Venezuela remained a major drug-transit country in 2015. Venezuela is one of the preferred trafficking routes for illegal drugs, predominately cocaine, 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 2015, traffickers moved increased amounts of marijuana cultivated in Colombia through Venezuela, primarily to the Caribbean Islands. There is insufficient data to determine current drug consumption trends within Venezuela, but marijuana is believed to be the most commonly consumed illicit drug, 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 unknown. In 2015, Venezuelan authorities did not release statistics on seizures of drug labs or precursor chemicals. The Venezuelan government has not reported the production or trafficking of new psychoactive substances in Venezuela.
In 2015, the President of the United States determined 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 U.S. national security.
In 2015, the Venezuelan government engaged in minimal bilateral law enforcement cooperation with the United States. 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 significantly impede the operations of major drug trafficking organizations.
B. Drug Control Accomplishments, Policies, and Trends
1. Institutional Development
In 2013, the Venezuelan National Anti-Narcotics Office (ONA) developed a National Anti-Drug Plan for 2015-2019 that sought to reduce drug consumption and increase prevention activities. ONA reported to have worked closely with civil society to provide anti-drug education training and athletic programming in different areas around the country to increase awareness and prevent consumption.
ONA reported the seizure of 65.76 metric tons (MT) of illegal drugs during the first eight months of 2015, a 132 percent increase compared to the same period in 2014. Cocaine (83 percent) and marijuana (16 percent) comprised the overwhelming majority of seizures, 78 percent of which occurred in Zulia state. ONA reported a nearly 9 percent decrease in detentions of traffickers during the same period, from 8,190 in 2014 to 7,479 in 2015. The Public Ministry reported investigations of 21,127 individuals for suspected drug crimes in 2015, leading to formal charges against 11,795.
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 2015 were destined for the Caribbean, Central America, the United States, West Africa, and Europe. Colombian drug-trafficking organizations – including multiple criminal bands, or “BACRIM” groups, 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 also operate in Venezuela, including the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas.
The Venezuelan government occasionally reports drug seizures, arrests, and destruction of drugs and airstrips to the public. Venezuela is not a member of the Cooperative Situational Information Integration 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 2015, ONA President Irwin Jose Ascanio stated publicly that Venezuelan authorities had seized 69 MT of illegal drugs since January, nearly double the seizure rate from the same period last year. Ascanio claimed the August 2015 closure of the Venezuelan-Colombian border in Tachira and Zulia states resulted in the reduction of the flow of drugs across the border by 70 percent.
In November 2014, 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. In January 2015, the Venezuelan Air Force confirmed that it shot down a private aircraft near Aruba trafficking cocaine northward from Apure state. In May 2015, Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino claimed the Venezuela Air Force shot down an aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs as it departed Venezuelan airspace, resulting in the aircraft crashing into the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Colombia. Both U.S and international law prohibit using lethal force against civil aircraft, regardless of whether the aircraft is being used for drug trafficking.
3. Public Information, Prevention, and Treatment
The use of illegal drugs in Venezuela remained a problem in 2015, 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 1.56 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 those suffering from substance use disorders 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, the most recent year for which data is available, ONA reported that 37,549 individuals were treated in this system, 19,835 of whom also 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 was granted decree powers by the National Assembly in March of 2015 to combat corruption and defend Venezuela from a variety of threats, though it remains to be seen whether measures authorized under the decree powers will be effective tools to combat corruption.
In September 2015, the United States unsealed indictments against former Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) chief of finance Pedro Luis Martin Olivares and former anti-drug official in the Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigative Corps (CICPC) Jesus Alfredo Itriago for alleged involvement in drug trafficking activities affecting the United States. 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 Venezuelan National Guard reported the arrest of Villarroel-Ramirez in July of 2015.
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 March 30, 2015, one Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) officer and two enlisted men were arrested on charges of facilitating the trafficking of 450 packages of cocaine in an airplane interdicted in the Dominican Republic on March 17. Military officials arrested two security officials at the Maiquetia (Caracas) airport on April 13 for attempting to traffic 2.5 kilograms of cocaine on a flight bound from Caracas to Paris.
C. National Goals, Bilateral Cooperation, and U.S. Policy Initiatives
Counternarcotics cooperation between Venezuela and the United States is limited and inconsistent since 2005, when Venezuela refused to sign a negotiated addendum to the MOU to improve anti-drug cooperation. In 2015, Venezuela participated in the International Drug Enforcement Conference (IDEC) for the second consecutive year following a five year hiatus.
The United States and Venezuela continue 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 2015, the Venezuelan government cooperated with the United States Coast Guard in approximately 10 documented maritime drug-interdiction cases, compared to two cases in 2014, 10 cases in 2013, and five cases in 2012.
Though the level of drug control cooperation between Venezuela and the United States was limited during 2015, 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 can sign an 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.