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With Chavez Win, Venezuelan Gangs Could Expand

Hugo Chavez's victory in the presidential elections will give Venezuela's organized criminal syndicates another six years to grow and consolidate their power, in South America's most important transit nation for cocaine going to the US and Europe.

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Chavez's easy victory will provide comfort to the corrupt elements in his regime, the so-called "Cartel of the Suns," and will allow homegrown organized crime syndicates to continue to supplant Colombian gangs and deal directly with Mexican cartels.

Crime in Venezuela has enjoyed exponential growth under the stewardship of Chavez, with 2011 the most violent year on record. Since he took office the murder rate has increased from 19 per 100,000 of the population to between 52 and 74 per 100,000, depending on who you speak to. This far outstrips neighboring Colombia, at 36 per 100,000, even though the Andean nation is still in the grip of a five-decade old civil conflict. Caracas is now far and away the most dangerous city in South America.

Kidnapping is a scourge that has touched the lives of ordinary Venezuelans. Official figures talk of 1,105 abductions in 2011, a 20-fold increase on the number of cases registered in 1999, when Chavez first took office. These statistics do not include "express" kidnappings, abductions which last just a few hours. Field research by InSight Crime put the number of express kidnappings in Caracas at between 20 and 40 every day.

The Venezuelan prison system is one of the most dangerous, and badly run, in the world. There are estimates that some 1,000 prisoners have escaped so far in 2012, while there have been innumerous riots and clashes, with prisoners having access to automatic weapons. The jails are run by inmate prison bosses known as "pranes." Brutality is the daily fare of inmates, particularly for those without the funds to pay for basic amenities behind bars, and it is estimated that 500 prisoners were killed last year. Prisoners awaiting trial are mixed with the most hardened convicts. The chances of innocent men spending long periods of time behind bars while they await processing by the corrupt and slow justice system are high, matched only by the likelihood that their innocence will be lost during incarceration. The prison system has become a primary generator of organized crime.

Chavez has painted much of this rise in lawlessness as the result of having Colombia as a neighbor, and blamed crime on Colombian groups crossing the border. Historically it has been true that Venezuela has not had powerful or sophisticated native organized criminal syndicates, but that is changing. Just as Mexicans have eclipsed their Colombian criminal counterparts over the last decade, there is evidence that Venezuelans are moving in the same direction.

Colombian groups have long operated in Venezuela, tending to use the large Colombian expat community to handle their drug business. Colombia's rebel groups have a permanent presence in Venezuela. It has become a key rearguard area for both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). While these groups used to be responsible for the lion's share of kidnapping in Venezuela, concentrated in the border states, they have drastically reduced this activity, along with extortion, so as to minimize friction with the host nation. The rebels were forced to adopt a much lower profile in Venezuela after Colombian President Alvaro Uribe brought a formal complaint against Chavez before the Organization of America States (OAS) in July 2010.

Some of these activities have been taken over by homegrown left-wing groups like the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL). Now the Colombian rebels use Venezuela as a sanctuary for their leaders, a location for drug smuggling operations and a place to plan attacks out of the reach of the Colombian security forces. Colombian new generation paramilitary groups also have a presence in Venezuela, again mostly as a site for drug trafficking operations, although they are also believed to carry out extortion, particularly in the border state of Tachira.

However, the Colombians, who have traditionally controlled the flow of cocaine through Venezuela to organizations in Mexico and Europe, are being replaced by Venezuelan gangs who buy cocaine as it crosses the border then sell it on to transnational criminal organizations, principally the Mexicans, but also the Italian mafia. Evidence suggests that most of the Venezuelan gangs have ties to, or are directed by, members of the Venezuelan military.

A whole generation of Colombian drug traffickers have been captured (or killed) in Venezuela, with more than 10 of Colombia's most prolific traffickers caught here since 2010. Why do Colombian drug lords continue to seek refuge in this nation when it seems their chances of being captured are so high?

"Top level Colombian traffickers have felt safe in Venezuela because they have been able to secure top level protection from corrupt elements in government and the security forces," said one senior European intelligence operative. "However the Venezuelans squeeze the Colombian traffickers and then, when the money has run dry, or it has become politically expedient, they arrest them and try to take over their routes."

The Mexican cartels first developed as transporters for Colombian cartels. Then over time the Colombians began to pay the Mexicans with cocaine rather than cash, so the latter began to develop their own distribution networks and increase in sophistication and strength. Nowadays the Colombians have for the most part become wholesale suppliers to the Mexicans who run distribution to the US, and an increasing share of the world market. Though this development is unlikely to be mirrored in Venezuela, the country's groups are no longer simply moving product for Colombians but are acting as middlemen, buying and selling cocaine consignments. This means that their earnings and sophistication will inevitably make a quantum leap. As Colombian drug lords are captured and their smuggling operations dismantled, Venezuelan groups will take up the slack, working with Mexicans.

A difference between the Mexican and Venezuelan criminal models is that in the Andean nation, a large part of the organized crime world has grown up under the protection of the military, with tentacles throughout the political establishment and reach into most of the organs and institutions of the state. Another six years of Chavista rule will allow this network to continue to solidify its power, cultivate its Mexican and international contacts, and become a state within a state.

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