Drug kingpin Walid Makled

Once the most powerful civilian drug trafficker in Venezuela, Walid Makled managed cocaine shipments that left the country by sea and air, going to Central America and Europe. Rather than running a traditional drug trafficking organization with an armed wing, Makled primarily acted as a broker, selling his services to the highest bidder, from corrupt elements in Venezuela's military (known as the Cartel de los Soles) to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In exchange, Makled promised safe passage of cocaine shipments, which left Venezuela by the ton.

Walid is a member of one of Venezuela's most notorious business families, the Makleds, who started out running supermarket and retail appliance businesses. Between 2000 and 2008, the family's business holdings grew to include the warehouses and loading docks at the country's biggest port, Puerto Cabello, and Aeropostal, the second largest airline in the country. The family even held the rights to control Venezuela's trade in urea, a fertilizer which may be used as a precursor for making bombs and which traditionally can only be traded with special military permits. The family business grew especially rapidly between 2004 and 2008, according to a Public Ministry probe into their suspicious banking transactions. Makled is believed to have used these businesses -- especially the family-owned warehouses and fleet of vehicles in Puerto Cabello -- to provide transport services for drug traffickers.

Even at the earliest stages of Makled's career, his criminal activities were apparently facilitated by the complicity of the security forces and government officials. His first criminal enterprise was robbing and hijacking trucks: he has said that at one point he controlled a group of 300 armed men who stole 30 trucks a week, under the protection of Venezuela's National Guard. He reportedly first appeared on the radar of US anti-drug enforcement in 2004, when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided a Makled-owned warehouse for urea and drug precursor chemicals that were suspected of being diverted to illicit ends. But after then-President Hugo Chavez ended formal cooperation with the DEA 2005, the case was closed. 

As the Makled family businesses continued to grow, so did Walid's ability to transport tons of cocaine across the hemisphere. Some 5.5 tons of cocaine seized from a DC-9 jet plane in Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico, was traced back to Caracas and is believed to have been part of an operation organized by Makled. The cocaine shipment was reportedly purchased from the FARC and was meant for the Sinaloa Cartel.

At the height of Makled's business, he was reportedly smuggling up to 10 tons of cocaine a month. Makled has claimed that his trafficking network was made possible by complicity at the very highest levels of Venezuela's military and government, including former National Guard general and Carabobo state Governor Luis Acosta Carlez, the former head of military intelligence General Cliver Alcala (who has been blacklisted by the US Treasury for drug trafficking), and retired General Nestor Reverol, later the vice minister of public security. He later claimed that he had records proving that he paid off 15 generals, and that he could name another 25 who assisted him "on the side." Makled also carried a credential signed by former Supreme Court magistrate Eladio Aponte, which has been interpreted as proof of Makled's influence over Venezuela's highest court.

The beginning of Makled's decline came in 2008, when his younger brother Abdala ran for mayor of Venezuela's third largest city, Valencia, the capital of Carabobo state. Abdala campaigned as a pro-Chavez independent, and his campaign was marked by mass handouts of appliances and food, which won him popular support. While he still claimed loyalty to the Chavez regime, his candidacy was seen as eating away at the ruling PSUV party's support in Carabobo.

This political battle is believed to have prompted the government's first serious effort to crack down on the Makleds' operations. On November 13, 2008, the security forces raided a Makled family property, where they reportedly seized 392 kilos of cocaine. Three brothers were arrested, although Walid Makled went underground and only came into public view once more when he was arrested in the Colombian border town of Cucuta in 2010. Sources consulted by InSight Crime suggested that the military planted the cocaine on the Makled farm in order to frame them.

After Makled's arrest, he went public with allegations about the Venezuelan establishment, stating, "All my business associates are generals." He also claimed to have financed one of Chavez's presidential campaigns in exchange for concessions at Puerto Cabello.

When Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos' administration agreed to extradite Makled to Venezuela instead of the US, arguing that he was wanted in Venezuela on murder charges, as opposed to the US where he is only wanted on drug charges, it was widely viewed as part of an effort to persuade Venezuela to crack down on the FARC guerrillas living inside the country.

Makled's trial began in April 2012 amid speculation that his decision not to testify publicly meant he had come to some kind of agreement with the government in return for not naming names. On February 10, 2015, he was sentenced to 14 years and six months in prison for drug trafficking and money laundering, but was absolved of weapons, organized crime, and murder charges. In response, Venezuela's Attorney General's Office vowed to appeal the court's decision and officials promptly arrested the judge who had sentenced Makled for alleged favoritism.

Three of Makled's siblings were also sentenced; two for money laundering and one for weapons concealment.