CubaBrief: Is cooperation between Havana and Washington resulting in the US turning a blind eye to the Castro regime’s crimes?

MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell gives airtime to Deputy Minister of the Castro regime’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs

On August 10, 2023 Andrea Mitchell reported on MSNBC News about cooperation between Cuba and the United States in combating drug trafficking. This CubaBrief will address what was left out, and provide some context.

“In May more than 750 LBS of Marijuana were seized during a joint maritime anti-drug operation between the U.S. Coastguard and Cuban border patrol. The drug traffickers were captured and their boat was sunk. NBC News also got exclusive access to witness Cuban and US officials overseeing the burning of the drugs in a huge melting pot inside a steel plant. Showcasing that despite a lot of differences between the two countries, Cuba and the United States are cooperating when it comes to stopping the flow of drugs.”

Jon Carter Bass, head of security at the US Embassy in Havana

Two U.S. officials attending the destruction of the drug shipment were Jon Carter Bass, head of security at the US Embassy in Havana and Alejandro Collazo, US Coastguard liaison officer at the US Embassy in Havana. Mr. Carter Bass offered the following reasoning for this joint effort.

“Essentially when it is a shared national security interest and If it’s an area that is under the U.S. national security interest, then of course we want communication and cooperation. We want communication and cooperation in areas that also fit within the U.S. national security interest.”  

This word salad ignores 63 years of Cuban government involvement in drug trafficking to the United States.

Officer Collazo outlined areas where Havana and Washington are collaborating. “We have more than one cooperative agreement with Cuba. We have been working on what we call maritime environmental response. We’ve been working on maritime law enforcement. We have been working on search and rescue. I do believe that these bilateral agreements should be expanded into something that is more regional.”

Setting aside the work on “maritime environmental response”, what are the results of the United States working on “maritime law enforcement” and “search and rescue.” The desire to engage for engagement’s sake has a long and sordid history in and out of Cuba.

Watching these two U.S. officials on the August 10, 2023 MSNBC news report praise cooperating with Havana on drug interdiction is reminiscent of the times when John C. Lawn, DEA administrator on May 27, 1987 praised Manuel Noriega “for his ‘personal commitment’ to a drug investigation known as Operation Pisces.  ”I look forward to our continued efforts together,” Mr. Lawn said in the same letter. ”Drug traffickers around the world are now on notice that the proceeds and profits of their illegal ventures are not welcome in Panama.”

But in the Cuban case it may be even more sinister.

US Coastguard liaison officer Collazo claims they are working with the Cuban military dictatorship on “search and rescue”, but omits Havana’s well documented record of murdering fleeing Cuban refugees, and this includes the October 28, 2022 purposeful ramming and sinking of a boat carrying Cuban refugees by the Cuban border patrol that killed seven, including a two year old girl.

High profile examples of this documented over the past six decades are the “13 de Marzo” tugboat massacre in 1994, the Canímar River massacre in 1980, and the massacre of Barlovento in 1962. Ministry of the Interior vessels of the Cuban dictatorship were (and are) used as weapons against Cubans trying to flee the island, regardless of the presence of children, women, or elderly people.

Survivors and family members were detained, pressured to change their stories, and the Cuban government released its own narrative in conflict with what witnesses and survivors stated, but the Embassy of the United States in Havana tweeted out in Spanish on October 29, 2002 a message that affirmed the official story that the massacre was an “accident.”

“The United States sends our condolences to the families of the Cubans who died today in an accident north of Bahía Honda. As we expand safe and legal pathways for migration, we warn against attempting dangerous and sometimes fatal irregular migration.”

The outrage expressed in the response to this Tweet by many Cubans offers a demonstration of how to curry favor with Cuba’s tyrants while estranging everyday people.

So much for cooperation with “search and rescue” with a regime that murders refugees, and bars the survivors from returning home for having spoken out.

The question of Washington’s cooperation with Havana in “maritime law enforcement” is equally problematic.

