Narcotrafficking operations, gold and gasoline smuggling, and corruption in Venezuela’s ports and customs have increased in recent years as the South American country became a hub of organized crime in the region. These were some of the findings of a study by the Venezuelan branch of nongovernmental organization Transparency International, which states that these activities bring in more than $9.4 billion annually to criminal organizations who have the support of corrupt officials.
“They structured a well-planned criminal organization in Venezuela led by the highest level” of heads of the regime, Jorge Serrano, advisor to the Intelligence Commission of the Peruvian Congress, told Diálogo on July 13. “Clearly it’s a civil-military dictatorship running a regime openly focused on managing international organized crime.”
The June 26 study Illicit Economies under the Cover of Corruption highlights the support of corrupts officials to criminal organizations, as quality of life for 90 percent of the population continues to deteriorate. According to data from Venezuelan economics and finance firm Ecoanalítica, the volume of criminal operations represents 21 percent of the national gross domestic product, which is $43.44 billion, the firm reports.
One of the study’s main findings is the identification of 13 criminal organizations operating in 13 Venezuelan states, with the backing of corrupt officials and the military. Venezuela has become one of the epicenters of organized crime in the region, and criminal groups mainly use violence to raise funds by controlling illicit economies.
The National Liberation Army, dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Tren de Guayana, Tren de Aragua, the Negro Fabio gang, the Juancho gang, the Yeico Masare Armed Group, the Peace Squads (Cuadrillas de Paz), and the Toto and Zacarias gang are among these criminal groups.
Although these organizations move the majority of cocaine, it is state officials who shape and control operations, InSight Crime, an organization that studies organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, indicated. Narcotrafficking cells in the military and police, collectively referred to as the Cartel of the Suns, move drugs throughout the country, the organization said.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that between 200 and 250 metric tons of cocaine leave Venezuela each year, representing between 10 and 15 percent of the estimated global production, InSight Crime said.
Proliferation and expansion
According to Transparency International, the proliferation and expansion of organized crime in Venezuela is due to the lack of cooperation between the Nicolás Maduro regime and international organizations to combat narcotrafficking, the lack of efforts to collect and distribute information on criminal activity, the centralization of military and judicial power, and the generalized atmosphere of corruption.
However, the main cause for the consolidation of the criminal state in Venezuela, Serrano said, “is the geopolitical structure of the Havana-Moscow-Caracas axis […], through the intelligence services. This structure of alliances for evil and crime allows the consolidation of this criminal state.”
The axis also relies on a main external state actor that isn’t directly part of it: China, which lends financial assistance to the Venezuelan dictatorship in exchange for oil, Serrano added. It also installed two satellites and technology for internal espionage and citizen control.
Transition and destruction
Venezuela produces cocaine in the Zulia border region, a key dispatch point for drug shipments to Central America and the Caribbean, InSight Crime indicated. There is also evidence of expanding coca cultivation in Apure, and laboratories for cocaine production, the organization found.
“Venezuela became a coca producer a couple of years ago,” Serrano said. “In three years, it could become the fourth supplier of cocaine worldwide next to Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. It’s no longer going to depend on Colombian cocaine. It’s a worst-case scenario.”
Gold and contamination
The Transparency International report delves into the accelerated and dramatic gold exploitation in the Orinoco Mining Arc (OMA). In the last two years, during the COVID-19 pandemic, destructive and illegal activities expanded in the OMA, while deforestation, soil erosion, and contamination increased.
The gold business in southern Venezuela, far from being a sustainable source of income, has become stained with blood and tainted with the most illicit practices, such as the smuggling of gold, fuel, drugs, arms, and ammunition, the study points out.
The human rights of Venezuelans are also violated to guarantee the economic benefit of corrupt structures, their permanence through time, and the impunity of their acts, the document adds.
“Venezuela and Russia must be prevented from advancing with impunity throughout Latin America,” Serrano said.
“We have to work with the militaries and defense forces of our partners and allies, making them stronger and helping them overcome these cross-cutting challenges and these threats,” U.S. Army General Laura J. Richardson, commander of U.S. Southern Command, told Voice of America on July 4.