Chavez and the Drug Smugglers

Despite well-publicized arrests, Venezuela remains a major player in the drug trade.

Despite the season, there hasn't been a lot of occasion for good cheer in Venezuela recently. President Hugo Chavez has side-stepped recent Congressional gains by the opposition by asking for, and receiving, emergency powers to rule by decree for 12 months. He claims he needs the powers to respond to devastating floods that have left over 140,000 homeless, but few observers believe this. Chavez will claim to be responding to the emergency,  but his real goal will be strengthening his control over the economy and redistributing yet more wealth from the country’s upper classes to its masses of poor. There is also concern amongst observers that Chavez might attempt to clamp down on the opposition and hostile media outlets. In other words, the news out of Latin America’s oil giant is, as usual, depressing. Even the recent news that Venezuela has been cooperating with the United States in an increasingly successful anti-drug campaign serves only to draw attention to the bleak reality that Hugo Chavez's regime plays a large and growing role in the international distribution of illegal drugs.

During the just-concluded 2010 calendar year, Venezuela arrested more than 12,000 for offenses relating to narcotics trafficking. This represents a major spike over prior years. Venezuela has even extradited several major crime figures to the United States to face prosecution. While not particularly eager to publicize its cooperation with America, the government has certainly not hesitated to boast of its recent successes in the war on drugs; the state news agency, AVN, has boasted that the arrests show that Venezuela’s military is playing an important part in battling a global scourge.

That’s true, as far as it goes — any progress in combating the smuggling of drugs, which destroy lives in North America and fund various violent causes abroad, is to be welcomed. But while acknowledging Venezuela’s recent successes, it is important to note the irony of Hugo Chavez’s government touting its victories in the war on drugs. Venezuela’s active role in the smuggling of drugs out of Latin America into the Western world has long been a known secret. Any recent claims that Chavez’s government is taking a hard line against the narcotics trade must be carefully scrutinized — and Chavez’s record does not fare well under that kind of attention. The amount of cocaine being moved through Venezuela has increased at least 500% since 2004, and by some estimates, fully half the cocaine reaching European markets was shipped from Venezuelan ports.

Some of the country’s involvement is indirect, or at least unintentional. Venezuela’s role as a transit point for the smuggling of drugs has exploded during the last five years, according to Caribbean security issues expert Anthony Maingot, because the country ended all collaborative anti-narcotics efforts with the United States, allowing drug gangs to proliferate and causing a dramatic spike in the quantity of cocaine moving through Venezuela. Further, if elements within the military’s upper echelons choose to enrich themselves by dabbling in the drug trade on the side, Chavez might prefer to turn a blind eye and preserve the military’s loyalty rather than risk eroding his support amongst the commanders by asking too many questions about their burgeoning bank accounts.

Neglect, however, is not the only explanation for the country’s increasing role in the international drug trade. Venezuela has provided direct military support and safe havens to FARC, the Marxist guerrilla group that controls the cocaine supply in U.S. ally, and Venezuelan neighbor, Colombia. Over the last several years, as Colombia’s U.S.-backed war effort against the FARC narco-terrorists has paid dividends, FARC has not only received advanced weapons from Venezuela, but has also relocated some of its leadership to camps just inside Venezuelan territory.

In 2009, Colombia sent troops into Venezuela to raid FARC camps and captured several high-value FARC targets. Venezuela responded by mobilizing troops and threatening regional war if its territory was violated again. The Chavez regime has also been linked to assassination plots against the Colombian president, whose successes against the drug trade and close relationship with America are a constant irritant to Venezuela. Clearly, no matter how many drug smugglers Venezuela might deport to face trial in America, it cannot seriously claim to be a force for law and order so long as it continues to support FARC, one of the world’s largest drug-smuggling organizations and a recognized terrorist entity.

Alas, Chavez, while happy to boast of his country’s contributions to the war on drugs, would no doubt object to the term “terrorist” being applied to his FARC allies — and allies is not too strong a term. In a fascinating piece published by the British newspaper The Guardian in 2008, a former FARC fighter, who had defected to the Colombian government, described his experiences inside Venezuela, as a FARC soldier, in great detail (though under his new, assumed identity, of course). The former member of FARC described how the Venezuelan military offered FARC protection, weapons and training, but also how members of the Chavez administration gave them travel documents, ID cards and even issued high-ranking FARC leaders clean Venezuelan passports.

Many of the accounts given were confirmed by diplomats, speaking off the record so as to avoid provoking an incident with Chavez, who is notoriously touchy about international criticism. Chavez and FARC, both driven by socialist ideology and a loathing for American influence in Latin America, are natural allies, concluded the former FARC fighter, and few experts seem inclined to disagree. So while Venezuela’s recent cooperation and successes against drug smuggling operations taking place on their soil are to be commended, their self-congratulatory praise should be taken with a grain of salt. Venezuela cannot serve both the law enforcement needs of the international community and its FARC allies at once. Given Chavez’s enhanced powers and anti-American agenda, it’s doubtful that he will choose correctly.

Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on . Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.