The February 1991 Frontline documentary “Cuba and Cocaine” revealed the links of current Cuban dictator Raul Castro to cocaine trafficking into the United States. A full transcript of the program is available online, and above is a video excerpt. A declassified CIA report from 1984 reveals the extensive and direct involvement of the highest levels of the Castro regime in drug trafficking.  Lt. Commander Jeff Karonis of the United States Coast Guard in the documentary described how they would observe an airdrop going on in Cuban waters in the middle of the day. A small twin-engine plane carrying 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of cocaine would fly over Cuba and drop the shipment at a rendezvous point with several boats. A Cuban military vessel would be nearby, right on site to provide them cover.

Things changed in 1999 when Hugo Chavez took power in Venezuela.

Christopher Dickey  World News Editor at The Daily Beast on June 4, 2018 wrote a well researched and documented article “How Cuba Helped Make Venezuela a Mafia State” that outlines the Castro regime’s involvement in linking up Venezuelan officials with drug traffickers and guerrilla groups, but begins with the 1989 Ochoa Trial, an effort by the Cuban autocrats to whitewash their drug trafficking image by executing the high ranking Cuban general Arnaldo Ochoa in a political show trial. This ended one chapter of large-scale drug trafficking for the Castros, but a new chapter would begin with the Chavez regime in Venezuela according to Dickey.

“In the years that followed the Ochoa trial, Cuba offered to cooperate with the United States fighting against drug traffickers. The Clinton administration shelved proposed indictments of the regime, and as relations gradually warmed, the U.S. would begin to liaise with Cuban authorities in the war on drugs. But at the same time the Cuban intelligence services were reaching out in other directions, to networks that would become the world’s biggest suppliers of cocaine: the narco-guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and  Venezuela’s security forces. Cuban counterintelligence is said to have tutored the Venezuelan spies, domestic and foreign, and helped to organize them to root out opposition to the regime of Hugo Chávez. Indeed, the Cubans taught them to do whatever might be necessary to survive.Over time, many of Chavez’s officers would become known as the Cartel de los Soles, the Cartel of the Suns: “cartel” because of their involvement with the drug trade on a scale that nobody in 1989 could have imagined; “the suns” for the insignias on the epaulets of Venezuela’s generals.”

This also concurs with earlier reporting by Jackson Diehl in The Washington Post on the Venezuela, FARC, Cuba trafficking axis in the May 24, 2015 in the article “A drug cartel’s power in Venezuela“:

Ever since Colombian commandos captured the laptop of a leader of the FARC organization eight years ago, it’s been known that Chávez gave the Colombian narcoguerrillas sanctuary and allowed them to traffic cocaine from Venezuela to the United States with the help of the Venezuelan army. But not until a former Chávez bodyguard [ Leamsy Salazar] defected to the United States in January did the scale of what is called the “Cartel of the Suns ” start to become publicly known.


The day after Salazar’s arrival in Washington, Spain’s ABC newspaper published a detailed account of the emerging case against Cabello, and last month, ABC reporter Emili Blasco followed up with a book laying out the allegations of Salazar and other defectors, who say Cuba’s communist regime and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah have been cut in on the trafficking. That was followed by a lengthy report last week in the Wall Street Journal that said Cabello’s cartel had turned Venezuela into “a global hub for cocaine trafficking and money laundering.”

Furthermore there are interviews with individuals that witnessed first hand the links of the highest levels of the Castro regime with drug trafficking. This includes Fidel Castro’s bodyguard who wrote a tell all memoir. Worse yet this was not the first time that the United States shared drug intelligence with a government deeply involved in drug trafficking. Manuel Noriega was a trusted partner for years, but Washington refused to end the relationship despite an abundance of evidence.

John Simpson of BBC Newsnight interviewed Castro’s former bodyguard, Juan Reinaldo Sanchez, where he explained how he became disillusioned with Fidel Castro because of his links to drug traffickers, despite the dictator’s public denunciation of the practice. Sanchez died within a year of publishing his memoir in May 2015 at the age of 66 in Miami. The above interview was broadcast when Fidel Castro died in November 2016.

