Officials’ Arrest Indicative of Split in Venezuela’s ‘Cartel of the Suns’?

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Two recent arrests of army officers highlight the prevalence of drug trafficking within Venezuela’s security forces, and hint at a possible fragmentation within the shadowy Cartel of the Suns.

On February 12, Army Major Juan José Sorja was caught with more than 500 kilos of cocaine at a Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) checkpoint in western Mérida state, El País reported

Sorja was traveling in an army truck with six civilians disguised in uniforms. The cocaine was reportedly hidden in the vehicle’s chassis. 

The following day the GNB captured Army Lieutenant Yorjan José Ojeda Páez with 250 kilos of marijuana and cocaine in the state of Zulia, reported Entorno Inteligente

Ojeda was traveling in a truck featuring army insignia to disguise it as a military vehicle. 

In a press conference following the arrests, Defense Minister General Vladimir Padrino López acknowledged both incidents as “attacks on the honor and image of the military,” but denied it was indicative of a chronic problem, El País reported. 

Rocío San Miguel, lawyer and director of the Venezuelan organization Control Ciudadano, disagreed. Commenting on the arrests, San Miguel tweeted: “Drug trafficking within the Armed Forces can no longer be hidden and constitutes one of the biggest threats to the Venezuelan state.” 

InSight Crime Analysis  

Sorta and Ojeda’s arrests are just the latest of numerous incidents linking members of Venezuela’s armed forces to drug trafficking.

In January, Venezuela charged seven current and former military officials for allowing drug flights to transit the country. Meanwhile, in November, two military officials were suspected of piloting a plane that nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro allegedly used to smuggle drugs. 

Drug trafficking networks within the Venezuelan military are generally referred to as the Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles), a reference to the sun insignia Venezuelan generals wear on their uniforms. 

SEE ALSO: Cartel of the Suns News and Profile

Yet the exact nature of relationships within the Cartel of the Suns are as enigmatic as the overall network itself, and it is unclear how much cooperation and coordination occurs among various factions. However, there is generally considered to be a split between the GNB and army, with each having their respective, and sometimes competing, trafficking networks.

As such, the arrest of two army officials for drug trafficking by the GNB — which has arrested its own officials in the past for drug trafficking — in the same weekend leads to speculation of increased competition between the Cartel of the Suns’ various networks. This could potentially be a result of the continued deterioration of Venezuela’s political and security situation, with rival groups looking to protect their own interests as political uncertainty sets in.  

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