Venezuela’s powerful National Assembly speaker on Tuesday vehemently denied growing allegations linking him to an international cocaine conspiracy organization that is reportedly under investigation by the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Those who today accuse me of drug trafficking should present a single piece of evidence, just one,” said Diosdado Cabello, who is considered the number two official in Venezuela after President Nicolás Maduro.
It would never cross my mind to get involved in something that causes harm to the youth of Venezuela and the world” Venezuela National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello
“It would never cross my mind to get involved in something that causes harm to the youth of Venezuela and the world,” he said, referring to drug usage.
Cabello issued his denial during a debate in the National Assembly where lawmakers from his ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) presented a statement in solidarity with their speaker following a report published in The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) about the US investigation into cocaine trafficking and money laundering by several top Venezuelan officials.
What is the Soles cartel?
The Soles cartel (or Suns cartel) is much more than a criminal organization, according to those with knowledge of its structure. It is the generic name for a group of military officials who have come to power over the last 16 years in Venezuela, as part of the late President Hugo Chávez-inspired revolution, and have forged connections with drug traffickers.
"They used to tell us about the Soles cartel," wrote journalists Alejandra Inzunza, José Luis Pardo and Pablo Ferri in their recent book Narcoamérica, which details drug-smuggling operations in the vast southeastern Venezuelan border state of Apure.
“They are called that to distinguish an elite group of the Bolivarian Armed Forces: those who graduated with high honors and received medals that represented the sun when they were promoted,” the journalists wrote.
“Some experts say you can’t group them in a cartel because each of them acts on their own and they hold no grudges against each other. But when someone speaks about the Soles they are referring to military drug traffickers.”
Diosdado Cabello was an active member of the armed forces who took part in Chávez’s unsuccessful coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. Besides serving as National Assembly speaker, Cabello is also vice president of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
He helped Chávez return to power in 2002 following a brief civilian-led coup against him.
The military is active in securing the sparsely populated Venezuelan-Colombian border in Apure, as well as in other states such as Monagas, Sucre and Falcon on the Caribbean coast.
In 2004, journalist Mauro Marcano was murdered in Maturín, the capital of Monagas, after he penned a series of radio reports and newspaper columns about the Soles’ growing presence in the region.
PSUV lawmakers called the WSJ report “an attack against the homeland.”
“Those who are launching that campaign here from Venezuela are committing a fundamental mistake,” Cabello said. “They don’t know their adversary. I will never surrender; I won’t surrender either today or tomorrow. On that I am unyielding.”
In a report published Monday, the WSJ quoted US Justice Department sources who said that Cabello was the principle target in an ongoing DEA investigation into a drug and money-laundering network responsible for shipping cocaine into the United States and Europe.
Among the evidence gathered are testimonies from former Venezuelan officials who have fled the country, drug traffickers and other informants, the newspaper said.
One cooperating witness is Leamsy Salazar, who served as a bodyguard to the late President Hugo Chávez. Salazar fled Venezuela earlier this year and began meeting with investigators after he arrived in the United States, according to news reports.
ABC in Madrid and El Nuevo Herald in Miami have also quoted unidentified sources in the United States as saying that Cabello is the leader of the so-called Soles cartel. After the allegations were republished by the Venezuelan dailies TalCual and El Nacional, as well as the news portal La Patilla, a judge prohibited about two dozen editors and representatives from the three news outlets from leaving the country after Cabello filed defamation lawsuits against them.
On Tuesday, he reiterated that he would not stop fighting those who mistreated him in the press. “I’ll see you in court,” Cabello said as his supporters cheered in the National Assembly.
In a related matter, Interior Minister Major General Gustavo González López announced via Twitter that he was also filing a defamation lawsuit against opposition leader and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski.
Earlier in the day, Capriles, who serves as governor of Miranda state, called for an official investigation based on the WSJ report, which also stated that Venezuela had become a major corridor for drug trafficking.
“Now it’s time to hold Capriles accountable,” González López said.
The interior minister filed the suit along with the so-called the Dignified Seven – a group of officials who had their assets frozen and were banned from entering the US by the Obama administration last April after Washington accused them of corruption and human rights violations.
At the time President Obama signed the executive order, Capriles referred to the seven as “corrupt officials” on his own Twitter account.