What has this joint anti-drug operation done in concrete terms for US citizens? In 1999, the year when Washington intensified these efforts 3,186 U.S. citizens died of cocaine overdoses. In 2021, after 22 years of this “cooperation” 23,513 died in 2021.

MSNBC, August 10, 2023

Andrea Mitchell Reports

U.S. and Cuba work together to fight drug trafficking despite frosty relationship

NBC News was given access to witness cooperation between American and Cuban officials collaborating to tackle drug trafficking, despite the differences between the two countries. Deputy Minister of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Carlos Fernández de Cossío Domínguez joins Andrea Mitchell to discuss whether this could portend broader improvements in the U.S.-Cuba relationship. “I don’t believe that there’s truly a willingness to improve the relationship. And that’s the reason why they put excuses on the road, along the way, so that we could not improve the relationship,” says de Cossío. “And they speak of prisoners. They only speak with prisoners in Cuba. They don’t speak of prisoners in the United States, which would be an issue that we could have a reciprocal conversation.”

Translating Cuba, June 3, 2023

Relatives of the Girl Who Died in Bahia Honda Say They Have Been Warned ‘We Can’t Return to Cuba’

Héctor offered details of what happened with the sinking of the boat in Bahía Honda, Artemisa. (Video capture/Univision)

14ymedio, Havana, 31 May 2023 — “We have been warned that we cannot return to Cuba,” says Héctor Manuel Meizoso González,the unlce of Elizabeth, the girl who died last October in the sinking of a boat after being hit by a Border Guard boat in Bahía Honda, Artemisa. He managed to leave Cuba with his sister a month ago and relates his fears to this newspaper.

This Wednesday, from the police unit known as the Cuatro Caminos Technician, in Guanajay, the family that remains in Cuba received a phone call making it clear that they should not return to the Island. Meizoso González, 21, fears that the situation for the relatives who were left behind may worsen after his departure.

Little Elizabeth’s grandmother “could not travel,” emphasizes the young man and confirms that the minor’s mother, Diana Meizoso, arrived in Miami a month ago through humanitarian parole, a path established since January of this year to ensure safe migration between Cuba and the United States.

After arriving in Miami, the minor’s uncle again rejected the version of the Ministry of the Interior, which pointed out the Bahia Honda case as “human trafficking.” At the time, an official note assured that “there were no invasive or aggressive actions” and argued that the crash was inevitable because the boat “had stood in the way” of the Border Guards.

In an interview for the Univision network, the migrant denied the official version. “That’s not what happened; they left out some of the video in Cuba.” He reiterated that on October 28, the Cuban Border Guards rammed the boat on which 28 people were trying to leave the Island, including six of their relatives, causing the death of Elizabeth, Yerandy García Meizoso, Aimara Meizoso, Israel Gómez, Indira Serrano Cala, Nathali Acosta Lemus and Omar Reyes Valdés.

The most recent statement by Diana Meizoso’s brother coincides with the one he gave to 14ymedio in November last year: “That was not an accident, that was murder, because it was done on purpose,” he said then. The intention of the Border Guards was to sink the speedboat.

In the interview broadcast this week through social networks, Meizoso González explained that the boat had left the Griffin behind, but when they “stopped they felt that the boat was moving” and that was when the Border Guards’ boat fell on top of them.

The young man, who is still affected by the disaster, also mentioned that when he went to obtain the official document on the cause of death of his niece, he was denied. “A friend who works there told me that she didn’t die from drowning, she died from the blows that were given.”

Diana Meizoso was arrested last November by State Security and taken to headquarters in Villa Marista, Havana, to change her statement. She refused to do it, said Héctor.

The Cuban interviewed by the Univision network said that there was pressure for several of the survivors to change their statements. “My brother (Héctor Eduardo Meizoso Chiong, who was traveling with his wife, sister and a cousin) was beaten; that’s why they put on his coat. In the video disseminated by the Cuban authorities he said “things were not true, we were not clear about what had happened, we said that it was a murder and it wasn’t like that.”

