The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a United Nations (U.N.) body, confirmed in its latest annual report the existence of the so-called Cartel of the Suns, a criminal narcotrafficking network led by Venezuela’s top military officials with the regime’s support.
It is the first time that the INCB has presented evidence of the influence of the narcotrafficking mafia, led by members of the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB, in Spanish) and senior government officials.
“There are indications that in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela the criminal groups have succeeded in infiltrating the government security forces, forming an informal network known as the ‘Cartel of the Suns’ to facilitate the passage of illicit drugs into and out the country,” the INCB said in its 2019 report, published on February 27, 2020.
According to the INCB, the Venezuelan cartel was able to ship large amounts of illicit drugs from Colombia to the United States and Europe in recent years. The report added that aircraft loaded with cocaine leave Venezuela, stopping in Guatemala and Honduras on their way north.
Although the Cartel of the Suns and the participation of FANB’s high command had been mentioned since the 1990s when Hugo Chávez came into power, the intergovernmental body’s acknowledgement of the cartel’s existence carries a certain weight.
“There’s an antecedent to this report. Five years ago, the INCB issued a report saying that 60 percent of the cocaine shipped to Europe and the United States passed through Venezuela, without mentioning the perpetrators,” Diego Arria, a Venezuelan diplomat and former president of the U.N. Security Council, told Diálogo. “The fact that the U.N. said in this report that it’s the Armed Forces of Venezuela, a member of the United Nations, is something we cannot take lightly.”
The U.S. government has reported for years on the criminal activities of service members who are believed to be part of the Cartel of the Suns, named after the sun-shaped insignias that Venezuelan generals wear on their shoulders.
For example, in 2008, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned generals Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, former head of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGIM, in Spanish), and Henry de Jesús Rangel Silva, former director of the institution that preceded the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN, in Spanish), on narcotrafficking charges. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Néstor Luis Reverol Torres, current minister of Interior, Justice, and Peace and former commander of the Bolivarian National Guard, of taking part in an international conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
Members of the regime were also identified. In 2018, the Department of the Treasury sanctioned Diosdado Cabello, second-in-command in the Chavista regime, for leveraging his “political position to engage in narcotrafficking, money laundering, state fraud, and other corrupt activities.” In 2019, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) added Tarek el Aissami, former vice president of Venezuela, to its most wanted list for international narcotrafficking and money laundering.
“When Hugo Chávez becomes president of Venezuela, he sees the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] with a leftist political ideology based on communist Cuba, and he lets them in with large amounts of cocaine they can traffic through Venezuela, in partnership with high-ranking officials, military, and politicians, who are the ones approving it,” Jim Shedd, a retired agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who carried out parts of his duties in Colombia, told Diálogo. “They let [the drugs] go through Venezuela using planes and ships to transport cocaine bound for Europe and the United States.”
According to research organization InSight Crime, specialized in security threats in Latin America and the Caribbean, Aruba — which is 12 miles from Venezuela — has also become an important point of transit for narcotrafficking. For example, on February 25, Aruban security forces seized more than a ton of cocaine from a ship with a Cameroonian flag, which was coming from Venezuela and destined for Greece. In October 2019, a tugboat flying the Samoan flag owned by a Venezuelan company was intercepted in Aruban waters with more than 2 tons of cocaine on board. The authorities also arrested its five Venezuelan crew members.
“Not all Venezuelan service members are narcotraffickers, but the leadership is where you find the heads of the Cartel of the Suns,” said Arria.