From narcotrafficking to smuggling and arms transfers, Venezuelan service members take advantage of their positions of power.
The Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office announced on November 14 the decision to charge Bolivarian National Guard (GNB, in Spanish) Major General Aquiles Lapadula for his alleged participation in the misappropriation of 8,841 gallons of sulfuric acid, a substance used to manufacture cocaine.
The case against the officer began on September 9, after GNB agents detained a truck driver for inconsistencies in the documents he carried to justify the transport of the substance, which Maj. Gen. Lapadula had signed himself.
In July 2019, Nicolás Maduro had appointed the officer as the top military authority in the Zulia department. Now, the officer remains detained in a cell at the Military Counterintelligence General Directorate (DGCIM, in Spanish) in Caracas.
José Luis Pirela, head of the Venezuelan National Assembly’s Subcommittee against Drugs, Terrorism, and Organized Crime, said that this case is “extremely serious.”
Far from an isolated case, military involvement in crime has become increasingly frequent. Narcotrafficking is just one of the illegal activities in which uniformed personnel take part.
“In my 30 years of service, I’ve only heard about three officers being prosecuted for drug crimes. Nowadays, this happens all the time,” said a retired brigadier general who served at the Military Intelligence Directorate (the DGCIM’s predecessor) during the presidency of Hugo Chávez.
The officer, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, recalled that a process to expand the participation of active officers in areas that were not exclusively part of military duties started in 2005, which the Venezuelan chapter of NGO Transparency International condemned as an almost total control over “civil society processes” by the military.
At the same time, the former military officer added, the government took over the judiciary power to ensure, among other things, that military crimes would remain unpunished. That same year, he said, GNB Colonel Eladio Aponte Aponte, president of the Martial Court, became the president of the Supreme Court of Justice’s Criminal Division. Before seeking refuge in the United States in 2012, Col. Aponte told the press he had issued acquittals for cases involving Army officers in narcotrafficking.
The belief that crimes would stay unpunished has fueled service members’ participation in illegal activities, even murder, the former military officer said.
For example, on November 19, 2019, GNB members detained GNB First Lieutenant Ronald Noé Hernández Vega for his alleged participation in the murder of a sergeant major from the institution.
Luis Cedeño, head of the Venezuelan NGO Organized Crime Observatory, explained that service members get involved in crimes where they have greater opportunities, because of the control they exert over different markets, which the government has given them.
“The politicians in power have granted privileges to the Armed Forces, in exchange for service members’ support for the revolution,” he said.
Cedeño added that this is more evident in the oil and mining industries, the distribution of food and other mass consumption goods, and arms control.
“There are ongoing transfers of arms, ammunition, and explosives, such as grenades. All this involves criminal gangs and is part of the FANB [National Bolivarian Armed Forces],” he said.
For instance, on September 17, Military Counterintelligence agents detained three officers for stealing 24,000 AK-103 cartridges. The detainees had been assigned to guard the air component arsenal at Maracay’s Military Academy.
GNB Brigadier General (ret.) Régulo Díaz Vega, former FANB assistant controller general, says crime among the military “has become common.”
“Top generals and officers have access to certain illegal businesses, and when subordinates see these crimes, they assert the right to do them on a smaller scale,” he said.
This situation has a detrimental effect on maintaining discipline and subordination. “They won’t see their captain or colonel as a superior, but as a partner,” he said.
To this day, said Díaz, information about service members’ illegal activities is leaked constantly, because rival groups within FANB or institutionalist service members disseminate it.
The former military officer interviewed for this report said that the rehabilitation of FANB would be extremely complicated and would take years.
For his part, Cedeño said that the military institution will have to undergo “very deep re-engineering.”
“The military must be brought back to its original responsibilities. And that will be very difficult,” he said.