Meanwhile, Luis Manuel Borges Álvarez, the boatman who also survived the sinking of the boat in Bahía Honda, is in prison, awaiting trial. In a statement edited by the authorities like the ones they usually do to discredit dissidents and which was broadcast on official television, he blamed Héctor Meizoso Fabelo, the uncle of the young people, as the main organizer of the attempt to leave the country.

Translated by Regina Anavy

From the archives

The Daily Beast, June 4, 2018


How Cuba Helped Make Venezuela a Mafia State


The Castros claimed Cuba was never into drug smuggling, then they said it quit. But their own operations were nothing compared to the ones they helped facilitate in Venezuela.

By Christopher Dickey

World News Editor

The medals, the honors, the general’s uniform—all had been stripped away. Arnaldo Ochoa, once considered a great hero of the Cuban Revolution and its military expeditions in Africa, stood before Fidel Castro’s court in 1989 wearing a cheap plaid shirt. He looked like what he had always been, the handsome and charismatic son of Cuban peasants, a man of the people, a leader, and that may have been the real cause of his downfall. But the charges were narcotics trafficking and treason.

Ochoa’s trial was a pivotal moment in the history of Cuba and of what Washington in those days was calling “the war on drugs.” It marked the end of an era in which Fidel Castro’s dictatorship had facilitated the shipment of cocaine to the United States from the infamous cartels of Colombia, including Pablo Escobar’s operation in Medellín. And not the least of the motives attributed to the Cubans was the desire to tear at the fabric of yanqui society. These were the days of the crack cocaine epidemic shattering the peace of cities across the United States. Fueling addiction, desperation and crime while enriching the Revolution must have seemed perfectly legitimate goals to some of the Castros’ cohorts, and their intelligence services did what they thought they had to do for their regime to survive on its own terms.

There in the military tribunal in Cuba all was not as it seemed.

As in any of the show trials the world has read about or witnessed, whether conducted by Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, or the Castro brothers, the defendant made an abject confession to all the charges in the court, and with pitiful vehemence exculpated his superiors: Fidel’s brother Raúl, the chief of the armed forces who had promoted Ochoa so many times, was innocent of any complicity, and so, of course, was Fidel.

The press in the United States and Europe theorized Ochoa might have been tortured or drugged. Even in the military tribunal, not-so-veiled threats were made against his family if he did not cooperate. Perhaps, as one observer put it, he believed there was some remote possibility of a pardon in exchange for his confessions, although that would have been offered only “in the darkness of his cell.”

The idea that the Castro brothers knew nothing about the drug trafficking was perfectly absurd. Cuba was a country where, as the saying goes, “not a leaf moved on a tree” unless the Castros wanted it to.

In fact the officer accused as Ochoa’s key accomplice, Antonio De la Guardia, was in charge of a special department in the Ministry of Interior, which is the center of the Cuban state security operations. His operation was known by the initials MC (for Moneda Convertible, or convertible currency) and its mission as part of the Cuban Foreign Trade Corporation (CIMEX) was to thwart the U.S. trade embargo.

According to an editorial in the official Cuban Communist Party organ Granma at the time of the trial, these modern blockade runners smuggled medicines, medical equipment, computer gear, spare parts—anything that “could be useful to the country.” To do this, MC had connections with citizens and residents in the United States, as well as boats and planes to transport the goods. This was all legitimate in the face of the “criminal blockade” by the U.S., Granma told its readers. And those who carried out these operations were “rigorously” prohibited from any involvement with anyone trafficking narcotics.


No doubt those rules had been fudged. The drug-running took place at a moment when things were looking desperate for the Cuban Revolution. The Soviet Union was on the verge of disintegration, the Berlin Wall was about to fall, and the Kremlin no longer wanted to underwrite its obstreperous little satellite off the coast of Florida. This, while pressure from Washington about Cuba’s involvement in narcotics trafficking had been building for years.

