Retired Major General Hugo Carvajal Barrios, alias El Pollo, Venezuela’s former director of Military Counterintelligence, was extradited on July 19 from Spain to New York, where he will be tried for what is described as a vast narcoterrorist conspiracy aimed at generating instability in the United States by attempting to “flood” the country with illegal drugs.
This is the same case which calls for the captures of current Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, strongman of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela Diosdado Cabello, former president of the Supreme Court of Justice Maikel Moreno, Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino López, and other operators of the ruling party in the South American country.
Despite these recent setbacks, the Cartel of the Suns appears to be expanding its operations, consolidating alliances with subversive groups and Mexican drug cartels, experts on transnational crime in Latin America told Diálogo.
In addition to Carvajal, Venezuelan Major General Clíver Alcalá Cordones, accused of facilitating the smuggling of cocaine shipments supplied by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), then headed by alias Iván Márquez and Jesús Santrich, remains in prison on the same charges.
For Mildred Camero, former president of Venezuela’s National Commission against the Illicit Use of Drugs, Carvajal played a fundamental role in the international expansion of the Cartel of the Suns.
“In those connections that were made internationally, Pollo [Carvajal] had a lot to do with it, because he worked in intelligence and knew how to carry out these types of operations,” Camero told Diálogo on August 30. “From Venezuela, the influence of this criminal group spread to Colombia, Mexico, and Europe. In addition, in recent years they have established a route to move drugs to Argentina.”
The shipments leave Venezuela along the coast of Sucre state and go by sea to the Southern Cone, traveling along the eastern coasts of South America, Camero added. “This group [Cartel of the Suns] has a much larger extension than it had five or six years ago. In other words, we are talking about a group that has been expanding its operations.”
Agreements with guerrillas
The Cartel of the Suns got its name from the participation of generals like Carvajal and Alcala in the criminal group. In Venezuela, officers of this rank wear badges embroidered with sun emblems on their epaulets.
Information the U.S. Justice Department released in July indicated that in 2008, Carvajal reached an agreement with then FARC representatives. “The Cartel of the Suns would give cash and weapons to the FARC in exchange for an increase in cocaine production,” the report stated.
In recent months, however, allies of this criminal group have changed, due to the death of its main leaders in Venezuela and the subsequent fragmentation of its ranks. Today, according to Alberto Ray, director of U.S. nongovernmental organization (NGO) Risk Awareness Council, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and a constellation of small groups, concentrated primarily in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander, are the main suppliers of cocaine handled by the Cartel of the Suns.
“A new alliance was created. After the death of Gentil Duarte, the FARC [dissidence] ended up working together with the ELN. Before they were enemies, now they are allies,” Ray told Diálogo on September 2. “By the way, that alliance is being negotiated in Cuba, the big fixer in all of this. These groups have Cuba as a legal settlement office. So in Cuba the agreements are being negotiated since 2022.”
In a recent presentation before the NGO Geopolitical Observatory of Latin America, Ray said that 61 percent of Venezuelan territory is controlled by irregular groups. When questioned on the matter, he said that the Maduro regime no longer possesses the same capacity of yesteryear to deliver money to such groups.
“That is why it cedes territorial control to them. A criminal peace reigns in those places. The criminal peace model creates a status quo of intimidation that paralyzes political change,” Ray said. “The foundations for this system were laid when Carvajal was an active officer in Venezuela. He managed how all these networks were formed and that has a tremendous amount of value for judicial purposes.”