By The Sharp Edge
The war we are facing against drug cartels connected to the Maduro regime may be much more than it seems. General Milley succinctly described it like this: “We’re at war with COVID-19, we’re at war with terrorists, and we are at war with the drug cartels as well.” Deeply entrenched in drug trafficking and terrorism operations within Venezuela, Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, may have had plans to exploit the Coronavirus outbreak and carry out operations against the United States and our interests in the region. The threat to US national security that the narco state and its allies poses, amidst the backdrop of the worldwide Coronavirus outbreak, has led the Trump Administration to announce enhanced counter narcotics operations in the Western hemisphere – targeting criminals, cartels and terrorists tied to the Maduro regime. By halting drug trafficking through Venezuela, the United States will essentially strangle the supply line of money and weapons to terrorist organizations that seek to threaten our national security and thwart any plans to exploit the Coronavirus pandemic.
From Wealthy Democracy to Authoritarian Narco State, Maduro Regime Poses Threat to Its People and the World
Having the largest proven oil reserves in the world, Venezuela was once the richest country in South America. Following the widespread corruption of military leaders who ran the country for the first half of the 20th century, the nation, rich in culture and natural resources, enjoyed a relatively peaceful time of prosperity beginning in 1958 when democracy was introduced to the people. That is, of course, until the price of oil went into free fall in the mid-1980s. Their oil-dependent economy collapsed, riots broke out across the country, and martial law was promptly enacted. The conditions were ripe for Hugo Chavez to lead a coup. Though two coup attempts led by Chavez in 1992 failed and Chavez was subsequently jailed, they did inspire the impeachment of Perez the following year. It was after Hugo Chavez’s release from prison in 1993, that his alliance with Cuba’s Fidel Castro was forged. Nicolas Maduro, who also had close ties with Castro, campaigned for the release of Hugo Chavez from prison and was instrumental in Chavez’s election in 1998.
With promises to lift the country from its economic decline due to depressed oil prices, Chavez won the 1998 election with strong support from the people who had hopes for reform. Chavez took office in 1999 and surely did live up to his promises of changing the country. However, the changes that Chavez made to this fledgling democracy meant consolidation of power, elimination of checks and balances, and nationalization of many industries within the country, under a new constitution that was adopted by the National Assembly in 1999. Chavez began to transform Venezuela into the image of Cuba. Nicolas Maduro was elected to the National Assembly shortly thereafter in 2000. By 2006, Maduro attained the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs under Hugo Chavez and then was appointed to the position of Vice President under Chavez in 2012. Maduro assumed the presidency following the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013.
Nationalized industries under the socialist policies of Chavez drove expropriated farmlands to become wastelands. The inefficient and corrupt government of Venezuela did not have the capacity to run thousands of private businesses, as they artificially controlled prices, driving those businesses to lose profits and close down. Socialism, corruption, and mismanagement killed the economy of Venezuela and starved its people under the Chavez and Maduro regimes. While tens of thousands of tons of rotten food were found in government owned warehouses during Chavez’s presidency, their people went without. The Chief Prosecutor of Venezuela from 2007 to 2017 accused Maduro of actually profiting from the food supply shortage. The food shortage in Venezuela led to a government food program known as “CLAP.” The Venezuelan food program had contracts with a Mexican Company allegedly owned by Maduro, who profited off the supply of food to Venezuelans in need. The food shortages and starving masses have led to riots, crime, a black market of food trafficking by the Venezuelan military, and refugees fleeing the country by the millions.
Thousands, many of whom are children as young as 10 years old, have been forced to work in the illegal gold mines of Venezuela’s Amazon under sub-human, slave labor conditions. The illegal gold mines have been run by the Colombian guerrilla groups, FARC and ELN, under the direction of Maduro’s former Vice President, Tareck El Aissami. Miners who are accused of theft are subjected to torture, amputations, and murder. Over 200,000 children have been subjected to exploitation by the criminal organizations operating in Venezuela, including human trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation, and slave labor. More than 1 million children in Venezuela have been forced to work in the “informal sector,” including illegal gold mines, drug trafficking, and other criminal activities.
In order to quell protests by dissidents, between 2015 and 2017, police carried out extrajudicial executions of more than 8,000 people in poor communities that no longer supported Maduro. In 2017, the United States imposed new sanctions on the Maduro regime for serious human rights violations and attempts to undermine democratic elections in the country. The extremely unpopular president’s reelection in 2018 was riddled with massive anti-Maduro protests, as well as accusations of voter fraud and vote buying. Starving Venezuelans were asked to scan their “fatherland cards” at voting cites in order to win a prize provided by Maduro. The fatherland cards are used nationwide to provide food benefits and money transfers.
