Venezuela remained a major drug-transit country in 2014. Venezuela is one of the preferred trafficking routes for illegal drugs from South America to the Caribbean region, Central America, the United States, Western Africa, and Europe, due to its porous western border with Colombia, weak judicial system, sporadic international counternarcotics cooperation, and permissive and corrupt environment.
In 2014, increased amounts of marijuana cultivated in Colombia were transported through Venezuela, primarily to the 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 paste).
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 not known. In 2014, Venezuelan authorities seized 14 labs and approximately 10 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 or the trafficking of these substances from Venezuela.
The President of the United States determined in 2014 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 political corruption. Additionally, Venezuelan law enforcement officers lack the equipment, training, and resources required to impede the operations of major drug trafficking organizations.
In 2014, the Venezuelan government reduced what had been a year-long trend of growing bilateral law enforcement cooperation with the United States on drug seizures following the arrest and subsequent release of retired Venezuelan general Hugo Carvajal in Aruba, who was indicted in the United States in 2011 and 2013 for alleged drug trafficking.
B. Drug Control Accomplishments, Policies, and Trends
1. Institutional Development
In 2013, ONA officials developed a National Anti-Drug Plan for 2013-2019 that sought to reduce drug consumption and increase prevention activities. ONA worked closely with civil society to provide anti-drug education training and athletic programming in different areas around the country. ONA’s 2013 Assessment Report indicated efforts to increase awareness and prevent consumption through a program that seeks to tackle drugs in education, labor, communes, and high-risk populations.
In 2013, President Maduro announced the implementation of procedures for the Venezuelan Armed Forces to intercept and disable aircraft in Venezuelan territory believed to be trafficking drugs, and to disable clandestine airstrips, in accordance with the 2012 Integral Airspace Defense Law. In 2013, the Armed Forces reportedly destroyed 103 airstrips, and seized three aircrafts. The Armed Forces used its radar system to detect unauthorized flights, and 103 aircraft were screened, of which 22 were immobilized. According to media reports, some of these aircraft were disabled while in service (as defined by the Montreal Convention of 1971); such an action is contrary to international civil aviation conventions to which Venezuela is a signatory.
In May 2014, Venezuela signed an international agreement with Russia to cooperate in the fight against drugs. President Maduro announced joint operations between the Russian Federal Drug Control Service and ONA. The 2010 Organic Law on Drugs increased the penalties for drug trafficking and gave ONA the authority to seize the assets of individuals connected with drug trafficking.
A U.S.-Venezuela treaty pledging both countries to cooperate in investigating, prosecuting, preventing, and suppressing crime, including drug trafficking, entered into force in 2004. Additionally, Venezuela and the United States have had a Bilateral Counternarcotics Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) since 1978. Counternarcotics cooperation between Venezuela and the United States has been very limited and inconsistent since 2005, when Venezuela refused to sign a negotiated addendum to the MOU to improve anti-drug cooperation.
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, as long as the Venezuelan government permits the search. A mutual legal assistance treaty between the United States and Venezuela entered into force in 2004.
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; however, the 1999 Venezuelan constitution bars the extradition of Venezuelan nationals. Venezuela periodically deports non-Venezuelan nationals to the United States for prosecution.
2. Supply Reduction
Venezuela remains a major transit country for cocaine shipments via aerial, terrestrial, and maritime routes. Most flights suspected of trafficking narcotics depart from Venezuelan states bordering Colombia. Trafficking by maritime conveyance includes the use of large cargo containers, fishing vessels, and “go-fast” boats.
The vast majority of illicit narcotics that transited Venezuela in 2014 were destined for the Eastern Caribbean, Central America, the United States, West Africa, and Europe. Colombian drug-trafficking organizations – including Los Rastrojos, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN) – facilitate the transshipment of narcotics through Venezuela. According to media reports, Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, including the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, also 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. Venezuelan authorities similarly did not share evidence about destruction of illicit drugs with U.S. officials.
In October, ONA President Irwin Jose Ascanio stated publicly that Venezuelan authorities had seized 35.5 MT of illegal drugs since January, of which 18.6 and 13.7 were cocaine and marijuana, respectively. Ascanio claimed Venezuelan authorities had arrested 8,994 people on drug trafficking charges. Vladimir Padrino Lopez, named Defense Minister in October and concurrent head of the Operational Strategic Command of the Armed Forces, stated that Venezuelan authorities in operations near the Colombian border destroyed five drug camps, 108 clandestine airstrips used by drug traffickers, 43 clandestine laboratories, and seized four watercraft and three aircraft used by drug-trafficking organizations. According to Padrino, army troops discovered a camp with 20 laboratories to manufacture cocaine with more than 600 kilograms (kg) of the drug.
