In this two-part series, Venezuelan journalist Javier Mayorca examines the evolution of organized crime in Venezuela, from the first manifestations of official corruption and contraband during colonial times and the influence of Italian groups, to when criminal organizations reached their peak after Hugo Chávez took power. This analysis also looks at the role of Colombian groups and the violent mutation of crime in Venezuela under current President Nicolás Maduro.
How did organized crime become so developed in Venezuela?
Well, before we answer that question, we need to set the scene. We need something that embodies Venezuela.
Let’s begin here.
On Thursday, February 4, 2015, while the government commemorated another year of a failed coup attempt by Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez, residents and business owners in Maracay, the capital of the northern state of Aragua, and Tumeremo, a town in the southern state of Bolivar, abandoned the streets and closed the doors of their shops. But they didn’t do this in order to participate in the government’s ceremonies. They did this in order to protect themselves from criminal groups.
In Maracay, armed individuals were blasting around in motorcycles, a symbol of their discontent over the death of a member of the criminal group La Pedrera. The previous day, members of the group distributed pamphlets warning the community “of the consequences that could come” if they didn’t comply with their demands.
In Tumeremo, the warning passed by word-of-mouth, but it had the same effect of spreading terror. There, La Pedrera reacted angrily to the arrest of eleven of its members, who were allegedly demanding extortion fees from a rancher.
This is Venezuela during the age of the so-called “mega-gangs,” as they were described in July 2015 by the Venezuelan Observatory of Organized Crime, a non-governmental organization that identified 12 groups in the country as mega-gangs due to their size and magnitude.
This term was not part of the lexicon of organized crime scholars just two years ago. It’s a sign of how quickly the criminal landscape has changed in this South American nation.
The concept of organized crime as it is known today is relatively new. J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, admitted the existence of criminal groups in the United States but didn’t admit to the presence of groups with the type of organization like the Italian Costa Nostra. Notorious episodes like the “Apalachin Meeting<” and the confessions of Joe Valachi had to occur in order to reluctantly change attitudes towards organized crime.
In Venezuela, something similar happened. The judicial police, formed under significant influences from French and US investigative agencies, relied almost totally on physical evidence. The police rarely delved into the investigative work that could uncover the existence of deeper and more profound criminal conspiracies. Until 2005, in Venezuela the legal concept of organized crime was limited to conspiracy, as it was defined and sanctioned in the penal code. Venezuela was a signatory to the 2000 United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, but it had not developed a single law to adopt the protocols outlined in the convention.
Technically, before 2005, Venezuelan law ruled out the existence of organized crime. How could they talk about organized crime if there was no law that explicitly defined it as a crime?
Organized Crime During the Colonial Era
Some manifestations of organized crime in Venezuela date back to the colonial era. Piracy, contraband, and human smuggling were part of the criminal portfolio of the traffickers that operated along Venezuela’s coasts. Piracy and contraband were considered serious criminal activities in their day, while human smuggling was a commonly accepted practice until the middle of the 19th century, when slavery was abolished.
During colonial times, the Spanish Empire tried without success to control contraband via the creation of regulatory agencies. In 1728, the Crown gave the Guipuzcoana Company the privilege of conducting all foreign commerce in the province of Caracas. This not only meant having a monopoly on imports and exports (as well as collecting corresponding taxes), but it also gave the company the right to punish all those who attempted to avoid trade controls.
Opposition to the Guipuzcoana Company came from the traders themselves and the local government in Caracas. This left the company’s boats out of business for more than two years. Meanwhile, business networks developed via alternative channels. The Guipuzcoana Company also began to clash with the United Kingdom, to whom they had conceded the exclusive permission for the importation of slave labor. The British also began to take advantage of the situation by introducing all types of merchandise into Venezuela.
The trade controls during colonial times fostered corruption and shortages of basic products in Caracas province. This has been a recurring pattern throughout Venezuela’s history.
In 1818, during the War of Independence, Simón Bolívar emitted a decree which recognized the inefficiency of the Spanish regime when it came to controlling contraband. Bolívar chose to give both Venezuelans and foreigners the opportunity to report and interdict contraband operations. Those who did so were able to receive a portion of the seized assets. The decree also established that judicial processes after contraband seizures would last no more than 45 days, including the time taken for appeals.
However, this system didn’t prove to be any more effective than the last. According to Francisco Herrera Luque, in his historical novel “Los Amos del Valle”, the large fortunes accumulated during and immediately after the age of independence came from contraband.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Contraband
Carlo Lucania and ‘The Italians’
After the War of Independence, there was a plan to repopulate Venezuelan territory. Venezuelan leader José Antonio Páez commissioned geographer Agustín Codazzi to search for a location that would be attractive to the population of Central Europe. He found a humid rainforest in the present state of Aragua, where immigrants from Germany and the Netherlands would settle. As the lands belonged to Martín Tovar, the place was named Tovar Colony in 1843.
