The term “Cartel of the Suns” (Cartel de los Soles) is used to describe shadowy groups inside Venezuela’s military that traffic cocaine. It is in some ways a misleading term, as it creates the impression that there is a hierarchical group, made up primarily of military officials, that sets the price of cocaine inside the country. There are cells within the main branches of the military — the army, navy, air force, and National Guard, from the lowest to the highest levels — that essentially function as drug trafficking organizations. However, describing them as a “cartel” in the traditional sense would be a leap. It is not clear how the relationship between these cells works, although rivalries between them have apparently turned deadly in the past.
The term “Cartel of the Suns” was reportedly first used in 1993 when two National Guard generals, anti-drugs chief Ramon Guillen Davila and his successor Orlando Hernandez Villegas, were investigated for drug trafficking and other related crimes. As brigade commanders, each wore a single sun as insignia on their shoulders, giving rise to the name “Cartel of the Sun.” Later on, when allegations emerged that division commanders — given double suns in their ranking — were involved in the drug trade, the term became the “Cartel of the Suns.”
In the 1990s, accusations emerged of National Guard troops collaborating with drug traffickers, but, generally speaking, this mainly consisted of accepting payments to look the other way while traffickers moved their wares. The military did not have direct connections with suppliers, and for the most part they did not move or store cocaine themselves.
During the mid-2000s elements of the National Guard and other branches of the military became much more active participants in the drug trade. Cells in the security forces began to purchase, store, move and sell cocaine themselves, whereas previously their primary role had been to extort drug traffickers moving cocaine shipments. One theory for why this evolution took place is because Colombian drug smugglers began paying the military in drugs rather than cash, forcing the Venezuelans to find their own markets for the narcotics.
Three significant developments then contributed to the rise of organized crime in Venezuela. In the first place, Colombia signed the multi-billion dollar security program Plan Colombia with the United States, which allowed Colombian security forces to pressure guerrilla groups like the the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) as never before. This military pressure encouraged the guerrillas to shift more of their operations to Venezuela’s poorly policed border states.
Then in 2002 there were two key events, one after the other. The first was the ending of the peace process between the FARC and the government of Colombian President Andres Pastrana, which meant the rebels lost their huge safe haven in southern Colombia and needed other refuges. The second was the attempted coup d’etat that saw President Hugo Chávez temporarily removed from power. This led the Chávez to focus much of his energy on identifying and penalizing coup supporters, while dealing with other intense political battles such as the 2002-2003 oil strike.
The fallout from the coup led the Chávez administration to tighten its circle of trusted supporters; it also meant that many influential government positions or lucrative contract opportunities were given to army loyalists. The government took on the feel of a Praetorian regime, with serving or retired military officers taking up positions in state institutions.
Chávez also set up military areas of operations along the border with Colombia, citing fears of a US invasion via Colombia. Elements of the army as well as the National Guard became corrupted by the drug trade.
The term “Cartel of the Suns” was brought back to public attention by journalist and municipal councilman Mauro Marcano in 2004. Before his murder, Marcano accused National Guard brigade commander and Director of Intelligence Alexis Maneiro, and other National Guard members, of links to drug traffickers. The Marcano affair suggested more systematic corruption in the National Guard, yet the government only made a half-hearted effort to investigate. No investigation was opened against Maneiro, and he was transferred to a less visible position.
Around this time, there were other signs that drug trafficking was increasing inside Venezuela. 2004 saw record narcotics seizures inside the country: 32 tons of cocaine and 12 tons of heroin and marijuana. The military’s involvement in facilitating the movement of cocaine also came under scrutiny in August 2004, when several guardsmen framed three airline passengers (including a US citizen) for smuggling drugs through Caracas’ international airport. National Guard officials were also arrested in a separate case, caught loading cocaine into a private plane at Maiquetia airport (now the Simón Bolívar International Airport). Such incidents highlighted the military’s role in the drug trade, and their tendency to only seize drug shipments when they had not received the appropriate pay-offs.
In 2005 there was another development that contributed to the strengthening of organized crime networks inside the country, when Chávez accused the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of espionage. This brought US-backed counter-narcotics projects to a halt, including one initiative which would have updated screening technology in the port of Puerto Cabello, one of the country’s most important exit points for drug shipments.
Other incidents — such as the “narcoavioneta” case of 2011 — also fed the impression that there was complicity with organized crime at the very highest levels of the government and military. A small aircraft captured in the northern state of Falcon, carrying some 1,400 kilos of cocaine, was discovered to have taken off from La Carlota military base in Caracas in August 2011. Spokespeople for the military, air force, and government issued different explanations for what had taken place.
Another case that began in September 2013, this time involving a commercial airliner, led to the arrest of 28 people, among them a lieutenant coronel and other National Guard members. On September 10, an Air France plane landed in Paris with 1.3 tons of cocaine on board, packed into 31 suitcases. The plane had taken off from the Maiquetia airport in Caracas, which is closely controlled by the National Guard. It was immediately clear that there was extensive collaboration by members of the military, but although a string of National Guard arrests were made in connection with the case, all were low-ranking officers.
In 2014, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) listed former intelligence chief Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, who was later arrested on the request of the US authorities by security forces in Aruba, but was quickly released after the intervention of the Dutch government.
