The Cartel of the Suns lived up to its name in 2016, moving from the shadows into the light with the exposure of new details about the network of corrupt officials at the heart of the Chávez regime and the Venezuelan state.
Venezuela, with its chronic scarcities of basic goods and rampant corruption and impunity, provided lush conditions for the criminal organization, which this year further expanded its tentacles into every organ of the state, reaching the presidential family.
The “narco nephews” case, the hand of the military in nearly all government activities, the protection of high-ranking military officials accused of drug trafficking and the evolving criminal situation in Colombia gave us a peek into the development of the cartel during 2016.
The investigation and subsequent conviction of Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, nephews of the Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores, suggested deep complicity on the part of the Venezuelan state in drug trafficking.
Campo Flores and Flores de Freitas were arrested towards the end of 2015, and found guilty a year later by the Southern District Court of New York of conspiring to traffic 800 kilos of cocaine into the United States. Testimony during the case exposed the web of corruption involved in the scheme, as well as the weakness of Venezuela’s government institutions.
"In a secretly recorded discussion between Campo Flores and confidential sources working for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the first lady's nephew appears to confirm that the Cartel of the Suns works with government officials when trafficking drugs," we wrote.
But the case generated as many questions as it answered. Although testimony pointed to a possible nexus between the Venezuelan government and drug traffickers (something that the nephews themselves later denied), it has so far offered little clarity on the structure of the enigmatic criminal organization.
The emblematic case also did little to explain the confusing relationship between the Army and the National Guard within the cartel, but arrests throughout the year pointed to an increase in the involvement of both branches of the Armed Forces. The National Guard was where the cartel was founded and it controls, borders, ports, airport and has widespread internal security functions. It is the major player in the cartel, and it is from the generals' sun-like epaulettes that the group draws its name.
What was clear however, was the cartel’s expansion. The loose network of government officials working in drug trafficking is no longer confined to the Venezuelan National Guard, and now counts on the participation of the army and police as well as civilians with tight links to the highest echelons of government.
"In a press conference following the arrests [of army officers for drug trafficking], Defense Minister General Vladimir Padrino López acknowledged both incidents as 'attacks on the honor and image of the military,' but denied it was indicative of a chronic problem," we wrote, citing an El País report. "Rocío San Miguel, lawyer and director of the Venezuelan organization Control Ciudadano, disagreed. Commenting on the arrests, San Miguel tweeted: 'Drug trafficking within the Armed Forces can no longer be hidden and constitutes one of the biggest threats to the Venezuelan state.'"
The narco nephews are the latest in a long list of accusations and actions from the United States Government against high-ranking or prominent Venezuelans -- many of them either former or current members of the military -- since 2008. But nephews' conviction is the first time that individuals close to the government have been tried in the United States. It came despite the defiant attitude of President Nicolás Maduro, who has accused Washington of conspiring against him and his government.
The mention of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) during the case, the use of a government airplane and the involvement of family members so close to the First Lady all revealed the complexity of the Cartel of the Suns, and also sounded alarms about the increasing criminal nature of the Venezuelan State.
Cases such as this shook up the internal dynamics at work within the Venezuelan government and state apparatus during what is a fragile period for President Maduro.
The Venezuelan president has shown that he aims to keep his allies close by protecting them, most evident from his announcement in August of Néstor Luis Reverol Torres, the former head of the nation’s anti-drug agency, as the country’s new interior and justice minister. The president may also be choosing his allies from those who cannot afford that regime fails. Whatever the reason, his decision came just one day after US federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging Reverol and his former number two at the anti-drug agency with using their positions to facilitate international cocaine trafficking.
"Maduro's nomination of Reverol as interior minister is perhaps the strongest sign to date that the president intends to treat US drug charges against Venezuelan officials as political rather than law enforcement matters," we wrote. "The president has previously moved to protect other officials accused of drug trafficking by the United States and has insinuated that such accusations are part of a US-led campaign to undermine his government -- a charge the US government denies."
The significance of Reverol’s alleged role in drug trafficking and his subsequent political appointment should not be underestimated. Neither should Reverol's tours of duty within government institutions that play a major role in providing security and fighting drug trafficking. The promotion of Reverol is a clear demonstration that the government offers protection to high-ranking officials implicated in drug trafficking or corruption schemes in exchange for their political loyalty, which amplifies the power and potency of corrupt officials and criminals. As we reported, "The military represents a key power base for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's crumbling socialist government, so it is unsurprising that the executive choose to turn a blind eye to serious criminal allegations to avoid compromising the army's support for the regime."
Maduro’s audacious moves to maintain power were learned from his predecessor Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013. Chávez recognized early on the political value of the military and the protection that they offered him, along with the need to turn a blind eye to illegal activities in which they were engaged.
Venezuela has attempted to show it is taking action against corruption by arresting and convicting low-ranking military personnel -- such as those this year in the case of an Air France flight from Caracas to Paris in 2013 that was carrying more than a ton of cocaine. But prosecutions continue to be insufficient, and are used as a front whilst the real brains behind the drug trafficking operations remain free. In other words, the military-bureaucratic elite is exempt from such legal consequences.
As well as making the government’s reliance on the military obvious by appointing high-ranking personnel to strategic positions in government, Maduro also decided to put them in charge of the management and distribution of food and medicines. Acute shortages of such products have been one of the biggest challenges during Maduro’s administration, and created widespread social unrest this year.
The involvement of the Armed Forces in the distribution of foods and medicines widened its influence and power and presented new illegal opportunities. This not only increased the Cartel of the Suns’ range of activities, but allowed it to take advantage of the suffering of Venezuela’s people to widen its criminal tentacles, something made even easier given the total lack of transparency and accountability. This came to light after an officer in the army was caught moving three tons of food illegally.
"The possibility the lieutenant was working as part of a group -- three tons of food 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," we wrote after the case broke.
In the coming year, Venezuela promises to maintain its status as a key transit country for the transportation of illegal drugs to Central America, the United States and Europe. Colombia’s current panorama also promises to maintain this dynamic. The border department of Norte de Santander is home to the Catatumbo region, which is, as we have noted, one of the country’s main hubs for coca cultivation, and given the porous border between the two countries, the Cartel of the Suns, as well as other illegal groups, will continue to profit from the cocaine trade.
The power vacuums that will be left by this guerrilla group are already being filled by other actors, such as the BACRIM (Spanish for “bandas criminales” or "criminal groups") and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), which already has a presence in Venezuela.
Arbitrary decisions by President Maduro to close Venezuela’s border with Colombia have not slowed the crossing of criminal groups or contraband, and the security forces continued to profit from illicit markets. In fact, the border closure (which lasted from August 2015 to August 2016) may have actually increased the profits of criminal groups. What might at first have been a way for corrupt security forces to make extra money on the side has become a source of income vital for survival.
The social, political and economic conditions currently at play in Venezuela have provided ample criminal opportunities through the distribution and imports of food and medicines, and the abuse of currency controls. They have also allowed members of the Armed Forces to profit from illegal activities that are much lower risk and arguably as profitable as drug trafficking.
The Cartel of the Suns will not have missed out on these new options, and its members could already be taking advantage of a criminal cocktail never before seen in Venezuela’s history.