In November, Venezuelan Vice President Jorge Arreaza announced operation “Sovereign Skies,” aimed at halting flights by private jets leaving from seven airports in order to crack down on drug trafficking.
3. Drug Abuse Awareness, Demand Reduction, and Treatment
The use of illegal drugs in Venezuela remained a problem in 2014, but recent statistical data is unavailable. The 2011 UN World Drug Report is the most recent report on domestic consumption, which noted that cocaine and cannabis use among adults was 0.64 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively. Use of synthetic drugs and opioids is less frequent.
ONA implemented a National Treatment System in 2013 as a nationwide program to treat substance use disorder. The system uses professional care for detoxification and social reinsertion of addicts through a three-level program that includes the Center of Family Guidance, the Specialized Center for Prevention and Comprehensive Assistance, and the Socialist Therapeutic Community. In 2013, ONA reported that 37,549 individuals were treated in this system, 19,835 of whom received training to become prevention educators. There were 6,641 individuals in treatment facilities along with 3,032 family members, according to the 2013 ONA Annual Report.
Although Venezuela, as a matter of government policy, does not encourage or facilitate illicit drug production or distribution, nor is it involved in laundering the proceeds of the sale of illicit drugs, public corruption is a major problem in Venezuela that makes it easier for drug-trafficking organizations to move and smuggle illegal drugs. President Maduro’s decree powers, granted by the National Assembly in November 2013 to combat corruption, expired on November 19, 2014. It is unclear whether the measures he authorized will be effective tools to combat corruption.
In July 2014, Aruban authorities arrested Former Director of Venezuela’s Military Intelligence Directorate Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, who was designated in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Treasury for materially assisting the narcotics trafficking activities of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and indicted within the United States for drug trafficking. Venezuelan authorities reportedly threatened Aruba to pressure authorities to release him, and he was welcomed back to Caracas at a large rally led by President Maduro.
The United States has implicated senior Venezuelan government officials in drug trafficking activity. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated former Minister of Defense and current Trujillo state Governor, Henry Rangel Silva and Guárico state Governor Ramón Emilio Rodríguez Chacín 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 Treasury designated four additional Venezuelan government officials under the Kingpin Act, including Major General Cliver Antonio Alcalá Cordones, and National Assembly Deputy Freddy Alirio Bernal Rosales. In 2013, The U.S. Department of Treasury added Vassyly Kotosky Villarroel-Ramirez, a former captain in the Venezuelan National Guard, to the SDN list.
The 2010 Organic Law on Drugs 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.
On April 16, 2014, four unchecked suitcases with 168 kg of cocaine secreted in the plane’s wheel well caused an aircraft from the Venezuelan carrier Laser to return to Maiquetia airport after taking off, reportedly due to the inability to retract the wheels of the plane in flight. The finding was never reported by the Attorney’s General office or the ONA, but seven individuals were arrested according to media reports, including a National Guard Lieutenant.
C. National Goals, Bilateral Cooperation, and U.S. Policy Initiatives
Counternarcotics cooperation between Venezuela and the United States has been very limited and inconsistent since 2005, when Venezuela refused to sign a negotiated addendum to the MOU to improve anti-drug cooperation.
In 2014, Venezuela participated in the International Drug Enforcement Conference (IDEC) for the first time since 2008.
The United States and Venezuela continued to exercise a 1991 maritime bilateral agreement allowing for each country to board vessels of the opposite flag suspected of illicit drug trafficking in international waters. In 2014, the Venezuelan government cooperated with the USCG in two documented maritime drug-interdiction cases, compared to 10 cases in 2013, five cases in 2012, and three cases in 2011.
Counternarcotics cooperation between Venezuela and the United States has been very limited and inconsistent since 2005, when Venezuela refused to sign a negotiated addendum to the MOU to improve anti-drug cooperation. The United States remains committed to cooperating with Venezuela to counter the flow of cocaine and other illegal drugs transiting Venezuelan territory.
To advance cooperation, the Venezuelan government should sign the addendum to the 1978 Bilateral Counternarcotics MOU. Enhanced cooperation 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 Venezuela.