The U.S. government has a long history of manipulating drug trafficking charges to advance geopolitical agenda. From 1975 to the late 1980s, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was on the CIA payroll. U.S. intelligence knew that Noriega permitted the Colombian cartels to ship cocaine through his country in return for huge cash payments. His drug activities were tolerated because he helped the CIA monitor leftist movements and other drug traffickers.
Then Noriega crossed the first Bush administration, and the U.S. invaded Panama. The justification: Noriega was a drug trafficker. The fact that the CIA had long known about and tolerated Noriega’s drug trafficking because he supported U.S. policy is beyond dispute.
The CIA’s collaboration with drug traffickers in the 1980s is a matter of public record, acknowledged by CIA Inspector General himself.
The charges filed last week against Venezuelan president Nicholas Maduro are another instance of drug war theater.
First, the charges need to be put in context. In the big picture of the illicit narcotics business, Venezuela is a small player. Ten times as much cocaine passes through Mexico as through Venezuela. Seven times as much passes through Guatemala. Colombia, Venezuela’s neighbor and a U.S. ally, produces and ships more cocaine than Venezuela. In short, Venezuela is one of the less important targets of U.S. counternarcotics policy.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo singles out Venezuela because Washington policymakers (and some Democrats) want to impose “regime change” on Venezuela. Drug trafficking charges make it harder for anyone Congress or the press to object to this policy. These charges will not deter drug trafficking in Venezuela. They will deter debate on Venezuela in Washington.
In the case of Maduro, however, the charges are more legend than fact, as the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reports.
Perhaps the most sensational aspect of the indictments is that one of them names Nicolás Maduro as the leader of a drug trafficking organization called the “Cartel of the Suns.” Journalists specializing in organized crime have for years called into question the existence of such an organization. In 2015, when it was Diosdado Cabello who was said to be the head of this cartel, Javier Mayorca, who has carefully researched the issue, said, “I doubt the existence of a Cartel of the Suns.” The term, he suggested has become “a sort of urban legend developing in Venezuela, which, over time, has been used to describe varying actors.”
As Insight Crime has suggested, “The drug trafficking structures in the Venezuelan state are not a cartel, they are a series of often competing networks buried deep within the Chavista regime, with ties going back almost two decades.“
While there is little doubt drug trafficking runs through the Maduro regime, the metaphor “Cartel of the Suns” overestimates its coherence and its articulation with Maduro himself. It is a dubious strategy that effectively provides a unitary name to a complex set of phenomena and helps portray it as a serious threat to U.S. security.
And then there’s this fact.
Venezuela remains a relatively minor player in the transnational drug trade. As WOLA has noted in a recent report, Venezuela is not a major transit country for drugs bound for the United States.
According to the U.S. interagency Consolidated Counterdrug Database (CCDB), 210 metric tons of cocaine passed through Venezuela in 2018. By comparison, in the same year about 10 times as much cocaine (2,370 metric tons) passed through Colombia, and seven times as much cocaine (1,400 metric tons) passed through Guatemala. Even when CCDB data shows drug trafficking through Venezuela peaked in 2017, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported that no more than seven percent of total cocaine movement passed through the Eastern Caribbean, which includes Venezuela.
WOLA is left-liberal think tank in Washington with a track record of reliable reporting. While the Trump administration (and some sectors of the Democratic party) support “regime change” in Venezuela, WOLA is working for a negotiated settlement.