Seen as “the last vestige of democracy” in an authoritarian regime, a legislative body representing the people known as the National Assembly chose Juan Guiado to preside as its president in December of 2018. The National Assembly has asserted that the May 2018 reelection of Maduro was rigged and labeled Maduro as a “usurper.” The National Assembly refuses to recognize Maduro’s reelection as legitimate and, citing the Venezuelan constitution, asserts that the President of the National Assembly, Juan Guiado, should be deemed as the interim President, until the next election takes place. In a statement released by the White House, Trump remarked, “In its role as the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people, the National Assembly invoked the country’s constitution to declare Nicolas Maduro illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant.” Guiado has received the support of: the US, the EU, Israel, Canada, Australia, and most Latin American nations. In March of 2020, the US State Department released a proposal for a “peaceful democratic transition in Venezuela,” which proposes a framework for “the establishment of a broadly acceptable transitional government to administer free and fair presidential elections and a pathway to lifting Venezuela-related U.S. sanctions.”
Despite opposition by the National Assembly and the international community, Maduro and his cronies have clung to power with the solidarity of key allies including: Cuba, Iran, Russia, and China. With Hezbollah operations deeply entrenched in Venezuela since Chavez took power, Iran’s leader, Rouhani, has publically backed the Maduro regime and opposed the US’ “interventionist” support of the National Assembly, calling it “very ugly.” China and Russia have sought to secure their investments tied to oil reserves in the country by continuing to prop up the Maduro regime, as it is unclear if repayment on their loans would occur should Maduro be removed from office. Venezuela’s relationships with China and Russia strengthened exponentially during the regimes of Chavez and Maduro. Under Chavez and Maduro, China has lent nearly $55 billion to the economically volatile country, in exchange for oil supplies. In addition to financial support, China has provided the Maduro regime with a massive surveillance system to spy on its citizens. Together, China and Russia have had an enormous stake in Venezuelan oil reserves, lending the petro state tens of billions of dollars while propping up the Chavez and Maduro administrations. However, amidst the US indictments against Maduro and members of his administration, leading to a proclamation of war against cartels connected to the Maduro regime, Russia’s state owned oil company, Rosneft, which owned more than 70% of Venezuelan oil exports, cut ties with Venezuela in April of 2020, signaling that Russia intends to step back from their support of the crippled administration. China appears to have scaled back support for Maduro in recent months as well.
With the extreme economic crisis in Venezuela, the American embargo on Venezuelan oil, and cratering oil prices due to a massive oversupply of oil on the world market, Maduro has quietly departed from socialist policies of state-run oil fields in an attempt to salvage the economy and remain in power. According to Rafael Ramirez, the former head of Venezuela’s state-owned oil industry (Pdvsa), who cut ties with Maduro in 2017, “Pdvsa doesn’t manage our oil industry, Venezuelans don’t manage it…In the middle of the chaos generated by the worst economic crisis suffered by the country in its history, Maduro is taking actions to cede, transfer and hand over oil operations to private capital.” Consequently, Chevron has become the largest foreign producer of oil in Venezuela.
The Venezuelan people are suffering through the worst humanitarian crisis the country has ever faced in recent years, lacking food, water, electricity and basic medical care. However, their worst days may loom ahead as the country, crippled by the failed socialist policies of a corrupt regime, faces the uncontrolled spread of Coronavirus throughout the nation. While neighboring countries have sealed their borders to refugees who may be carriers of the virus, the potential for social unrest nationwide surges. Venezuelans carrying Coronavirus may turn to cartels for aid in illegal passage beyond the country’s borders, spreading the virus to neighboring countries and beyond.
With little support from the international community, and millions of Venezuelans going without basic necessities amidst the Coronavirus outbreak, the Maduro regime faces mounting pressure from all sides to step down, allowing sanctions to be lifted and an interim government to take over.
Dangerous Allies Within Venezuela’s Narco State Threaten US National Security and Regional Partners
Amidst the Coronavirus outbreak, the importation of illegal drugs to the United States that are obviously not subjected to FDA or Border Patrol inspections, poses a new and immediate threat to national security. Though the FDA states that, “There is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with imported goods and there have not been any cases of COVID-19 in the United States associated with imported goods,” they admit that “this remains a dynamic situation” and are taking extreme precautions to evaluate all imported goods to the country.
