In Food-Starved Venezuela, Cartel of the Flour?

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Authorities in food-poor Venezuela arrested two individuals on suspicion of smuggling almost three tons of white powder, but it wasn’t the usual seizure of illegal drugs. It was flour.

Police officers in the municipality of Juan Antonio Sotillo, Anzoátegui state, seized 2,700 kilograms of wheat flour on August 26, reported Sumarium.

Responding to a tip of suspicious behavior from neighbors, the officers went to a private residence. Upon arrival, they discovered 60 bags containing 45 kilos of flour apiece. Neither the alleged owner of the bags, 1st Lt. Luis Alberto Quero Silva of the Bolivian National Guard, or the residence’s owner, María Ignacia Arrioja Maraima, where unable to justify the provenance of the goods.

Both were arrested and charged with contraband by means of diversion.

InSight Crime Analysis

There is a certain dark irony in the news of such a large amount of flour being seized in Venezuela, a country which regularly makes the headlines due to its significant role in the transshipment of South American cocaine.

But the bust is unsurprising given the mass shortages of food and other goods that Venezuelans currently face. The food crisis has given rise to other surprising stories, such as a report this month examining how a prison has become a supermarket for basic goods.

As InSight Crime previously reported, organized crime has greatly benefitted from Venezuela’s economic crisis, both in the country and in neighboring Colombia. While Venezuela has long been a supplier of many subsidized basic goods to Colombia’s contraband market, especially gasoline, the food shortages have led to the reversal of the direction of contraband.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles

Moreover, the fact that the person caught in possession of the allegedly contraband flour is a member of the armed forces comes as no surprise. Unable to turn around the country’s crumbling and corrupt economy, President Nicolás Maduro decided last month to strengthen the army’s control over the production and distribution of food.

Venezuela’s armed forces are infamous for corruption within their ranks — including the alleged involvement of senior officers as leaders of the Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles) drug trafficking network. Members of the military have been implicated numerous times in drug trafficking cases, but only lower-ranking officers have been arrested by Venezuelan authorities. Members of the military have also been implicated in contraband along the border with Colombia, and the armed forces were put in control of the Venezuela’s ports last month by President Maduro.

That the officer arrested in connection with the flour was accused of contraband by means of diversion makes it likely that he used his position to divert the suspected contraband from the stocks recently put under military control.

The possibility the lieutenant was working as part of a group — 3 tons of product is quite a logistical challenge for an individual — could be a sign that criminal networks within the military are expanding from drug trafficking to ‘bachaqueo’ – the act of reselling basic products that have become extremely scare in the country. There is precedence for such a shift among low-level criminals, with some drug dealers switching to food trafficking.

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