Op-Ed: Organized Crime Tightens its Grip on Venezuela

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Juan Guaidó tried to bluff Nicólas Maduro at the Venezuelan political poker table, pretending he had the enough of the military in his hand to take the pot. He failed, and serious, long-term criminal consequences will now be felt.

The military may be the principal powerbroker in the country, but many elements within its ranks and at the highest levels are now beholden to organized crime, along with the political and economic elites.

*This article was originally published by Semana and was reprinted by InSight Crime with permission.

While Maduro has run the economy into the ground and created a humanitarian crisis seldom seen in nations not in the grip of war, for organized crime, he remains an ideal president. He not only allows organized crime to flourish, but there are now parts of the state that protect and run it. Organized crime will do everything in its power to see him stay in office, or at best transfer power to another friendly and similarly compromised leader.

SEE ALSO: The Eight Criminal Armies Supporting Venezuela’s Maduro Administration

The roots of the current crisis lay with the now dead president Hugo Chávez, but under Maduro organized crime has managed to tighten its grip on many state institutions. With the failure of the recent uprising, that grip could become a stranglehold for the following reasons:

  1. With tightening international sanctions, the government is going to rely more and more on criminal income to stay afloat. This will come from illegal gold mining, fuel smuggling and cocaine trafficking.
  2. The actors that control these criminal economies, which include elements of the military and Colombian illegal groups, will gain an even greater voice in the direction of the country.
  3. Politically weakened by the latest attempt to overthrow him, Maduro is going to rely yet more on aligned criminal forces to repress opposition and protect him. These include not only the security forces, but the infamous “colectivos,” most of whom maintain a political façade to camouflage criminal activity like extortion, kidnapping and microtrafficking of drugs. Even the prison syndicates or pranes and the megabandas enjoy political protection and patronage that they will not want to lose. Foreign criminal groups like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the ex-FARC Mafia (with roots in the now demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) are also playing an increasingly important role in propping up the current regime, even as they deepen their roots, infrastructure and recruitment within Venezuela.

For these reasons, organized crime will not only sink its claws deeper into the Venezuelan state, but continue to gain more political and social legitimacy. Colombia understands this dynamic perfectly, with organized crime having created, or hijacked, organizations like the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) or the FARC, and now ELN. A political façade allows organized crime to recruit, seduce or win over local communities and assume state functions (dispensing justice, dressing up extortion as “taxes”, etc.)

Part of this political façade in Venezuela is bound up in anti-US rhetoric. For more than 20 years, the Bolivarian Revolution has espoused anti-imperialist and anti-American propaganda. Love him or hate him, Guaidó has undeniable ties to the United States, and the constant talk of US military intervention simply strengthens the oft-repeated notion that the United States, using Colombia as a proxy, wants to seize control of Venezuela’s oil wealth.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profile

Organized crime does not want to see a government take power that will not only refuse to protect its operations, but possibly work with Washington DC to close it down.

Organized crime as is now one of the principal obstacles to a peaceful political transition in Venezuela, as it now controls much of the existing regime. If it cannot keep Maduro in power, or replace him with a similar figure (Diosdado Cabello for example), who protects, facilitates and gives legitimacy to its operations, then it may prefer to see Venezuela descend into civil conflict rather than allow a US-friendly president into power. And Colombia knows how organized crime can live like a parasite off civil conflict, and how hard it is to find peace after the shooting starts.

*This article was originally published by Semana and was reprinted by InSight Crime with permission.

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