In an announcement by the Department of Justice regarding the indictments of Maduro and his co-conspirators in March of 2020, Attorney General Barr remarked, “We estimate that somewhere between 200 and 250 metric tons of cocaine are shipped out of Venezuela,” annually by air and maritime routes, adding, “Those 250 metric tons equate to 30 million lethal doses.” US Attorney Geoffrey Berman explained, “As alleged, Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and well-being of our nation. Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon.”
Under the Chavez and Maduro regimes, Venezuela has reached a diplomatic crisis with Columbia over providing safe haven for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as well as the Colombian rebel group known as the National Liberation Army (ELN). The Colombian dissident groups use armed guerrilla combatants who conduct drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and illegal mining throughout the region. According to US Attorney Geoffrey Berman, Maduro has been accused of “running, together with his top lieutenants, a narco-terrorism partnership with the FARC for the past 20 years.” The Justice Department announcement explained “In his role as a leader of the Cartel de Los Soles,Maduro Moros negotiated multi-ton shipments of FARC-produced cocaine; directed that the Cartel de Los Soles provide military-grade weapons to the FARC; coordinated foreign affairs with Honduras and other countries to facilitate large-scale drug trafficking; and solicited assistance from FARC leadership in training an unsanctioned militia group that functioned, in essence, as an armed forces unit for the Cartel de Los Soles.” US Attorney Berman added, “In exchange for their contributions, the FARC leaders received caches of military grade weapons including machine guns, ammunition, rocket launchers, and explosives – equipment to help fuel their long campaign of terrorism.”
As far back as 1988, Venezuelan officials have been connected to drug trafficking operations. The CIA commissioned the head of Venezuela’s anti-drug unit, General Guillen, to set up a supply route of cocaine using agents of the Venezuelan National Guard. In 1996, Guillen was indicted for smuggling more than 22 tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe, which Guillen claimed were under the approval and supervision of the CIA. Following the investigation of General Guillen, the name “Cartel of the Suns,” emerged, as the uniforms of high ranking Venezuelan officials, who have participated in drug trafficking operations, bear the insignia of a sun.
Unsealed indictments against Maduro and 14 other Venezuelan officials allege that, “Since at least 1999, Maduro Moros, Cabello Rondón, Carvajal Barrios and Alcalá Cordones, acted as leaders and managers of the Cartel of the Suns,” while corrupting, “legitimate institutions of Venezuela—including parts of the military, intelligence apparatus, legislature, and the judiciary—to facilitate the importation of tons of cocaine into the United States.” In 2005, Chavez shut down all cooperation with the DEA, and aligned himself with the Colombian militant group, FARC, in a conspiracy to “flood” the United States with illicit drugs. Later in 2013 several National Guard members, including a Lieutenant Coronal, were arrested after transporting 1.3 tons of cocaine on board a commercial airliner to Paris. In 2015, two nephews of Nicolas Maduro’s wife were arrested and held in Haiti for conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine to the United States. Interestingly, it was the testimony of Maduro’s “narconephews” that may have led to the federal indictments of Maduro and other key Venezuelan officials. According to court documents, following their capture in Haiti, one nephew remarked, “We need the money…Why? Because the Americans are hitting us hard with money. Do you understand?” The captured cousins confessed to the DEA that they were recruited by Maduro to traffic cocaine in order to raise money for the congressional campaign of Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores.
“Venezuela has become probably the cocaine capital of the world,” remarked Joseph Humire, an expert on Iran’s strategic penetration of Latin America who has testified before Congress on drug trafficking operations connected to Hezbollah in the region. “Anything that moves not just to the United States, to Brazil and Argentina, or to Europe or to Africa, pretty much Venezuela is a transshipment hub for those cocaine trafficking. Every major cocaine trafficking cartel in the world has had a presence in Venezuela over the last 20 to 30 years.” Under the Chavez and Maduro regimes, Venezuela has provided Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, safe harbor to conduct their trafficking and terrorism operations within the region. The mutual partnership has benefited Iran in the way of raising funds for terrorist operations through drug trafficking, providing passports for potential terrorists, and transporting material support to Iran’s weapons programs. “Iran has used commercial flights to be able to shuttle people, products and minerals in and out of Latin America to benefit their strategic WMD programs…Including their ballistic missile program and potentially their nuclear program as well,” explained Joseph Humire. A drug trafficking partnership between Iran and Venezuela, as Humire explained, allowed the rogue regimes to “operationalize drug trafficking as an intelligence network… And they teamed up to use drug trafficking as a way to infiltrate societies.”
