In 2013, Venezuela remained a major drug-transit country. Venezuela is one of the most frequently-transited trafficking routes for illegal drugs exiting South America for international markets, owing to its permeable western border with Colombia, weak judicial system, sporadic international counternarcotics cooperation, and permissive and corrupt environment.
Cannabis cultivation occurs throughout the country. In 2013, increased amounts of cannabis cultivated in Colombia were transported through Venezuela, primarily to Caribbean islands. According to a 2009 drug-consumption study by the Venezuelan National Anti-Narcotics Office (ONA), marijuana was the most commonly consumed illicit drug in Venezuela, followed by “crack” cocaine and “basuco” (cocaine base).
Limited coca cultivation occurs along Venezuela’s border with Colombia. Some precursor chemicals used to produce cocaine are trafficked through Venezuela, but the quantity is unknown. In 2013, Venezuelan authorities seized approximately 30 metric tons (MT) of precursor chemicals during joint U.S.-Venezuelan anti-drug operations. The Venezuelan government does not report the production of new psychoactive substances in Venezuela nor the trafficking of these substances from Venezuela.
The President of the United States determined in 2013 that Venezuela had failed demonstrably to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements, though a waiver allowing for continued assistance was granted in the interest of national security.
Venezuelan authorities do not effectively prosecute drug traffickers, in part due to corruption. Additionally, Venezuelan law enforcement officers lack the equipment, training, and resources required to inhibit the operations of major drug-trafficking organizations.
Venezuela and the United States have had very limited counternarcotics cooperation since 2005, when the Government of Venezuela refused to sign a negotiated addendum to a 1978 bilateral counternarcotics memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the United States. However, in 2013, Venezuelan and U.S. counternarcotics authorities increased regular communication and some case-by-case cooperation on seizures.
B. Drug Control Accomplishments, Policies, and Trends
1. Institutional Development
In 2013, ONA officials developed a National Anti-Drug Plan for 2013-2019 that seeks to reduce drug consumption and increase drug-prevention activities. ONA works closely with school officials in 79 municipalities to provide anti-drug education and athletic programming.
In 2013, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced more aggressive implementation of procedures for the Venezuelan Armed Forces to intercept and disable aircraft in Venezuelan territory believed to be trafficking drugs, in accordance with Venezuela’s 2012 Integral Airspace Defense Law. This move is contrary to international civil aviation conventions to which Venezuela is signatory.
A U.S.-Venezuela bilateral treaty on mutual legal assistance entered into force in 2004, pledging both countries to cooperate in investigating, prosecuting, preventing, and suppressing crime, including drug trafficking. Additionally, Venezuela and the United States have had a bilateral MOU concerning counternarcotics cooperation since 1978. In 2005, Venezuelan and U.S. officials negotiated an addendum to the MOU to improve anti-drug cooperation, but Venezuela did not sign it.
In 1997, the U.S. and Venezuelan governments updated a customs mutual assistance agreement and a 1991 bilateral maritime counterdrug agreement that authorizes U.S. officials to board Venezuelan flagged vessels suspected of trafficking drugs in international waters, provided the Venezuelan government permits the search.
Venezuela is party to the Inter-American Convention against Terrorism, the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, and the Inter-American Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters. Venezuela remains an active member of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission.
The United States and Venezuela are parties to an extradition treaty that entered into force in 1923, though the 1999 Venezuelan constitution bars the extradition of Venezuelan nationals. Venezuela periodically deports non-Venezuelan nationals to the United States to face drug-related charges.
2. Supply Reduction
Venezuela remains a major transit country for cocaine shipments via air, land, and maritime routes. The vast majority of suspected narcotics trafficking flights departing South America originate from Venezuela, typically from states bordering Colombia. Drug traffickers reportedly also move cocaine out of Venezuela via maritime routes using large cargo containers, fishing vessels, and “go-fast” boats.
The vast majority of illicit narcotics that transited Venezuela in 2013 were destined for the Eastern Caribbean, Central America, the United States, West Africa, and Europe. Colombian drug-trafficking organizations – including Los Urabeños, Los Rastrojos, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN) – facilitate the transshipment of narcotics through Venezuela. Media reports alleged that some Venezuelan military and law enforcement personnel directly assisted Colombian drug-trafficking organizations. According to media reports, Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, including the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, operate in Venezuela.
The Venezuelan government occasionally reports drug seizures, arrests, and destruction of drugs and airstrips to the public. Venezuela is not a member of the Cooperating Nations Information Exchange System through which countries predetermine some information to share automatically with the United States. U.S. officials were able to independently verify some Venezuelan drug seizures based on evidence from Venezuelan authorities. Venezuelan authorities did not share similar evidence with U.S. officials about illicit drug destruction.
