Is Venezuela's military playing role in drug trafficking?
President Hugo Chavez's new defense minister has been accused of drug trafficking, suggesting a level of institutional corruption that could surpass Chavez's control and impact neighboring Colombia.
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Rangel is not the only Venezuelan official that the US has accused of drug trafficking ties. Two other officials were put on the SDNT list in 2008, and four more were added to the list in September. One of the most recent additions is General Cliver Alcala Cordones, who is in charge of the military’s 4th Armored Division. According to the Treasury’s press release, he used his position to establish a drugs-for-guns trade with the rebels, suggesting high-level complicity with the illicit narcotics trade on the part of the Venezuelan military.Skip to next paragraph
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InSight Crime spoke to senior international intelligence officials and contacts on the ground about the Venezuela situation. There have long been elements in the military that have facilitated the trafficking of drugs, the so-called Cartel de los Soles (Cartel of the Suns), so named after the gold stars that Venezuela generals wear on their epaulettes. The military is not only present along the border with Venezuela, but controls many of the departure points like Caracas' international airport Maiquetia and the port of Puerto Cabello, thus putting it in a perfect position to move drug shipments.
While the role of the Cartel de los Soles as a facilitating organization appears clear, thanks to testimony from drug trafficker Walid Makled, there are indications that it is shifting from simply facilitating the passage of drugs to actually taking direct control of shipments and routes.
While Venezuela has an impressive record in capturing and extraditing top drug traffickers, like Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano," arrested in November 2011, there have been allegations that some elements of the military have located these capos, or drug czars, and extorted money from them, and then once they have been bled dry, they are arrested and their routes taken over.
While Colombian groups have traditionally controlled drug trafficking in Venezuela, there are indications that corrupt elements of the military are now becoming players and developing their own contacts with Mexican cartels.
Much of Chavez's regime relies on active or former military personnel, not just in the armed forces but throughout the organs of the state. It may be that while he is well aware of the allegations of drug trafficking in the military, the president is unable to challenge such powerful interest without undermining his own power base.
The promotions of both Rangel and Timochenko to the top of their respective organizations prompts one to consider where this relationship between the two men, if still intact, could go, with serious implications not just for the trafficking of drugs through Venezuela, but the future of Colombia's 48-year civil conflict.
–– Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer and Jeremy McDermott is a director for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.
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