In 2008, the DEA launched a campaign known as Project Cassandra, which compiled evidence of Hezbollah’s multi-billion dollar international drug and weapons trafficking operations. Following the cocaine shipments and money flow, agents were able to tie transactions to members of the inner circle of Hezbollah as well as its state sponsor, Iran. In desperation to make a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration shut down Project Cassandra and members of the task force were reassigned. The loss of key insights gathered from Project Cassandra, regarding Hezbollah’s international criminal syndicate involving high up officials, including Nicolas Maduro, undermined the US’ ability to track the amount of cocaine making its way from Venezuela and the growing threat Hezbollah poses in the Western hemisphere.
According to the former Counter-Narcotics Chief in Venezuela, Johan Obdola, the former Vice President of Venezuela under Maduro, Tareck El Aissami, “is running the Hezbollah operation and providing full support” of Iran’s Hezbollah operations in Venezuela. In July of 2019, ICE added the former Vice President, Tareck El Aissami, to the 10 most wanted fugitives list. El Aissami was indicted earlier the same year due to violations of the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act, for playing a major role in international drug trafficking operations. Johan Obdola explained, “In the case of Iran and Hezbollah… they control large areas for the exploitation of strategic minerals in the Venezuelan Amazon, together with the FARC, and the criminal groups of the Venezuelan regime. Of course, in addition to these actions, Hezbollah maintains an extensive drug trafficking and money laundering operation. It is important to mention that Tareck El Aissami is the leader of these groups, not only in Venezuela, but he controls and coordinates these operations in the hemisphere. In fact, he has several of his close relatives coordinating these actions in some countries of the region.” Obdola estimates that there are a total of 18,000 members of Hezbollah, 3,000 members of Hamas, and 1,500 members of the Guard of the Iranian Revolution operating in compartmentalized tasks throughout Venezuela.
Hezbollah and Hamas are known to have bases of operations on Margarita Island. A strategic location for drug and human trafficking as well as money laundering, Margarita Island is the largest Venezuelan island situated on its northeastern coast in the Caribbean. Established as a free-trade zone by the Venezuelan government, the island provides an ideal condition for front businesses to funnel money oversees to terrorist organizations. Also known as a popular tourist destination, the market for human and child trafficking as well as sex tourism to Margarita Island, has grown. Venezuela is considered by the US State Department to be a Tier 3 country with regards to combating human trafficking, placing the country in the worst possible category of governments who do not comply with the most basic standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. In reference to the enhanced narcotics operations in the Western hemisphere, President Trump was asked during an April 7th 2020 press conference, “Is it beyond narcotics? Are there other illicit activities that US assets are targeting?” The President responded, “Well, there are the activities of human trafficking, and especially with respect to women, and as you know, proportionally it’s mostly women, and it’s a horrible thing. It’s a horrible thing and there’s never been a time like it, and it’s because of the internet, and this is all over the world. But for the most part, they’re coming through, in this country, they’re coming through the Southern border, but we’re hitting them very hard. They have tremendous illegal trafficking in women and children also, but mostly in women. It’s illegal, and it’s horrible, and it’s disgraceful, and I’ve seen things that are an absolute disgrace, and we’re trying to knock them out and we’re knocking them hard.”
Networks of tunnels used to conduct drug trafficking and other operations throughout the region bear a striking resemblance to the known tunnel structures built by Hezbollah and Hamas in the Middle East. According to the former Counter-Narcotics Chief in Venezuela, Johan Obdola, “We have identified since 2014 that the regime, with the support of members from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, built more than 17 kilometers of tunnels located at various points in Caracas. These tunnels serve as safe routes, storage of military-grade weapons, and also have special accommodation capacity for hundreds of armed members of the revolution and terrorist groups.”
Since the announcement of indictments against Maduro and his co-conspirators, the Venezuelan General, Cliver Alcala, turned himself in to US authorities in March of 2020. As the first regime official to be detained, Alcala remains in custody in New York until he awaits trial. Former Venezuelan spy chief, General Hugo Carvajal, was arrested in Spain in April of 2019, on drug trafficking charges by the US and later released. Carvajal has been in hiding since Spain approved his extradition, but has reportedly been in talks with US authorities over a possible surrender. Remaining members of the corrupt Venezuelan regime, who are charged with narco terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering, remain at large. Justice Department officials have issued a $15 million dollar bounty for Maduro, and $10 million dollar bounties for several of his co-conspirators. Maduro has signaled that he will not surrender, stating, “From here they take me dead”.
