For the first time, the International Narcotics Control Board has recognized the growing influence of the “Cartel of the Suns,” the name for a criminal structure within the ranks of the Venezuelan government and military, in the country’s drug trafficking.
In its 2019 report, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) reports uncovering evidence about a network of members of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana – FANB) and other groups within the Venezuelan government dedicated to facilitating the transport of drugs in and out of the country.
“There are indications that in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, criminal groups have succeeded in infiltrating government security forces, forming an informal network known as the ‘Cartel of the Suns’ to facilitate the passage of illicit drugs into and out the country,” indicated the report published on February 27, 2020.
According to investigations by InSight Crime, the Cartel of the Suns, known in Spanish as the ‘Cartel de los Soles,’ consists of a series of cells made up of high-ranking members of the FANB and government officials involved in drug trafficking-related activities.
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The Cartel of the Suns, a name alluding to the stars Venezuelan generals wear on their uniforms, started out accepting bribes in exchange for looking the other way when drugs passed and protecting Colombian drug traffickers operating from Venezuela. However, over the last decade, they have grown stronger and have acquired a greater share in drug trafficking.
Furthermore, the INCB report describes Venezuela as the main bridge to the United States and Europe used by criminal groups to transport large quantities of Colombian-produced cocaine. Additionally, it explains that aircrafts loaded with drug shipments regularly take off from Venezuela en route to Guatemala and Honduras.
The document indicates that Colombian traffickers are looking to move cocaine base paste to Venezuela for processing, where 22 medium-sized cocaine laboratories located in the border region were destroyed in 2018.
The report also highlights the 35.5 tons of cocaine hydrochloride reportedly seized by Venezuelan authorities in 2018, making it the country with the second-highest number of seizures after Colombia.
InSight Crime Analysis
While the participation of Venezuelan military officials in drug trafficking has been going on since the 1990s, the recent acknowledgment of the Cartel of the Suns’ existence is yet more confirmation of its growing importance in the international drug trafficking scenario.
Former Venezuelan judge Mildred Camero considers the announcement to be a positive step but states that “the international community has taken a long time to recognize what is happening in Venezuela, primarily in relation to drug trafficking and the involvement of a significant part of the armed forces. As of 2003, we began to point out the incursion of the Venezuelan military in drug trafficking in the annual reports we sent to the INCB,” the expert told InSight Crime.
The United States has also warned of the links between criminal operations and the Venezuelan military. In 2010, Washington issued sanctions against the former director of the defunct Venezuelan intelligence agency, who now serves as the governor of Trujillo, General Henry Rangel Silva, for drug trafficking, as well as against the former interior minister, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, and former intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal.
In 2016, former GNB comandante and current Minister of the Interior, Justice and Peace, Néstor Reverol, was accused by a New York court of accepting bribes to allow cocaine trafficking while he led Venezuela’s anti-narcotics agency.
In 2018, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC) sanctioned Diosdado Cabello for “drug trafficking, money laundering and other corrupt activities.” Cabello is considered to be one of the key figures within the Cartel of the Suns as well as holding broad power having previously been vice president and Speaker of the National Assembly. A recent article by ABC reported that he leads the network of FANB officials that work to control gold, fuel and drug contraband.
The Cartel of the Suns is not only made up of military officers. High-ranking government officials have also been indicated as participating in drug trafficking operations, among them Vice President Tareck El Aissami.
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The Venezuelan military takes action as needed to ensure the covert entrance and exit of the aircrafts transporting the drug shipments. One popular way to achieve this is to switch off aerial radars precisely when aircrafts enter or leave, as a GNB colonel in Zulia state reportedly did for a drug trafficking network operating between Colombia, Venezuela, Central America and Mexico.
Another practice recently detected is the sale of air entrance codes, a practice employed by Gino Vergara, an airforce captain who made up part of an organization linked to Mexican and Colombian cartels, according to an investigation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).