Updated: Jun 8, 2020
The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela sits at the northern end of South America, with access to both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The Latin American nation-state is unmistakably beautiful, with tourists once flocking to its borders to visit the largest lake in South America, the world’s highest waterfall, or the seemingly insurmountable Andes Mountains. Not only is Venezuela endowed with picturesque sights, but natural resources as well, with nearly $14.3 trillion worth of bauxite, coal, gold, iron ore, and crude oil burrowed deep below the surface. On paper, these two components should make Venezuela a successful and stable state, free from poverty and disorder. Such a notion, however, couldn’t be further from the truth.
Any semblance of order and wealth vanished in the once-thriving democracy when expansive social programs, massive government expenditures, and decreasing oil revenue collided with an authoritarian regime unwilling to make reforms. Today, the majority of Venezuelans live in shanty towns in abject poverty. Things as basic as medical gauzes, soap, toilet paper, or stable power flow, although common in developed states, are a privilege only enjoyed by the rich and powerful in Venezuela. Protests and riots are a common occurrence in the capital city, with average citizens unwilling to accept a dictatorship, and a spirited opposition government refusing to fade away.
Amid the turmoil and chaos, new groups have found refuge in Venezuela: drug cartels. The town of San Felipe, located in Venezuela's northwestern state of Zuila, has been unofficially re-named by residents as Sinaloa, after the notorious criminal organization, due to the strong presence of Mexicans in the village.
Reports have increasingly emerged of ranchers, workers, business owners, and residents observing Mexican sicarios, cartel emissaries, and drug pilots in the region. Furthermore, there has been a notable increase in the demand for prostitutes in a usually dull and crime-free area.
Infobae, a Latin American newspaper, has reported that the main roads connecting the towns of Colón and Machiques de Perijá have been co-opted by the cartels for transportation, while Zulia's residents have been ordered or bribed by the cartels to convert or create nearly 400 clandestine landing strips capable of supporting high tonnage of drugs and cash.
The increase in the presence of Mexican cartels follows a sweeping indictment by the US Department of Justice against Venezuelan President Maduro, former Venezulan National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, former Director of Military Intelligence Hugo Carvajal, General Clíver Antonio Alcalá, and two senior FARC commanders, charging them specifically with narco-terrorism, money laundering, and drug trafficking. The DOJ alleges that Maduro worked side by side with FARC, Colombian guerrillas, to transform Venezuela into a distribution point for cocaine flowing into the United States. Since early 2013, watchdogs have repeatedly accused the regime in Caracas of cooperating and working with drug lords to both support the failing Venezuelan state and line their pockets. With oil prices at all-time lows, drugs have increasingly been relied upon to pay the bills and keep Nicolas Maduro in power. The Untied State government estimates that 240 metric tons of cocaine crossed into Venezuela from Columbia to be distributed globally.
Last month, the White House announced the beginning of the largest US military operation in Latin America since Operating Just Cause, the mission to remove General Manuel Noriega from power in Panama. The operation includes three destroyers, multiple Coast Guard cutters, a squadron of Boeing P-8 Poseidon Surveillance aircraft, and a brigade of Green Berets. The deployment nearly doubles US counter-narcotics assets in the region, and will span parts of the eastern Pacific, Caribbean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean. President Trump further announced support from nearly 22 partner Central and South American nations.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.