Venezuela is a key transit country for drug shipments leaving Colombia for the United States and Europe. Foreign groups, particularly Colombians, have traditionally controlled Venezuela’s drug trade, attracted by poor rule of law and corruption. There is evidence, however, that beginning in the mid-2000s corrupt elements in the security forces stepped up their role in the business, forming a loose network dubbed the “Cartel de los Soles” (Cartel of the Suns).
Corrupt members of the security forces have also been major providers of weapons to the black market, to the particular benefit of Colombian guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). Both the FARC and the ELN have established a presence in states along Venezuela’s shared border with Colombia, a hub of criminal activity, alongside Venezuela’s own armed rebel group the FBL-FPLN. Human trafficking, money laundering and the drug precursor chemical trade are other problems for Venezuela’s struggling law enforcement. Venezuelan cities also have a major problem with street crime and urban gang warfare, with the capital Caracas having one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
Due to its 2,200 kilometer border with Colombia, Venezuela has been impacted by security problems in the neighboring country. Its long Caribbean coastline, sparsely populated jungles and plains and proximity to other Caribbean drug transit points like Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras and the Dominican Republic have also contributed to Venezuela becoming a major narcotics smuggling route.
Contraband alcohol, Colombian emeralds and tobacco were among the earliest illicit trades in Venezuela. Another lucrative contraband good to come out of Venezuela was the “black gold” of the 20th century: oil. Fuel is now smuggled from Venezuela to Colombia, often along the same routes as cocaine, but in the opposite direction.
The dictatorships of General Juan Vicente Gómez, from 1908 to 1935, and General Marcos Pérez Jiménez during the 1950s helped make Venezuela one of the most unequal societies in the world. Their regimes were corrupt and brutal, and the upper classes were allowed to ransack the country. But these leaders are also credited with building up Venezuela’s infrastructure. (Ironically, the relatively high quality of this infrastructure, including highways and ports, would later make Venezuela an attractive transit country for the cocaine trade.) Inequality fueled the rise of violent guerrilla movements in the 1960s. By the end of the decade, many of these groups had chosen to accept an amnesty offer from the government. One rebel leader who refused, Douglas Bravo, maintained several guerrilla cells in the cities and countryside. He would later become an adviser to the Chávez brothers, Adán and Hugo.
One of the first foreign organized crime cells to establish a significant presence in Venezuela was a clan from Italy’s Cosa Nostra. Members of the Cuntreta and Caruana families settled in Caracas as part of a wave of Italian immigrants who established themselves in Venezuela after World War II. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Caruana family became involved in trafficking cocaine and heroin from Colombia to Europe, via a connection with the Cali Cartel.
In the 1980s, Colombia’s drug cartels became the world’s biggest distributors of cocaine, marijuana and heroin, and Venezuela inevitably felt the impact. In a pattern that would continue for decades to come, whenever Colombia cracked down on drug trafficking groups, they would respond by shifting more of their operations to Venezuela. The economic crisis that affected Venezuela in the 1980s, nearly doubling unemployment, also helped the expansion of the drug trade in the country. Violence in Colombia was another factor; displaced people fled across the border, providing more contacts for Colombian traffickers in the neighboring country.
Active and retired members of the security forces have been involved in Venezuela’s drug trade since the very beginning. A major from the army reserve was caught with 667 kilograms of cocaine in a small aircraft in 1983, one of the biggest seizures that had yet been registered in South America. Other cases of official misconduct followed. A retired major was arrested with 136 kilograms of cocaine in 1984, and a military general, who was also the former president of the army’s martial court, was caught with 453 kilograms in 1985.
The army was not the only institution to be corrupted by the drug trade. In 1987, a congressman was arrested in Carabobo state with a small shipment of cocaine in his car. Even the church was implicated, when a priest was arrested for cocaine smuggling in 1988. None of these cases involved homegrown Venezuelan trafficking organizations, but rather people working for Colombian groups. However, even at the very earliest stages of Venezuela’s drug trade, cocaine was leaving Caracas for South Florida by boat and plane, loaded with hundred-kilogram and even multi-ton shipments.
