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Snitch Puts Stitch in Venezuela's Drug Trade

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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When a former top Venezuelan bodyguard fled to the U.S. last weekend and accused his ex-boss of drug trafficking, the keepers of the Bolivarian Revolution lashed out at the usual suspects, with President Nicolas Maduro denouncing a "right-wing smear campaign."

It might have been any other week in the land of 21st-century socialism, the revolution Hugo Chavez built, where conspiracies run thicker than gridlock in Caracas. But behind the Bolivarian bouffe is an ugly reality: Venezuela is on its way to becoming Latin America's reigning narcocracy.

Leamsy Salazar Villafana was a former security guard for Diosdado Cabello, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, widely regarded as Chavismo's most powerful figure after Maduro himself. After his safe arrival in the U.S., Salazar  told the Spanish daily ABC that his former boss not only moonlighted by trafficking cocaine but doubled as ringleader of Cartelo de Los Soles, the Suns Cartel, a shadowy racket allegedly run by Venezuelan brass.

Salazar said he personally witnessed Cabello dispatch overseas shipments of cocaine, occasionally bundling them onto aircraft owned by the Venezuelan oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela. Cabello's brother, Jose David Cabello, ran the cartel's finances, he said, with the aid and cover of Cuban officials.

Tales of drug dealings in Chavismo's inner circle are hardly new, but Salazar's defection stung. He used to head security for Chavez himself: a "humble, great marine," the Comandante once called him. That loyalty won Salazar a job riding shotgun for Cabello after Chavez died in 2013.

If Salazar can back his claims, not only would he nail an alpha Chavista, but he would help narcotics sleuths connect the dots on the potent Caracas connection that is changing the face of international drug trade.

Though never a major drug producer, Venezuela has become a thriving ecosystem for footloose global criminals. Its lawless borders and an unfettered black market make the country an ideal way station to launder drug money and funnel cocaine and marijuana from Venezuela's drug-producing neighbors and consumers in Europe and the U.S. In recent years, the United Nations International Narcotics Control board has reported an upsurge in airborne cocaine shipments from Venezuela to West Africa and onward to Europe, as well as to Honduras, a major trans-shipment point to the U.S. Last year's annual report by  the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs put it more baldly: "The vast majority of suspected narcotics trafficking flights departing South America originate from Venezuela."

In Venezuela, as in Central America, drugs flourish due to a deadly combination of bent officials and feeble government institutions. The Cabello case, however, points to something larger: bent government.  Venezuela's ranking officials are not just on the take but, as Salazar appears ready to testify, occult partners in charge of thriving drug franchises.

U.S. officials have pursued Venezuelan generals, diplomats and judges on trafficking charges with mixed results. Dissimulation may be part of the problem. For the record, Venezuela is part of global anti-narcotics efforts, occasionally reporting major drug seizures and splashy arrests. In practice, it's the mid-level traffickers or foreign violators who go to jail, while the kingpins get a Bolivarian abrazo.

So it was last July, when Chavez's former military intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal Barrios, was arrested in Aruba on charges of running drugs and peddling arms to Colombian insurgents. After brandishing newly-minted diplomatic credentials, and a rescue mission by Venezuelan lawmakers, Carvajal escaped extradition to the U.S. and flew back to Caracas to a hero's welcome.

Whether Maduro can, or will, do the same for Cabello is another matter.  (There's no love lost between the two political rivals.) In a public ceremony this week, Maduro announced his "total support" for the supposedly maligned companero and repudiated the "vulgar attack" by saying: "Whoever betrays the revolution will wither."

Yet if Numero Dos faces international criminal charges, Bolivarian spin may not be enough to rescue the revolution from itself.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Mac Margolis at

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at