By the early 1980s, indictments were being handed down and defectors were exposing operations one after another. In 1982, a federal grand jury in Miami indicted four Cuban officials. Among the accused, the vice-admiral in charge of the Cuban Navy, and an intelligence officer who had organized the chaotic, vindictive Mariel boatlift in 1980, exporting not only legitimate refugees but dangerous criminals to U.S. shores.

In 1987, the deputy commander of the Cuban air force defected, and focused attention on the activities of CIMEX. Another defector claimed Colombian traffickers had a fleet of 13 ships and 21 aircraft operating in Cuban territory. A third defector, a longtime Cuban intelligence operative, alleged that the “special troops” unit of the Cuban interior ministry coordinated all drug shipments. (De la Guardia had been part of the special troops.) Fidel supposedly stashed 80 percent of the hard currency in the banks of Panama, where Manuel Noriega had taken over as strongman.

In 1988, five members of a Miami-based drug ring were convicted of smuggling $10 million worth of cocaine into the U.S. through Cuba the year before, and one of the conspirators fingered De la Guardia and his operation at the Ministry of Interior’s MC department.

Raúl Castro, for his part, saw the scandal as a way to purge his enemies and potential competitors for the succession, with Ochoa first on the list.

Emilio T. Gonzales, who would serve on George W. Bush’s national security council and in the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in a 1997 paper (PDF) that with the Ochoa trial, “Fidel and Raul Castro hoped to bury long-standing allegations of Cuban drug smuggling along with their potential political rival.”

At two in the morning, July 13, 1989, just a month after the first announcement that Ochoa had been arrested, he and De la Guardia and two of their alleged fellow conspirators were taken into a field next to the Baracoa air base east of Havana and shot.

One chapter in the annals of Cuban involvement with drug runners was coming to an end, but more subtle and complex relationships would would soon begin centered on Colombia and Venezuela—two countries much bigger, more populous, and much richer than Cuba.

The Cartel of the Suns

In the years that followed the Ochoa trial, Cuba offered to cooperate with the United States fighting against drug traffickers. The Clinton administration shelved proposed indictments of the regime, and as relations gradually warmed, the U.S. would begin to liaise with Cuban authorities in the war on drugs. But at the same time the Cuban intelligence services were reaching out in other directions, to networks that would become the world’s biggest suppliers of cocaine: the narco-guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and  Venezuela’s security forces. Cuban counterintelligence is said to have tutored the Venezuelan spies, domestic and foreign, and helped to organize them to root out opposition to the regime of Hugo Chávez. Indeed, the Cubans taught them to do whatever might be necessary to survive.

Over time, many of Chavez’s officers would become known as the Cartel de los Soles, the Cartel of the Suns: “cartel” because of their involvement with the drug trade on a scale that nobody in 1989 could have imagined; “the suns” for the insignias on the epaulets of Venezuela’s generals.

Under Nicolás Maduro, just given a second term last month in a system-rigged re-election,  Venezuela has become a full blown economic, political and criminal disaster, most likely headed for a showdown with its neighbors and with Washington. And the traffickers in the government not only continue to thrive, their corruption has become vital to the cohesion and survival of the regime.

“Their stake is very high,” says Frank O. Mora at the Cuba Research Institute of Florida International University. “They fear they are going to be persecuted if they lose power.”

Last month, the investigative news site InSight Crime published a report that bluntly labeled Venezuela “a mafia state” (PDF). Tons of pure cocaine—yes, tons—are involved in some shipments, and there are often several shipments a month. The “commissions” for facilitating the trade mount into the billions of dollars. And that doesn’t begin to include the Venezuelan kleptocracy’s looting of the state oil company or its cynical manipulation of different currency rates.

In the chapter of the InSight Crime report dealing with the Cartel of the Suns, investigators name 30 people alleged to be involved, mainly because they have been the object of U.S. federal indictments or Treasury Department sanctions, or both. About half the names are from the intelligence services or the police, organizations advised and in some cases virtually run by Cuban counterintelligence operatives.

