed forces — the army, navy and air force. The Cartel of the Suns suddenly expanded from the National Guard to all arms of the military. Mildred Camero, Chávez’s drug czar at the time, told InSight Crime that this was the moment that the military shifted from a facilitator in the drug trade to an active participant. Before the passing of the law, drug trafficking was largely limited to the National Guard, but once all branches of the military were given jurisdiction “a war broke loose,” according to Camero. The army and the National Guard started to compete with each other for routes, and began dealing directly with the FARC rather than with Colombian civilian drug traffickers. 

This, along with international pressure, led to the capture of several top-level Colombian drug traffickers in Venezuela during 2011 and 2012. These arrests marked yet deeper participation in the drug trade by the Cartel of the Suns. Among those arrested were Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias “Valenciano,” a leader in the criminal organization the “Oficina de Envigado,” captured in November 2011; Héctor Germán Buitrago, alias “Martín Llanos,” a paramilitary warlord who had long run drugs across Colombian’s eastern plains into Venezuela, arrested in February 2012;  Diego Pérez Henao, alias “Diego Rastrojo,” military head of the Rastrojos crime group, captured in June 2012; and then Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco,” one of the most prolific Colombian cocaine smugglers, arrested in September 2012. These traffickers had been protected by high-level Venezuelan officials. After their captures, the Cartel of the Suns took over many of the routes the Colombians had been running, thus moving from protecting shipments, to buy and selling them, dealing directly with international buyers, foremost among them the Mexican cartels. 

Emblematic Cases of the Cartel

The first person to speak with inside knowledge of the penetration of drug trafficking into the Venezuela state was Walid Makled. 

Makled was, in the late 1990s, one of Venezuela’s most powerful drug traffickers. His power was based upon his strong links to senior members of the Venezuelan military, and his criminal empire grew exponentially during the early years of the Chávez’s government. He controlled the drug trafficking business in the state of Carabobo, which is home to Venezuela’s main port, Puerto Cabello. According to the DEA, over 70 percent of the narcotics then sent from Colombia through Venezuela were shipped from Puerto Cabello. Makled was connected to the former National Guard general and then governor of Carabobo, Luis Felipe Acosta Carles. General Alexis Maniero was head of the 7th Army Regional Command in the state of Sucre, expedited official credentials for Makled, who considered him a valuable ally, according former drug czar Mildred Camero.  

In 2004, Makled momentarily lost four tons of cocaine at the hands of the local Valencia police. The drugs were returned to him by Jesus Itriago, the then chief of the anti-drug unit within the judicial police (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC), after Makled paid him a million dollars, according to DEA documents seen by El Nuevo Herald. An official investigation was later aborted in the Carabobo state legislature, when key politicians were also reportedly paid off by Makled to drop the probe. Itriago was later promoted to head of the CICPC’s drug division. 

In April 2006, Makled was linked to 5.5 tons of cocaine found in 128 suitcases on a plane that landed in southern Mexico, having departed from Maiquetía airport (now Simón Bolívar International Airport) outside Caracas. The captured pilot of the flight spoke of the National Guard supervising the loading and departure of the plane.  

The links between Makled, the FARC and the Chávez government became clearer after Makled was captured in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta in August 2010.  Makled was by this point probably the most powerful native drug trafficker in Venezuela — he was added to the US “Kingpin List” in 2009. His position as a broker between the FARC and corrupt elements of the Venezuelan armed forces, among others, meant that he probably knew more about the mechanics of corruption and drug trafficking in Venezuela than anyone else. In interviews with the media after his arrest, Makled claimed “all my business associates are generals,” and that he had paid off as many as 40 Venezuelan generals as part of his drug trafficking activities. 

Serving or former members of the military named by Makled included military general Henry Rangel Silva (who was subsequently made Defense Minister), former Military Intelligence Director Hugo Carvajal, National Guard General Dalal Burgos, and former captain Ramon Rodríguez Chacin, who at the time was the Minister of Interior and Justice. Makled stated that he used to pay Carvajal $50,000 a week for his help and cooperation. Silva, Carvajal and Rodríguez had already been sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for their involvement with the FARC and drug trafficking.

Makled said that up to six drug flights a day left the border state of Apure, taking cocaine to Honduras, from where it was shipped to Mexico and into the United States. He insisted there were drug laboratories in Apure and Maracaibo, and that they were “guarded by the government.” While Makled admitted he had not directly dealt with Chávez, he said he had spoken to “very close relatives of his” (believed to be his brother Adan), and also claimed to have financed one of Chávez’s presidential campaigns in exchange for concessions at Puerto Cabello.

Today, Makled sits in a Venezuelan military jail, as do many of the regime’s dirty secrets. 

In September 2013, France made one of its biggest cocaine busts ever, finding 1.3 tons of cocaine on board an Air France plane that landed in Paris, packed into 31 suitcases. The flight had left Caracas airport, which is closely controlled by the National Guard. The international scandal forced the Venezuelan government to act. Twenty-eight arrests were made, among them a lieutenant colonel and other National Guard members. With these arrests the investigations by the Venezuelan government halted and no attempts were made to follow lines of enquiry that led to more senior figures. 

In November 2016, Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas — the nephews of Maduro’s wife and First Lady, Cilia Flores — were convicted by a court in New York for conspiring to traffic 800 kilograms of cocaine into the country.  

The cousins planned to move the cocaine, provided by the FARC, out of the international airport in Caracas using their privileges as members of the Venezuelan elite, and their relationship with the military. They flew to Haiti in November 2015, where they planned to seal the drug deal, but were arrested by the DEA. The plane was piloted by Pablo Urbano Pérez, a military official, and Pedro Miguel Rodríguez, a lieutenant colonel in the Venezuelan Air Force. 

Evidence that one of the nephews, Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, was planning to put some of the proceeds from the drug deal into his aunt’s political campaign as head of the National Assembly, suggests that the first lady was not ignorant of her nephews’ activities and where they were getting their money. 

The Cartel Today

The Cartel of the Suns today is a disparate network of traffickers, including both state and non-state actors, but all operating with the blessing and protection of senior figures in the Venezuelan government. Without such political top cover, and paying off the correct people, drug smuggling operations are shut down.  

As the country teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, kleptocracy and the systematic sacking of state coffers has diminished. There is simply no more money to steal from the government budget. However, the wheels of corruption need to be greased, especially within the military, which is the key strut propping up the government of Maduro and which will be the kingmaker during any regime change.  

InSight Crime believes that drug trafficking is one of the main lubricants for corruption in Venezuela today, and that this troubled Andean nation is becoming one of the world’s major cocaine trafficking hubs. 

This article is part of a multipart investigation looking at organized crime in Venezuela. See other parts of the series here and the full report here. The article was originally published on InSight Crime.

*Editor's Note: This article was originally published on 17th May, 2018 by InSight Crime. Presidential elections were held in Venezuela on 20 May 2018 with incumbent Nicolás Maduro being re-elected for a second six-year term. Considered a snap election, the original electoral date was scheduled for December 2018 but was subsequently pulled ahead to 22 April before being pushed back to 20 May. Some analysts have described the poll as a show election,with the election having the lowest voter turnout in Venezuela's democratic history. (source: wikipedia)

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