A member of Venezuela’s National Guard watches over a border crossing with Colombia

A new report details the evolution of Venezuela's drug trade, and offers some insights into the rise of the military's role in this illicit business.

The report, entitled "The traffic of illicit drugs in Venezuela" (see below), was written by former judge and drug czar Mildred Camero and presented by the Observatory of Organized Crime (Obsevatorio de Delito Orgnanizado) on March 10 as part of a series of studies on organized crime in Venezuela.

Camero argues that, originally, the bulk of the drug trade in Venezuela took place in the form of microtrafficking by civilians, and in particular youth from disadvantaged socio-economic classes. These "kids from and in the street," as the report describes them, would turn to dealing as a quick way of earning money, and would do so under the leadership of a Colombian or a Venezuelan who enjoyed ties with Colombia.

While Colombian organized crime played a central role in the evolution of Venezuela's drug trade throughout the 21st century as depicted by Camero, Venezuela's military did not hold sway over cocaine trafficking in the early 2000s, as now appears to be the case.

The drug would be smuggled into Venezuela by civilian groups, most prominently Colombia's Medellín and Cali cartels. And the involvement of security forces would be generally limited to turning a blind eye to drugs and precursor chemicals crossing the border in exchange for bribes. The involvement of soldiers was also generally contained to that of low level members of the National Guard. The report raises as an example a group of low-ranking officers from the National Guard called "Fénix" that operated along the border in the early 2000s.

But this would come to change with the 2005 reform of the Organic Law Against the Illegal Trafficking and Consumption of Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances (Ley Orgánica Contra el Tráfico Ilícito y el Consumo de Sustancias Estupefacientes y Psicotrópicas), which gave all military institutions full investigative powers over drug-related crimes.

These new prerogatives, reasserted by the 2010 Organic Law on Drugs (Ley Orgánica de Drogas), were reportedly the stepping stone for the development of powerful criminal networks that reached the highest rank of Venezuela's military. These networks became known as the Cartel of the Suns.

SEE ALSO: Cartel of the Suns News and Profile

Camero emphasizes that prior to these laws, the only security institutions that had jurisdiction over drug trafficking investigations were the Penal and Criminal Scientific Investigations Corps (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas Penales y Criminalísticas) and the National Guard. And while certain members of these institutions did facilitate drug smuggling, these were not as integrated with crime as Venezuela's current corrupt military networks, according to Camero.

The report notes that civilian groups, most notably the "colectivos," are still involved in smaller scale distribution of narcotics. Initially ideological and political support groups for the Chavista regime, the colectivos have become increasingly criminalized and a new generation of these groups are suspected of being purely criminal structures, hiding their operations behind an ideological façade.

Colectivos generally hold control over defined urban territories, which allows them to conduct an array of criminal activities including drug dealing. Nonetheless, the smuggling of drugs over the border and the processing of the raw material remain operations conducted largely by the military.

Beyond the military's growing and increasingly structured role in drug trafficking, Camero points to several factors that have fueled Venezuela's drug trade. As mentioned, for example, the report notes that Venezuela's drug trade has long been shaped by the dynamics in neighboring Colombia, which has seen a sustained climb in the cultivation of the main ingredient in cocaine, the coca plant.

The author also argues that Venezuela's current economic crisis and accompanying shortages of basic goods have exacerbated the drug trade by normalizing an array of illicit activities. Involvement in crime now appears to many Venezuelans as one of the few means of subsistence.

InSight Crime Analysis

Camero's pedigree gives her a certain legitimacy to discuss the history of Venezuela's drug trade, given that the former judge presided over Venezuela's National Commission Against the Use of Illicit Drugs (Comisión Nacional Contra el Uso Ilícito de Drogas) from 1999 to 2003. But some of the author's claims concerning the current complete control enjoyed by the country's military over the drug trade should be carefully considered, given the relative absence of accurate information regarding these matters.

There has indeed been increasing evidence in recent years that Venezuela's military has assumed a central role in the country's drug trade dynamics. For instance, spectacular seizures -- such as the 2013 discovery of 1.4 metric tons of cocaine in an Air France plane with a flight plan from Caracas to Paris -- render the absence of high ranking military involvement in drug trafficking through Venezuela's transportation networks improbable.

In addition, accusations have increasingly been directed specifically against high-ranking military officers. In 2014, the United States released an indictment against the then-head of military intelligence for his ties with drug trafficking. And in 2016, the former head of Venezuela's anti-narcotics agency and commander of the National Guard, Nestor Reverol, was also formally accused of drug trafficking by the United States.

Along with other incidents of military involvement, these suspicions have strengthened the notion that Venezuela's armed forces have deepened their role in the drug trade beyond being simple facilitators. And Camero's argument that the 2005 and 2010 legal changes were central to this evolution is compelling.

Nevertheless, the drug trade tends to be an opaque business, and rather than shedding light on military involvement in drug trafficking, the current Venezuelan government appears more inclined toward covering it up. These factors make it difficult to support definitive assertions about the degree of the military's involvement in criminal activities.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles

At the same time, history has shown that across Latin America, placing the military at the forefront of the fight against drug trafficking has fueled the corruption of these institutions through increased contact with organized crime. And Venezuela is no exception to that trend.

Moreover, the country has witnessed other correlations between expanded military prerogatives and the armed forces' involvement in criminal activities. A recent report by the Associated Press detailed the extent to which Venezuela's military became involved in contraband food trafficking after the decision was taken to give the armed forces control over the country's food production and distribution networks.

But while Venezuela's military certainly appears to be involved in organized crime, similar accusations of criminality have also been raised against powerful civilian figures tied to the government.

For example, Diosdado Cabello, a former low-ranking military officer who has held high civilian offices since 2000, has repeatedly been suspected of being a major figure in Venezuela's drug trade. Two nephews of Venezuela's first lady -- themselves convicted by a US court for scheming to smuggle 800 of kilograms of cocaine into the country -- relayed rumors that Cabello may be a top figure within the Cartel of the Suns. During the same recorded discussion with a confidential informant, one of the nephews described the country's drug trade as being divided between the Cartel of the Suns and "government executives."

More recently, in February 2017, the United States sanctioned Venezuela's current Vice President Tareck El Aissami for his alleged participation in drug trafficking. Aissami's name thus became the latest in a long list of powerful Venezuelan officials -- both military and civilian -- who appear to have close links with the country's drug trade.

Investigations

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