In December, ONA President Alejandro Keleris Bucarito stated publicly that Venezuelan authorities had seized 46 MT of illegal drugs since the beginning of 2013. Keleris further stated that Venezuelan authorities had arrested more than 9,130 people on drug trafficking charges and had captured 15 heads of drug trafficking organizations in 2013. Keleris also stated that Venezuelan authorities disabled 30 aircraft used by drug-trafficking organizations and destroyed 108 unauthorized airstrips that year.
3. Drug Abuse Awareness, Demand Reduction, and Treatment
The use of illegal drugs in Venezuela remained a problem in 2013. The UN World Drug Report noted that cocaine use among adults was 0.64 percent in 2011, the last year for which statistics were available. It also reported that, in 2011, cannabis use was 1.7 percent, amphetamine use was 0.47 percent, ecstasy use was 0.12 percent, and opioid use was 0.03 percent.
In 2012, the Venezuelan government implemented a nationwide security program, “Life for All,” that focused on reducing violence and crime in the 79 Venezuelan municipalities with the highest crime rates. The Venezuelan government included drug abuse prevention and drug rehabilitation programming in its plan. The ONA director for demand reduction announced that between January and June 2013, ONA officials had visited 6,077 schools and provided anti-drug educational programs to 330,480 students through the ONA “Goes to School” program. Non-governmental organizations throughout the country offer drug abuse awareness, demand reduction, and treatment programs.
Although Venezuelan law prohibits drug-trafficking, public corruption is a major problem in Venezuela that makes it easier for drug-trafficking organizations to move and smuggle illegal drugs, according to Venezuelan non-governmental organizations. In November, the National Assembly granted President Nicolas Maduro decree powers to combat corruption inside and outside of government institutions.
In 2008, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated three former Venezuelan officials (including two current state governors) as “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN)” under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act) for assisting the FARC in trafficking narcotics. The Venezuelan government has yet to take action against these or other government and military officials with known links to the FARC.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated four additional Venezuelan government officials under the Kingpin Act for aiding the FARC. In 2013, The U.S. Department of the Treasury added Vassyly Kotosky Villarroel-Ramirez, a former captain in the Venezuelan National Guard, to the SDN list under the Kingpin Act.
Venezuela law imposes penalties ranging from eight to 18 years in prison for military and security officials convicted of participating in or facilitating narcotics trafficking. In 2013, Venezuelan authorities detained eight Venezuelan military officials to investigate their roles in a drug operation that resulted in French authorities seizing 1.3 MT of cocaine in Paris from an Air France flight that originated in Caracas, according to media reports.
C. National Goals, Bilateral Cooperation, and U.S. Policy Initiatives
In 2013, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and ONA officials conducted more regular meetings and some cooperation on a case-by-case basis, representing an increase in cooperation from previous years. In 2013, Venezuelan authorities seized more than 12 MT of cocaine and 17 private aircraft the latter valued at more than $20 million, as a result of cooperation between Venezuelan and U.S. authorities. Venezuelan authorities also arrested nine high-priority individuals suspected by U.S. law enforcement of involvement in international drug trafficking.
In 2013, an ONA official attended a precursor chemical training conference hosted by the United States and the Colombian National Police. The ONA representative was the first Venezuelan official to attend a U.S.-sponsored training since 2009 – the year that former Minister of Interior, Justice, and Peace Tareck El Aissami prohibited Venezuelan law-enforcement officials from receiving training overseas without the ministry’s prior approval.
The United States and Venezuela continued to exercise the maritime bilateral agreement that was signed in 1991 and allows for each country to board vessels of the opposite flag suspected of illicit drug trafficking in international waters. In 2013, the Venezuelan government cooperated with the U.S. Coast Guard in 10 documented maritime drug-interdiction cases, compared to five cases in 2012, three cases in 2011, and nine cases in 2010.
Counternarcotics cooperation between the United States and Venezuela increased in 2013. The United States remains committed to cooperating with Venezuela to counter the flow of cocaine and other illegal drugs transiting Venezuelan territory.
To further deepen cooperation, the Venezuelan government should sign the addendum to the 1978 bilateral counternarcotics MOU and increase counternarcotics training for Venezuelan law enforcement personnel, including permitting more Venezuelan officials to participate in U.S. counternarcotics training programs. Such cooperative activities could increase the exchange of information and ultimately lead to more drug-related arrests, help dismantle organized criminal networks, aid in the prosecution of criminals engaged in narcotics trafficking, and stem the flow of illicit drugs transiting through Venezuela.