On February 25, in a combined operation, the Colombian Navy and Aruban security forces seized more than 5 tons of cocaine hidden inside a compartment of the cargo ship Aressa. The vessel that sailed under a Cameroonian flag had departed from Guaranao Port, in the Venezuelan state of Falcón, and was bound for Greece.
The Aruban news portal 24ora said it was the largest cache seized in the island, according to the Aruban Attorney General’s Office.
Mildred Camero, former president of the Venezuelan National Commission against Illicit Drug Use (CONACUID, in Spanish), said that this operation was possible thanks to coordination among Colombia, Aruba, and the United States, without the participation of Venezuelan security forces.
This is another example in which first Hugo Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro, have broken off with international cooperation to counter narcotrafficking, in order to participate fully in this activity.
The isolation process began in 2005, when Chávez ordered to halt the agreements signed with the U.S. Department of State’s Narcotics Affairs Section. These conventions governed, among several issues, the activities of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in the country.
Camero was in the United States when Chávez announced the decision. “When I returned to Venezuela, I knew I had been dismissed,” she said.
From then on, Venezuela also withdrew from multilateral anti-drug cooperation forums of the Organization of American States and the Andean Community. In 2008, Chávez threatened to leave Interpol, when technicians of that institution validated evidence from computer files seized during a raid in northern Ecuador. The files linked the Chávez government with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
International cooperation for drug interdiction and drug use prevention, as well as money laundering detection, has been declining until reaching the current situation, in which it is “nonexistent,” Camero said.
Complicit service members
At the same time, several high-ranking officers, who were leading the fight against trafficking organizations, began to favor these groups, taking advantage of their positions of power. One of them would be Bolivarian National Guard Major Néstor Reverol, current Interior minister and former head of the National Anti-drug Office (ONA, in Spanish), the institution that replaced CONACUID in 2008.
An indictment filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in January 2015 says that Reverol, together with Brigadier General Edylberto Molina, “alerted narcotics traffickers to future drug raids or locations of law enforcement counter-narcotics activities, so that the narcotics traffickers could change the storage locations of narcotics or alter transportation routes or times and thus avoid detection by law enforcement.”
Molina was the ONA’s general director during Reverol’s tenure. Later, when Maduro designated Reverol as Interior minister, he also appointed Molina as deputy minister of the Integrated Police System (VISIPOL, in Spanish).
Camero said that Major General Hugo Carvajal, former director of Military Counterintelligence, was conducting a similar activity that favored cartels.
In mid-March 2020, U.S. Attorney General William Barr accused Reverol, Carvajal, and Molina of contributing to building Maduro’s “corrupt regime.”
With Venezuela’s withdrawal from international drug cooperation efforts — and the fact that more than 50 countries, including the United States and Venezuela’s neighboring countries, do not recognize the Maduro regime — other tactics have been implemented to prevent illegal shipments from leaving the country. International authorities have been using electronic surveillance and confidential informants with greater intensity. According to Camero, this helped detect the preparations for the cocaine shipment on board Aressa in December.
José Luis Pirela, head of the Venezuelan National Assembly (AN, in Spanish) Subcommission for the Fight Against Drugs, Terrorism, and Organized Crime, shares this view, adding that the increase in surveillance over the country explains why large drug seizures are taking place in the Caribbean and ports of destination, such as Spain and France, rather than in Venezuelan territory.
“The breakdown of international cooperation mechanisms has allowed narcotrafficking to reach alarming levels in Venezuela,” he said.
The lawmaker believes that it is necessary to resume Venezuela’s participation in all international forums for both drug interdiction and drug use prevention.
He added that the AN speaker, Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by the United States and more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s interim president, should seize this opportunity to renew these accords, and also create a parliamentary space to allow discussions to resume on the drug issue.