Thanks to oil, Venezuela was once the wealthiest country in the region — before becoming the continent’s poorest, ravaged by corruption and feckless economic policy. And amid the economic decline, high-ranking government officials became conspicuously wealthy. But how?
According to U.S. indictments, former government officials, and regional experts, officials linked to the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah and members of Maduro’s government built a massive drug syndicate — while most of the country increasingly struggled to find food to eat, or medicine to care for the sick.
“Venezuela was a narco state several years ago, but it has become darker and more ominous,” Mike Vigil, former DEA Chief of International Operations, told Yahoo Finance (video above). “I consider it to be a mafia state. Because it's not only drug trafficking — it's financial crimes, it's money laundering, it's piracy, and all kinds of trafficking. So it has become worse than a narco state.”
Sharing a porous border with Colombia, where more than 90% of cocaine going to the U.S. originates, Venezuela has served as the start of a drug highway straight to drug consumers around the world.
“Venezuela has become probably the cocaine capital of the world,” Center for a Secure Free Society Executive Director Joseph Humire, who has testified to Congress several times related to crime in Latin America, told Yahoo Finance. “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.”
Operations for the massive undertaking are facilitated by corrupt members of Venezuela’s government and the heavy involvement of the transnational aspects of Hezbollah, according to experts.
Cartel of the Suns
Since the mid-90s, the Cartel of the Suns has been operating a drug trade inside Venezuela. Despite its name, the ‘Cartel de los Soles’ is no cartel in the traditional sense. Vigil describes the organization as a “loose federation of government officials and military officers in Venezuela.”
According to Vigil, they evolved into a criminal organization that moves “tons of cocaine” to Europe and the United States through the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico.
At first, Vigil explained, the Cartel of the Suns were content with just taking bribes from Colombian drug trafficking organizations and “subversive organizations” like the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC).”
“But then these cartels and these drug trafficking networks wanted more from the Venezuelan authorities,” Vigil explained. “Instead of just taking a blind eye to all their activities, they started to get more involved and facilitate the movement of cocaine.”
And some of those drug traffickers aren’t based in South America, but rather, the Middle East. Venezuela also serves as an “air bridge” for Iran in Latin America.
Bonded over a mutual dislike and mistrust of America, Venezuela and the Islamic Republic of Iran forged a strategic partnership. Working with Iran and the Iran-backed group Hezbollah, Venezuela used commercial flights on Conviasa Airlines to carry drugs, cash, and people from Iran. The flight became known as “Aeroterror”.
“Despite the fact that they were advertised, supposedly advertised commercially, you really couldn't buy a ticket on these flights if you logged on the Internet with your credit card,” explained Emmanuele Ottolenghi, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Humire says the flight has no tourist attraction or commercial viability — and instead lost nearly $30 million dollars in three years. And unlike Conviasa Airlines, the flight was subsidized by Ministry of Mining instead of the Ministry of Transportation.
“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,” Humire explained. “Including their ballistic missile program and potentially their nuclear program as well.”
By using their drug syndicate, Venezuela was able to “operationalize drug trafficking as an intelligence network,” Humire said, adding that Iran understood that as well. “And they teamed up to use drug trafficking as a way to infiltrate societies.”
As the Venezuela’s drug operation grew, so did their intelligence capabilities, increasing the repression of the Maduro regime. Middle Eastern operatives were given licenses, records, and even birth certificates from Venezuela. This would allow them to travel freely around Europe and South America.
Though Aeroterror seems to have ended years ago, the connections never went away. And now, Venezuela has pulled more pages from an old playbook to jumpstart the flights: Ottolenghi noted a plane from the Iranian private airline Mahan air, recently landed in Caracas.
“There is little commercial value to this route,” he explained. “But clearly this direct flight will facilitate certain illicit activities that the two regimes are conducting together.”
Watch above to learn the rest of the story.
Yahoo Finance producer Ignazio Monda contributed to this post.