Venezuela may have become a drug-producing country in recent years, after decades of serving largely as a key bridge for the trafficking of illegal substances. So say the US government and Insight Crime, a website that monitors the impact of organized crime in the Americas. “The Maduro era has seen the Venezuelan cocaine trade atomize as criminal actors seeking access to its riches have proliferated. And the country’s role in the global supply chain has expanded as Venezuela has taken its first, tentative steps towards becoming not only a transit zone but also a cocaine producer nation,” reads the report. Caracas has questioned the objectivity of these analyses.
The Strategic Operational Command of the Armed Forces recently posted on its social networks evidence of various operations documenting the burning of coca and poppy crops. “All those who disrespect our laws and offend the country with their infamous vices will be expelled,” one message warned.
The accusations against the Venezuelan government for its alleged ties to financial operations linked to drug trafficking have increased in intensity under the presidency of Nicolás Maduro, who has been in power for 10 years. In 2005, his precedessor Hugo Chávez decided to end the anti-narcotics cooperation agreement between Venezuela and the US government’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Maduro has been blamed for the “anarchization” of mining areas, a tolerant attitude towards Colombian guerrillas that dominate the drug routes in border regions, the rise of mafias on the border with Colombia and the consolidation of drug trafficking operations on the eastern coast of the country.
In any case, the volume of coca leaf cultivation in Venezuela, which amounts to hundreds of hectares, is still much lower than in Colombia, the largest producer in the world with 200,000 hectares, or the countries that follow it: Peru, with 20,000 hectares, and Bolivia with close to 10,000. Some sources note that, rather than crops, what has really proliferated in Venezuela are processing laboratories, especially in plains states such as Cojedes, and in the eastern part of the country.
“Drug trafficking has become an important component of the strategies Maduro has used to cling onto power as his government has been rocked by constant social, political and economic crises,” says Insight Crime. “His objective has been not to capture the riches of the transnational cocaine trade for himself, but to control and channel their flow, using it to reward the political, military and criminal powers that Maduro needs to maintain his hold on government.”
The existence of marijuana, poppy and coca leaf cultivation areas has been documented in the border areas with Colombia: in the Sierra de Perijá, south of Lake Maracaibo, in Amazonas State and in Alto Apure. The lawyer and criminologist Luis Izquiel says that “there are areas of the northern department of Santander, the municipality of Tibú, in Colombia, where drug cultivation is one of the largest in the world. This overexploitation has permeated Venezuela. Many needy Venezuelan migrants are being recruited as labor by irregular groups in border areas.”
The business and management of local drug production, formerly dominated by Colombians, has gradually passed into Venezuelan hands, although there is still an indisputable presence of dissidents from Colombia’s FARC and ELN guerrilla groups in the role of protecting and promoting many of these activities. The effects of Plan Colombia, together with the peace agreements in that country, have produced a significant displacement of Colombian elements to Venezuela.
“Of course, the problem of trafficking and cultivation in the country has deepened,” says a well-known anti-narcotics judge who declined to have her name in print. She explains that the Cartel de los Soles does not operate as a classic hierarchical criminal organization, selectively killing people under the command of a boss, as is the case in Colombia or Mexico. “It is a dense network of members of the military who do business with narcotics, and who are tolerated by higher echelons in exchange for their support for the revolution. Although I must say that I also know many professional and honest members of the military who are determined to do their job right, and who are inflexible on these issues,” she adds.
Javier Mayorca, director of the specialized website Crímenes sin Castigo (Crimes Without Punishment), says that “Venezuela has few instruments to locate illicit crops and, since the break with the DEA, a willful blindness on this issue. Few outsiders can certify local [eradication] efforts. What we have seen from Colombia is a growing density of crops towards the border line.” Mayorca adds that there is a selective criterion by government officials when it comes to tackling drug trafficking activities, and that this bias is also observed in the fight against crime or illegal mining. “Some are attacked very harshly, while others are left exquisitely alone.”
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