More European immigrants would eventually settle in other parts of Aragua — closer to the capital of Maracay, as well as in Guayana and Caracas. They are credited with founding the town of Araira in the state of Miranda.
During the middle of the 20th century, the Italians and their descendants had some of the most numerous colonies in the country, with approximately two million inhabitants. The organized crime groups that operated in Sicily and Naples (the Cosa Nostra and the Camorra, respectively) took advantage of this by sending representatives and associates that could blend in with the local communities.
Venezuela was always coveted territory for Italian organized crime groups. The Italian government recognized this when it decided to open one of its twenty offices worldwide dedicated to investigating drug trafficking in Caracas.
The first indication of Venezuela’s importance to organized crime came when the top boss of the American Cosa Nostra, Carlo Lucania, better known as Charles “Lucky” Luciano, traveled twice to Venezuela during the years following his expulsion from the United States in 1947.
Luciana wanted to extend the mafia’s operations to include Venezuela’s booming economy — the nation was already among the principal producers of petroleum in the world. Luciana went first to Venezuela and then Brazil, using a Cuban visa. He probably took the same route Tommaso Buscetta, the first major defector of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, had taken 45 years earlier to get away from the war the Corleones were waging against his family.
The Italians inserted themselves into the Venezuelan economy in various ways, from construction to banks to tourism and the services industry. The vast majority were hard-working people who followed the law. Venezuela was, during the second half of the 20th century, a country with strong links to the outside world, boasting an airport that could hold more than 5,000 planes while land and fluvial communication channels crisscrossed the country.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles
But once again, transnational organized crime groups took advantage of this situation in the 1970s by converting the country into one of the principal corridors for trafficking cocaine produced in the Andean region. Venezuela not only provided the supplies needed to produce cocaine, it also served as a platform to launder the illicit capital generated from drug production and trafficking.
Drug traffickers frequently used Venezuela as a place to meet and agree on the terms of certain operations.
The Italians had a head start when it came to organized crime. With the arrival of democracy to Venezuela in 1958, the leaders of the principal political parties drew up the Pact of Punto Fijo, named after the house of the man who hosted the meeting. The man’s name was Rafael Caldera.
Caldera was the founder of the democratic Christian party in Venezuelan known as Copei. Their links with the Christian Democracy party in Italy were strong. Both political structures were closely aligned with US conservatism. The consequences of this alliance during the Cold War have yet to be thoroughly studied. However, in Venezuela, this alliance served as a platform for concealing the operations of mafias and terrorists in the country.
Although those who ran transnational organized crime networks in Venezuela have usually enjoyed a great deal of impunity, every now and then authorities carry out an operation that reveals Venezuela’s importance as a base of criminal operations. In 1976, for example, thanks to the express solicitation of the US Department of Justice, Carlo Bordoni was arrested in Caracas. Bordoni was considered the right-hand man of Michele Sindona, and was directly implicated in the fraudulent bankruptcy of Franklin National Bank. Sindona would later be implicated in the scandals involving a Masonic lodge and the laundering of Cosa Nostra money through the Institute for the Works of Religion, commonly known as the Vatican Bank.
The Inevitable Next Step
After former US President Ronald Reagan renewed the “war on drugs,” Venezuela was declared as a “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area” (HIDTA). The country was not only declared a transit point for drug shipments mostly destined for the United States — some Venezuelans were described as major transnational drug traffickers. The first known Venezuelan defined this way was Commander Lizardo Márquez Pérez. According to Gugliotta, this retired official even created a safety manual for the inner circle of the Medellín Cartel’s Pablo Escobar.
In addition, drug traffickers frequently used Venezuela as a place to meet and agree on the terms of certain operations. For example, Bolivian national Roberto Suáre traveled to Margarita Island on several occasions for that express purpose. There he met with emissaries from Medellin. Suáre — who financed the military coup led by General García Meza — maintained alliances with owners of important Venezuelan multinationals.
The Italian-American mafia also had representatives based in Venezuela.
Paolo Cuntrera and Alfonso Caroana, their descendants, and their associates operated in collaboration with groups in Aruba and Canada. Their names only became known as a result of the investigation known as thr “Pizza Connection,” when they had already been in the country for no less than 15 years.
Indeed, members of an Italian clan based in Venezuela were involved in the largest drug seizures in Venezuela, as well as high-profile scandals implicating political operators in organized crime. Such was the case of Operation Orinoco 2000, which resulted in the seizure of 8.2 tons of cocaine hidden in various islands off the eastern state of Delta Amacuro.
Alberto Minelli, a member of the Caroana clan, was found to have financed the eight ton cocaine shipment, which remains the largest ever recorded seizure.
But with the coming of the 21st century and the rise of Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez to power, new actors would emerge that would completely change Venezuela’s criminal landscape.
This is the first installment of a two-part article.