Venezuela: Rise of a narcostate

AEIBy Roger F. Noriega

Venezuela is a narcostate, controlled by senior political leaders and security officials who have used state resources and state-owned companies in the cocaine trade. For example, US authorities have gathered documents and eyewitness testimonies implicating officers of the state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), in engaging in transactions and money laundering on behalf of cocaine smugglers within the government. Sources also have informed US authorities that the campaigns of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela have been financed by drug-smuggling and money-laundering profits.

Although the Venezuelan regime’s complicity in narcotics trafficking has been rumored for years, the depth and breadth of that government’s lawlessness was revealed by the Wall Street Journal in a May 2015 article regarding ongoing US federal investigations into several high-ranking Venezuelan officials’ involvement in cocaine smuggling.

“A leading target, according to a Justice Department official and other American authorities, is National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, considered the country’s second most-powerful man,” the article reported. “There is extensive evidence to justify that he [Cabello] is one of the heads, if not the head, of the cartel,” said the Justice Department source, referring to an alleged conspiracy involving military officers and other senior officials.

It may be difficult to understand why a government whose officials have access to vast oil revenues would see the need to be involved in smuggling illicit drugs. According to eyewitness sources, beginning in 2005, Chávez personally directed the exchange of vast sums of oil revenue for cocaine with the Colombian Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas to sustain their war against the democratically-elected government of President Álvaro Uribe — a bitter foe of Chávez.

Like no Latin American leader before him, Chávez put all of the state’s resources at the disposal of his transnational organized-crime network. In addition to encouraging other governments to refuse to cooperate with US antidrug efforts, he used his diplomatic muscle to brazenly defend his criminal allies. In 2009, for example, he rallied regional governments — including the United States, for a time — to demand that Manuel Zelaya, an alleged drug smuggler, be restored to the presidency in Honduras. He also has sustained governments in Bolivia, El Salvador, and elsewhere that collaborate in the illegal drug trade.

Even before assuming power, Chávez maintained close ties with FARC, the guerrilla group that has turned its focus from a radical armed struggle to narcotrafficking. As Colombia has taken the upper hand in its conflict with the guerrillas in the last decade, FARC’s drug-smuggling operations have been flushed out in the open—as has Venezuela’s complicity in these criminal activities.

A 2009 report of the US Government Accountability Office noted, “According to US officials, Venezuelan government officials have provided material support, primarily to FARC, which has helped to sustain the Colombian insurgency and threaten security gains achieved in Colombia.” Apparently, by the time that assessment was written, Chávez already had integrated FARC into his scheme to smuggle cocaine, benefiting his political survival and agenda.

On March 1, 2008, Colombian forces captured the “smoking gun”: FARC computer records documenting the intimate role of numerous Venezuelan officials in FARC smuggling activities. The US Department of the Treasury used that information to designate several senior government officials as drug kingpins. Venezuelan intelligence officials Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios and Henry de Jesús Rangel Silva and former Justice and Interior Minister Ramón Emilio Rodríguez Chacín were declared kingpins and were among Chávez’s most trusted confidantes and operatives.

To understand the role Venezuela plays in transnational organized crime threatening the Western Hemisphere, read my full report on this subject here.

Click here for the full AEI Report

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During the last several decades, the United States has invested billions of dollars in trying to help the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean deliver better lives for their citizens. This has meant helping them increase internal security by combating the illicit growing and trafficking in narcotics and the activities of terrorist groups, as well as helping them to shore up their democratic and free market institutions.

Unfortunately, in recent years, continued progress in these areas has been threatened, not least by the elections of radical populist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. These governments have instituted retrograde agendas that include the propagation of class warfare, state domination of the economy, assaults on private property, anti-Americanism, support for such international pariahs as Iran, and lackluster support for regional counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics initiatives.

We are a group of concerned policy experts that fear the results of these destructive agendas for individual freedom, prosperity, and the well-being of the peoples of the region. Our goal is to inform American policymakers and American and international public opinion of the dangers of these radical populist regimes to inter-American security.