The expansion of the drug trade became a hot topic in the 1988 presidential elections. One presidential candidate, Vladimir Gessen, called Venezuela “the biggest storage point for Colombian drugs headed to the United States or Europe.” Medellín Cartel leader Fabio Ochoa insinuated he had given an $80,000 purebred horse as a gift to future President Carlos Andrés Pérez. According to the trafficker, Pérez offered to help rescue Ochoa’s daughter, who had been kidnapped by Colombian guerrilla group the M-19.
By the early 1990s, there were signs that drug trafficking had penetrated Venezuela’s security and political elite in a more systematic manner. In June 1991, the director of military intelligence was removed from his post after his car was discovered at a drug trafficker’s house. That same year, former Caracas Governor Adolfo Ramírez Torres, who had overseen anti-narcotics affairs in the Interior Ministry, was arrested on drug trafficking charges. The corruption even extended to Venezuela’s Embassy in Washington, DC, whose adjunct military attaché was arrested in a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sting operation in 1992. In another puzzling affair, interim President Ramón José Velásquez pardoned a Medellín Cartel drug trafficker in 1993, allowing his release from Venezuelan prison.
Such prominent corruption in the security forces, the political arena and the judiciary would prove to be a major hindrance to Venezuela’s investigations into organized crime for one administration after another.
In light of Venezuela’s growing status as a key transit country for Colombian traffickers, the government began signing narcotics control agreements with the US government in 1987, under which the United States offered training and support to the Venezuelan security forces. But some of this aid proved controversial: an anti-drug program sponspored by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was later found to have allowed the export of nearly a ton of cocaine to Miami in 1991. The scandal crippled the CIA’s anti-drug work inside the country and damaged the trust between the United States and Venezuela on drug aid issues. A National Guard general who worked with the CIA, Ramón Guillén Dávila, was later indicted in the United States for drug trafficking, in the first prominent case of a National Guard official being complicit in organized crime.
This history shows that drug trafficking, corruption, and ties between the security forces and organized crime were serious problems long before Hugo Chávez came to the presidency in 1999. (For example, the United States had stated in 1996 and 1997 that Venezuela’s anti-drug actions were insufficient.) In 2005, the Chávez administration severed its relationship with US law enforcement agencies, including the DEA. That year, the United States found that Venezuela had “failed demonstrably” to meet its obligations to fight drug trafficking.
Chávez’s stance was in stark contrast to that of Colombia, which began relying more and more heavily on the United States for assistance in its battle against drug trafficking and crime. The US-funded Plan Colombia would break the power of rebel groups like the FARC and the ELN, but pushed the guerrillas to move to safer ground in Venezuelan border states like Apure, Zulia and Táchira.
This fed rumors that Chávez was sympathetic to the Colombian rebels, offering them financing and protection. Certain statements by Chávez encouraged such beliefs, such as his remarks that the FARC was “not the enemy” of Venezuela. The Colombian and US governments also criticized Venezuela’s refusal to label the FARC a terrorist organization. In addition to expressing ideological sympathy for the rebels, the government pursued splinter paramilitary groups in western Venezuela with far more energy than they pursued the guerrillas. Weapons and ammunition from official stockpiles were regularly found in the hands of the FARC and the ELN rebels. Intelligence that the Colombian government said it found in computer files in the camp of slain FARC Commander Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias “Raul Reyes,” also pointed to complicity between the Chávez government and the FARC.
In the late 2000s, international agencies warned that an increased amount of narcotics was being moved through Venezuela. Some 41 percent of all cocaine shipments to Europe passed through Venezuela, according to a 2010 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Other incidents involving transatlantic drug flights also raised concerns, especially after the burned remains of a Boeing 727 was found in Mali in 2009, which UN officials said was a drug flight which took off from Venezuela.
