Why you should care
Corrupt governmental leaders here have long been linked to the drug trade, so a new era may be dawning for Venezuelan leadership and drugs.
It’s all eyes on Venezuela … again. Many world leaders rushed to back National Assembly President Juan Guaidó when he declared himself interim president in late January in the hope of prompting the collapse of President Nicolás Maduro’s current government.
But those controlling the flow of cocaine throughout the region are likely hoping Maduro and his compañeros stand strong. Why? Because Maduro’s government is believed to be aiding and abetting the powerful crime syndicates producing and transporting drugs, mostly cocaine, out of the region.
A lot of Venezuela’s importance in the international drug trade is linked to geography. Venezuela shares a border with Colombia, the biggest cocaine producer in the only coca-growing region in the world. This border is ground zero to a number of criminal gangs and guerrilla groups active in the cocaine trade, and the chaos and corruption next door in Venezuela is helping oil their operations.
If Maduro does fall and a new government takes power, all bets are off.
Cocaine is produced in Colombia in a process that uses, among other substances, government-subsidized Venezuelan petrol that is smuggled over the border. The supply of that is slowing to a trickle due to Venezuela’s social and economic crisis, but cocaine continues to flow the other way across the border into Venezuela. After that, it makes its way, often by plane, to the country’s northern coast and ports to set sail for the United States, Europe, Africa and everywhere in between.
In the last few decades, under the nose of Hugo Chávez — the founder of Venezuela’s current ”socialist revolution” — and his successor Maduro, the country has become a major drug transit route. The U.S. government says that the “permissive and corrupt environment” there makes things worse and that Maduro’s administration fails to “adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.”
That’s actually putting it quite mildly.
Investigations point to drug trafficking within the Venezuelan government via a loose-knit network of corruption called the Cartel of the Suns — named after the suns that decorate the uniforms of the army generals. According to InsightCrime, dozens of officials from all branches of government — including Maduro and his vice president Tareck El Aissami, according to the U.S. Treasury Department — have been linked to this “cartel” and crimes related to drug-trafficking via indictments, sanctions and investigations in the United States.
If Maduro does fall and a new government takes power, all bets in the cocaine trade are off.
“All signs point to a very U.S.-friendly government, in all areas,” says Alejandro Velasco, a Venezuelan historian based at NYU, commenting on the possibility that the opposition prevails. “I don’t think any scenario, at least in the short term, would contemplate an opposition government that is as corrupt and criminal [as the current regime].”
Perhaps drugs would continue to move through Venezuela, but without so much ease and lacking the support of its new government, which would be keen to oblige the United States. A bilateral crackdown on the drug trade in Venezuela, which could move into action if the opposition takes power, could cause other routes such as those from Colombia straight to Central America and Mexico to get busier as trafficking networks seek alternatives. This would put more pressure on governments of other nations.
Should power in Venezuela change hands, the country’s new masters will have to choose between Uncle Sam, who helped them into the driving seat, and the riches promised by the international drug trade.