This was followed in 2015 by further scandals as Leamsy Salazar, the former head of Chávez’s presidential security, accused National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello of being a Cartel of the Suns leader, and two former high level police officials were indicted on drug trafficking charges by the United States. In August 2016, the United States unsealed federal indictments against the former general director of Venezuela’s anti-drugs agency, Nestor Luis Reverol Torres, and the former sub-director of that agency, Edylberto José Molina Molina. The day after the indictments were made public, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro named Reverol as the new head of the Interior Ministry.
There is no family tree for a structure as nebulous as the Cartel of the Suns, only a list of names published by OFAC, and plenty of speculation. It seems evident that the primary branches of the armed forces — the National Guard, the army, the navy, and the air force — all have factions that traffic drugs. While they sometimes appear to work together, there is also evidence that they work against each other and steal drug shipments (a practice known as “tumbes”). There have been reports of a drug trafficking faction within the military made up of officers involved in the 1992 coup attempt, a group informally known as the “Cartel Bolivariano.”
One of the clearest indications that officials at the top level of the security forces were deeply involved in organized crime came in 2008 when the OFAC announced sanctions against the following individuals, who supposedly served as contacts for the FARC in a drugs-for-weapons scheme:
- Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, at the time the director of military intelligence.
- Henry de Jesús Rangel Silva, whom Chávez named general-in-chief and then defense minister in January 2012.
- Ramón Emilio Rodríguez Chacín, former minister of interior and justice.
In September 2011, the OFAC sanctioned another four Venezuelan officials, reportedly based on evidence retrieved from the laptops found at the encampment of slain FARC commander Raul Reyes:
- Cliver Antonio Alcalá Cordones, later appointed as head of the army’s Guiana Integral Strategic Defense Region (REDI Guayana)
- Congressman Freddy Alirio Bernal Rosales, a former Caracas mayor
- Intelligence officer Ramón Isidro Madriz Moreno
- Amilcar Jesús Figueroa Salazar, a politician described as “a primary arms dealer for the FARC, and … a main conduit for FARC leaders based in Venezuela.”
Supporters of the Chávez administration argued that the OFAC list is based on unsubstantiated evidence from the FARC laptops, and that there exists no concrete evidence of this “Cartel of the Suns” actually carrying out criminal operations. Others have criticized the OFAC list as a political tool used to smear the administrations of Chávez and his successor, current President Nicolas Maduro.
Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the security forces did not carry out fully transparent investigations into the alleged misconduct of Maneiro, Alcalá, and others when they had the chance. It is also noteworthy that while Venezuela has charged some lower-level members of the armed forces for drug crimes, higher-level members accused of involvement in the drug trade often appear to receive official protection.
The elements of the military believed to be most deeply involved in Venezuela’s drug trade are, unsurprisingly, concentrated along the western border with Colombia, especially the states of Apure, Zulia, and Tachira. The power of these cells comes from their access to Venezuela’s major airports, road checkpoints, and ports, including Puerto Cabello in Carabobo state.
Cocaine shipments are purchased in the Venezuelan border states of Apure and Zulia, or else in the Colombian border states. Because dollars are in short supply in Venezuela, and because the bolívar is frequently devalued in the black market, it is rare for the purchases to involve cash. Cocaine is often swapped for weapons, especially in deals with the FARC. Otherwise, the Venezuelans act as partners with the Colombian-based traffickers, agreeing to split the profits from the sale of the cocaine overseas.
The most popular trafficking routes are by air to the Dominican Republic and Honduras. Another route is to move the cocaine by land to Suriname, then by air or boat to West Africa and onwards to Europe. When moved by land, the cocaine is usually stored in local ranches and farms owned by civilian contacts.
Allies and Enemies
These military organizations are thought to source some of their cocaine from Colombia’s FARC guerrilla group, particularly the Eastern and Magdalena Medio Blocs.
The National Guard also worked with civilian drug trafficker Walid Makled in order to move their drug shipments out of Venezuela. Makled has also claimed to have worked with dozens of top level military officials. But while it appears that the National Guard and the army both used Makled as their “broker” to organize the movement of cocaine shipments outside the country, there is no love lost between these two factions of the security forces. The two have fought, stealing cocaine shipments from one another and then reporting them as seizures. But it is rare that the reported cocaine seizures are totally destroyed — usually they are skimmed off, then trafficked once again.
After Makled’s arrest in Colombia in 2010 and extradition back to Venezuela in 2011, it seems as though corrupt elements in the military have more or less successfully co-opted his trafficking networks in Zulia state. The National Guard cartel, meanwhile, is strongest in other Western parts of Venezuela, including along the Colombian departments of Arauca and Northern Santander.
It is also possible that members of the Cartel of the Suns count on the complicity, or even the active involvement, of high-level elements of Venezuela’s civilian government. In 2016, for instance, two nephews of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores went to trial on drug charges in US federal court. A DEA agent later testified that the nephews’ planned drug deal was facilitated by Cilia Flores’ brother Bladimir. Throughout the trial, evidence has emerged suggesting the nephews may have been acting as political cover for the Cartel of the Suns.
Although the United States has made efforts to bring the Cartel of the Suns activities to light in recent years, and has even sanctioned and charged some alleged members, the Venezuelan government has not pursued serious investigations or prosecutions of these suspects. In fact, it has in some cases promoted military officials accused of involvement in drug trafficking.
There have been indications in recent years that elements of the military are deepening their involvement in the drug trade, moving from simply facilitating drug trafficking to actually moving drugs themselves. Given Venezuela’s worsening political and economic crises, it seems likely that the operations of the Cartel of the Suns will continue largely unimpeded, and could perhaps expand going forward.