Government ties with organized crime have deepened since the early 2000s. Beginning in the mid-2000s, elements in the National Guard and army moved from accepting bribes in exchange for allowing drug shipments to pass, to actually storing and transporting drug shipments themselves. Drug trafficker Walid Makled, who was arrested in Colombia in 2010 and extradited to Venezuela, claimed that the highest levels of the Chávez regime had been involved in the drug trade.
Venezuela continues to face a number of other serious security problems. The judiciary is politicized and almost incapable of carrying independent investigations. The Chávez government manipulated cases for political reasons, with judges and prosecutors dismissed for opposing Chávez allies. The government’s decreasing effectiveness in enforcing the rule of law helps explain why Venezuela has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, with an estimated 90 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015.
Gun control measures implemented by the Chávez administration in its late term appear to have had little effect on violence levels. Street crime and kidnapping also rose dramatically during the Chávez administration. Another problem is the notoriously brutal prison system, with many facilities run by criminal bosses known as “pranes.” Despite the creation of a Prison Ministry in 2011 and promises of reform, the problems continue.
Following Chávez’s death in early March 2013, President Nicolás Maduro was elected in April. The new president promised to make security a primary focus of his administration. Shortly after Maduro’s inauguration, the government backed the creation of a special homicide police unit and the deployment of the armed forces to fight crime. The government also announced renewed plans to combat fuel smuggling in the Colombian border region. However, much of Maduro’s rhetoric has followed that of his predecessor, raising questions of whether he will tackle Venezuelan security concerns such as embedded corruption and a politicized justice system. In addition, Maduro’s narrow margin of victory and ensuing post-election chaos in the country illustrated a deep political divide in Venezuela. Falling oil prices exacerbated political and economic tensions in Venezuela, and in December 2015 the opposition won a resounding victory during National Assembly elections.
President Maduro continues to cling to power despite tanking popularity in response to a savage economic crisis, crippling food shortages and rampant insecurity generated in part by decisions taken by the leftist government he inherited from Chávez. Venezuela can no longer be considered a functioning democracy; many now consider it a dictatorship, others a failed state. Maduro has manipulated the political system to block all of the democratic tools available to the opposition to remove him from power.
Civil unrest and protest is arguably the last option remaining for the opposition if they wish to try to force Maduro out of power before the next presidential election, due in 2019. But Maduro has surrounded himself with a cohort of loyalists, comprised of the military stretching as far as the border, as well as irregular, allegedly socialist armed groups such as the “colectivos” and the Bolivarian Militia, who answer only to the presidency.
How the military will react to widespread anti-government protests will be fundamental in determining the country’s social and political future. But the colectivos and their hybrids, as well as the pro-government FBL in Caracas and its armed version, the FPLN, on the border, promise to defend the revolution to its (most likely violent) end. Maduro’s government has already threatened to unleash the colectivos onto opposition protestors, and as anti-government marches increase, so too will state repression. There is also the possibility that the Colombian rebel armies now based in Venezuela could become armed defenders of the revolution in the event of an extensive anti-government uprising.
Levels of criminality and violence are now so acute in parts of Venezuela that an informal curfew operates after dark, with many citizens choosing to stay home rather than run the risk of mugging, kidnapping or murder on the streets.
Venezuela has been the site of activity by criminal organizations from Colombia, Brazil and Europe. Colombian rebel groups the FARC and the ELN use border states like Apure, Táchira, and Zulia as refuges. Venezuela also has homegrown organizations, such as the corrupt officials known unofficially as the Cartel of the Suns and guerrilla group the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación – FBL).
Recent years have also seen the emergence of so-called “mega-gangs” (megabandas), a new form of organized crime born out of the country’s overcrowded, self-governed prison system, which dominant large swathes of Venezuelan territory and engage in activities such as drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and illicit gold mining. Megabandas are now the de facto law in stretches of territory across the country.
