President Nicolás Maduro has announced changes to Venezuela’s highest military positions, in a series of appointments that reward longstanding loyalty but also promote figures with records of criminal complicity and participation in repression.
The announcements were made on July 7 at a military ceremony in Caracas. Maduro reappointed Vladimir Padrino López as defense minister, showing that he continues to see Padrino López as crucial for maintaining his relations with the military, despite his rumored association with the failed opposition uprising of April 30.
Below, InSight Crime considers the background and criminal ties of Venezuela’s new military chiefs.
Alexis Rodríguez Cabello – Commander of the Army
Rodríguez Cabello has a long history of allegiance to the Bolivarian revolution, having participated in deceased President Hugo Chávez’s failed coup of 1992. He remained a key figure in the military high command under Maduro, serving as head of the military district of the capital from 2017 to 2019.
According to Venezuelan military expert and director of the Control Ciudadano (Citizen Control) NGO, Rocío San Miguel, the appointment of Rodríguez Cabello as Commander of the Army is “a clear concession to the power exercised by Diosdado Cabello Rondón,” president of the controversial National Constituent Assembly. The two men were in the same military graduating class and are believed to be cousins.
Diosdado Cabello is a central figure in the Venezuelan government. He is currently under sanctions from the US Treasury for activities including drug trafficking, money laundering and embezzlement of state funds. Investigations into his criminal activity suggest that he uses his influence over military appointments to safeguard the operations of the shadowy Cartel of the Suns drug trafficking network that operates within the Venezuelan military.
Rodríguez Cabello succeeds Jesús Suárez Chourio, whose demotion may reflect rumors of his involvement in the failed opposition uprising in late April. As military chief of the capital district at that time, Rodríguez Cabello was among the first military commanders to publicly condemn the uprising and affirm his unswerving loyalty to Maduro.
Manuel Bernal Martínez – Commander of the Militia
Bernal Martínez is another “original chavista” who participated in the coup attempt of 1992, demonstrating the premium the embattled Maduro government is placing on a long record of loyalty. In 2014, Bernal served as Director of Venezuela’s feared military intelligence service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia – SEBIN).
As head of the SEBIN, Bernal presided over the bloody response to protests led by opposition figurehead Leopoldo López in February 2014. SEBIN special forces together with members of the paramilitary shock troops known as ‘colectivos’ opened fire on demonstrators, resulting in two deaths. The head of the SEBIN contingent and other SEBIN officials later testified that they were present on the orders of Bernal, although Bernal denied giving authorization. Bernal was placed under US sanctions for human rights violations as a result of the killings. He was removed from his post in the SEBIN, but continued receiving appointments to high military office.
In 2018, he was named commander of the military district of the Andes. The same year, he was included on a list of Venezuelan officials sanctioned by the government of Panama for posing “a high risk of money laundering, financing of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
Fabio Zavarce – Commander of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB)
Before his appointment as commander of Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), Fabio Zavarce served as head of the Western military district. In the view of San Miguel, his promotion represents: “on one hand, the presence of one of the most powerful groups led by Nestor Reverol, Interior and Justice Minister, on the other hand, a prize for loyalty in the criminalization of protest in Venezuela.”
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Fabio Zavarce is a close ally of Nestor Reverol, one of the figures believed to exercise covert power in the Maduro administration. Alongside Diosdado Cabello, Reverol has been singled out as a key member of the Cartel of the Suns. He was indicted by the US on drug trafficking charges in 2015 and again in 2017, and was named by captured Venezuelan security chief Hugo Carvajal as key to the Venezuelan military’s narcotics trafficking operations. Zavarce’s new appointment assures Reverol’s influence throughout the GNB. Zavarce also has alleged personal ties to drug trafficking. His name appeared on the list of military collaborators given by convicted drug trafficker Walid Makled in 2011.
In addition, Zavarce has proven himself a willing participant in state repression. As head of the GNB Regional Command in Caracas, he directed the unit’s violent response to the opposition protests in February. Videos have also emerged of him embracing the leader of the notorious “La Piedrita” colectivo, demonstrating his affiliation with these pro-government criminal armed groups. He was sanctioned by the United States in 2018 for the repression of demonstrations and was included on Panama’s list of Venezuelan officials sanctioned for suspected association with money laundering and terrorism.