In communication with former Venezuelan officials on the inside, Johan Obdola explained, “Regarding the recent decision of the United States Department of Justice to order the arrest of the leadership of the Venezuelan regime for their narco-terrorist actions that include offering rewards for the capture of these criminals and terrorists, I am telling you that they are already generating very fast movements by members of the Venezuelan regime, who are desperately looking to communicate with American authorities to negotiate their deliveries.”
The War With COVID-19, Terrorists, and Drug Cartels
In a 2015 written testimony presented to Congress on “Iran and Hezbollah in the Western Hemisphere,” global security expert, Joseph Humire wrote, “U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), the regional combatant command responsible for Latin America and the Caribbean, is already absorbing a 26 percent cut across a range of programs. Because of these asset shortfalls, SOUTHCOM is unable to pursue 74 percent of suspected maritime drug trafficking vessels, according to Commander Gen. John Kelly. Vessels that could very possibly contain more than drugs but WMD effects that aid or abet Iran’s illegal nuclear and ballistic missile program. Moreover, these cuts affect the Defense Department’s ability for military-to-military engagement that is critical to offset Iran’s influence in these particular sectors. Capacity-building activities, multinational exercises, and bilateral defense support in Latin America have 13 of 15 all reduced in the last few years creating a vacuum that Iran and Hezbollah have exploited.”
On April 1st 2020, President Trump announced that US Southern Command will begin to conduct enhanced counter narcotics operations against cartels and malign actors who intend to exploit the Coronavirus event, stating, “As governments and nations focus on the Coronavirus, there’s a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists, and other malign actors will try to exploit this situation for their own gain and we must not let that happen. We will never let that happen. Today the United States is launching enhanced counter narcotics operations in the Western hemisphere to protect the American people from the deadly scourge of illegal narcotics. We must not let the drug cartels exploit the pandemic to threaten American lives. In cooperation with the 22 partner nations, US Southern Command will increase surveillance, disruption, and seizures of drug shipments and provide additional support for eradication efforts which are going on right now at a record pace. We’re deploying additional Navy destroyers, combat ships, aircraft and helicopters, Coast Guard cutters, and Air Force surveillance aircraft, doubling our capabilities in the region.”
Tensions have risen in the months since the US killed Iran’s Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani. Some analysts believe that Iran may exploit the US preoccupation with Coronavirus as an opportunity to attack using their proxies. In fact, on the same day that the Trump administration announced enhanced counter narcotics operations in the Western hemisphere, President Trump also tweeted, “Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!” A reporter asked the President a follow up question regarding the tweet in the April 1st press conference and President Trump responded, “We just have information that they were planning something. And it’s very good information. It was led by Iran — not necessarily Iran, but by groups supported by Iran. But that, to me, is Iran. And we’re just saying, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it.’ It would be a very bad thing for them if they did it.”
President Trump was asked to expand on the enhanced counter narcotics operations amidst the Coronavirus outbreak when a reporter inquired, “Mr. President, could you expand on that a little bit? Because you tie it to COVID-19, saying that these drug cartels were taking advantage of the situation, of this pandemic.” President Trump responded, “That’s right. They were.” In a warning to US adversaries, Ambassador O’Brien stated during the press conference, “This President has a clear-eyed focus on America’s national security interest. And let me be clear, it would be a mistake — a mistake with terrible consequences — for any adversary to attempt to do us harm during this health crisis — or ever, for that matter.” General Milley echoed the sentiments of the panel at the press conference with a stern notice, stating “We’re at war with COVID-19, we’re at war with terrorists, and we are at war with the drug cartels as well. This is the United States military. You will not penetrate this country. You will not get past Jump Street. You’re not going to come in here and kill additional Americans. And we will marshal whatever assets are required to prevent your entry into this country to kill Americans. The bottom line is: You’re not going to get through.”
According to former Venezuelan Counter Narcotics Chief, Johan Obdola, who now heads the Canada-based Global Organization for Intelligence, Iran and Hezbollah operators in Venezuela “have been working to coordinate and execute terrorist actions in several countries in the region, in addition to potential terrorist attacks within the United States of America.”
By cutting off drug trafficking through Venezuela, the United States will aid in the removal of the corrupt and brutally oppressive Maduro regime, prevent hundreds of tons of illegal and potentially contaminated drugs from entering the US, and simultaneously strangle financial and weapons support to Iran and its proxies, thereby thwarting any potential plans to harm the United States and our allies.