On the border they are also another potential player in the criminal dynamic. Already local drug dealers, kidnappers and extorters, they are prospective actors in the transnational cocaine trade. These groups have also been involved in increasing criminality along the Venezuela-Colombia border, including contraband smuggling, which has also been profitable for Colombian criminal bands known as BACRIM. With experience as local drug dealers, kidnappers and extorters, the megabandas are prospective actors in the transnational cocaine trade.
There is also increasing evidence that ideological groups such as the colectivos created by Chávez are becoming increasingly criminalized. Some of them now extort the communities they are supposed to protect. Other recently emerging groups have formed under the socialist guise of the colectivos when they are in reality purely criminal entities.
Because Venezuela is a transit country, many of the criminal organizations that traditionally profited from Venezuela’s drug trade are Colombian. Mexican organizations like the Sinaloa Cartel may have also established cells in Venezuela in recent years. Venezuelans were primarily involved in moving drug shipments and organizing logistics, and were paid to guarantee the safe passage of the product. However, in recent years Venezuelan organizations have moved beyond simply transporting drug shipments and now purchase, store and traffic drugs themselves.
The Venezuelan Armed Forces are made up of the army, navy, air force, National Guard and the National Militia. There is evidence that corrupt factions in all these institutions — particularly in the National Guard and the army — are deeply involved in organized crime and the cocaine trade. United States sanctions against dozens of former and current high-ranking military and government officials date back to 2008, with some of the most recent actions in 2017 targeting President Nicoás Maduro and Vice President Tareck El Aissami.
Former President Hugo Chávez oversaw the creation of the National Bolivarian Police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana – PNB) in 2009, which has since expanded into a nationwide force that has been implicated in corruption and extrajudicial killings. The municipal police and the agency responsible for criminal investigations have also been accused of involvement in criminal activities, such as extortion. Venezuela’s defense budget rose steadily under Chávez, with much of the resources spent on arms acquisitions. Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro has overseen increased militarization of policing and rampant security force abuses.
In 2015, Maduro launched a new joint-police security initiative known as “Operation Liberation and Protection of the People” (Operación de Liberación y Protección del Pueblo – OLP), which has been tied to massacres, extrajudicial killings, collusion with organized crime groups and human rights abuses including torture and illegal detainment.
Venezuela’s judicial system was ranked one of the worst in the world by the World Justice Project in 2013, which assessed countries on factors related to the rule of law such as absence of corruption, access to fundamental rights, and the limiting of government powers. Regarding its judicial system’s impartiality and vulnerability to corruption, Venezuela also scored badly.
Previous judicial reforms to expedite the processing of court cases and ease pressure on the country’s overburdened prison system have proved lacking. Those accused of crimes may still wait in jail for years before going to trial, a problem exacerbated by nearly 75 percent of judges in the country holding provisional appointments, which leads to judicial paralysis. The country’s judicial system has also become politicized, slowing judicial processes and leading to biased outcomes depending on one’s political affiliation.
In late 2017, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, once a loyalist to the Maduro regime, emerged as an outspoken critic of several government policies, including the abuses of the OLP. Ortega was ousted from her position in August 2017 and accused by her replacement of running an extortion ring.
Venezuela has a notoriously brutal prison system, with many facilities run by criminal bosses known as “pranes.” The pranes are responsible for managing a prison’s black market and overseeing the internal order among inmates. Within prisons, inmates typically exercise complete control, and are able to easily obtain weapons, luxury goods such as televisions, or throw extravagant parties. Prisoners are also able to coordinate illegal activities outside prison walls, such as kidnapping, extortion, and microtrafficking. Attempts at prison reform have struggled to have a meaningful impact, and riots or armed takeover of prisons by inmates (during which prison employees may be taken hostage) are not uncommon.These violent clashes have in some cases led to the creation of mass graves within the prisons.
Many of Venezuela’s megabandas were born out of the country’s penitentiary system and its hierarchical “pran” system, with some gangs on the streets of the country controlled by pran bosses in prison.