“Of course,” says Mora, “the Cubans know that there are generals and others involved in the trafficking of drugs. Are they involved? I would guess not. But they turn a blind eye because that in some way keeps the place together.”

Hugo and Fidel

Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez first tried to seize power in Venezuela in a failed coup in 1992. Released from prison in 1994, he was welcomed to Cuba by Fidel Castro himself. Chávez had “no money, no political experience, no organized support, and, it seemed, not much of a future,” Rory Carroll writes in Commandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. But as a former aide to Chávez told Carroll, Fidel “sniffed him right out. He recognized Chávez’s potential straightaway.”

“Castro personally attended to Chávez for the entire visit,” writes Carroll. “The pair bonded over Baskin-Robbins and marathon talks where they compared life arcs: both rural boys, talented pitchers who traded professional baseball dreams for politics and insurrection.”

Chávez built his left-wing populist political movement around the idealized memory of El Libertador, Simón Bolívar, who fought to free Latin America from Spain early in the 19th century. In today’s context, one might even say the thrust of the Chávez campaign and the core ideology of his government was to make Bolívar great again. He promised to end corruption and distribute the country’s vast oil wealth to the poor. And he won. The next time he returned to Cuba, in 1999, was as president-elect of Venezuela. Later, Fidel visited him there. They were, said Chávez, “swimming together toward the same sea of happiness.”

So too, at the time, was the FARC in neighboring Colombia. It had a permanent liaison office in Havana, as did the other major Colombian guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN). And both had major stakes in the cocaine trade. And as the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported in an exhaustive study of 30,000 FARC documents captured by the Colombians in 2008, when Chávez became president there was “a wholesale transformation of Venezuelan security policy, particularly regarding the Colombian–Venezuelan border and Colombian insurgents.”

Cuban Clients

There were differences, to be sure. Populists do not make good communists, and the FARC leaders found Chávez ideologically unreliable: “One day he says he is a Marxist, the next that Christianity is what must guide the construction of socialism, today he said in his [TV] program that Trotskyism must do that, in short he has an enormous muddle in his head that nobody understands.”

In 2002, when Chávez moved to take complete control of the powerful state oil company — this in a country that has the world’s largest proven reserves — he faced a counter-coup and almost lost power. But his nemesis overplayed his hand, people rallied to Chávez’s defense, and he returned to power. Before that, as Carroll notes, the “situation room” beneath Chávez’s office had been manned by Venezuelans who tracked developments throughout the country. After 2002, the Cubans took over in the situation room, the central intelligence node for the Venezuelan president.

A bloody shootout between FARC guerrillas and Venezuelan troops near the frontier led to a break in relations, but the Cubans eventually helped to smooth things over. As the IISS analysis notes, in 2006 Cuban intelligence was reporting to the Venezuelans and the guerrillas as well that the Colombian government, the U.S., and Colombian right-wing paramilitaries were plotting to take over the contested border province of Zulia and secede. That probably was not true, but Chávez, concerned that it might be, moved to shore things up with the FARC.

Meanwhile, as Cuban influence on Chávez’s security establishment increased, so did common crime and narcotics smuggling. A Cuban-style program to arm and train popular militias, known as collectivos, eventually put more guns into the hands of more criminals.

The great leap into narco-trafficking came in 2005, when Chávez ended what cooperation had existed with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, accusing it of spying. He also withdrew from the Joint Interagency Task Force East monitoring flights and ships in the Caribbean and along the northern shore of South America. The activities of the informal Cartel of the Suns picked up dramatically. A few months later a DC-9 based in Florida but flying out of Venezuela landed in Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico, after numerous changes to its flight plan. It had 5.5 tons of cocaine aboard, ostensibly bound for the Sinaloa cartel of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Naming Names

Walid Makled Garcia, a fat-faced Syrian-born thug known as “El Turco” or “El Arabe,” emerged in the middle of the 2000s as a broker between Venezuela’s senior figures and the FARC. The deal he promised was protection for shipments of cocaine, and because he controlled several airports and a major seaport, that was fairly easy for him to do. But as the profile of Makled by Insight Crime points out, he ran afoul of Chávez and his people when his family decided to go into politics. Then he was accused of ordering the murder of a journalist and of a veterinarian whose farm was next to his. And after Venezuela issued a warrant, Makled actually was arrested in Colombia in 2009—at which point, as gangsters used to say, he started to sing.

Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, declared that “even among global narcotics traffickers, Makled Garcia is a king among kingpins.” And for a while, as indictments and Treasury Department sanctions multiplied, it looked as if Makled’s information might help the U.S. roll up the Cartel of the Suns. But no.

The failure to shut down the organization became obvious when 1.3 tons of pure cocaine in unregistered bags showed up on the baggage carousel at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris in 2013. The flight had come direct from Caracas, and the cargo, it would seem, had been mishandled.

Chávez, who died of cancer in 2013 after months of treatment in Cuba, took no substantive action against the accused traffickers in his government, and as the United States tried to put pressure on them with indictments and sanctions, Chavez’s successor, Maduro, promoted them. Néstor Reverol Torres was the head of the national anti-narcotics bureau when Makled said he was on the take. Today Reverol Torres is the interior minister. Tareck Al Aissami was interior minister when Makled leveled his accusations, now he is vice president.

These characters now have such grim reputations that they are among those accused of command responsibility for torture in a brief to be presented to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. That comes on top of a letter sent to the court on May 30 by Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, stating that “there is no recourse for justice in Venezuela,” and noting “evidence that points to the systematic, tactical and strategic used of murder, imprisonment, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as tools to terrorize the Venezuelan people.”

Mr. Big?

The Daily Beast’s correspondent reports from Caracas that the name most Venezuelans are likely to associate with the Cartel de los Soles is Diosdado Cabello, the former head of the national assembly. He remains a familiar face, not least because every day he’s on the air haranguing his enemies and hyping his ideas, an aspiring caudillo in the age of YouTube.

Diosdado wears his hair cropped short, military-style on his square cranium, and sports plain green fatigues. There are no suns on his epaulets—but then again, he doesn’t need them. His close ties to Chávez dated back to before the attempted coup in 1992. He held several ministerial portfolios, and was even president himself for a few hours in the confusion during the 2002 counter-coup. Many thought he would succeed to the presidency for good, but when Chávez departed for Cuba and what turned out to be his last surgical procedure in 2013, he surprised the nation by naming the former bus driver and foreign minister Nicolás Maduro as the president in waiting.

The army didn’t like that. Many of the generals—the suns—refused to salute a civilian commander. But Cabello realized he might be better off behind the throne than on it. He calmed things down so he could dedicate himself to his business, allegedly including the drug business, without having to worry about ruling a country.

What Cabello hadn’t counted on was the defection to the United States of a man who knew many, if not all, of his secrets.

Leamsy Salazar had been one of the bodyguards closest Hugo Chávez in a security detail that the Cubans would have trained, and after the commandante’s death he served on Diosdado Cabello’s security staff. According to statements Salazar provided to the U.S. government in exchange for access to the witness protection program, Cabello is the head of the Cartel de los Soles.

Salazar went over to the DEA in January 2015. In November that same year two nephews of Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores were picked up in Haiti with a large shipment of cocaine. At their trial, the prosecutor presented a recording where one of the nephews refers to Cabello as “the most powerful man in Venezuela” and “a guarantee for the business.”

Cabello claimed earlier this year on his TV show that he would “leave Venezuela if a single [corrupt] dollar is found under his name.” Those dollars may be harder to find since last month, when the U.S. Treasury placed sanctions on Cabello, his wife, his brother and his “front man.”

“The Venezuelan people suffer under corrupt politicians who tighten their grip on power while lining their own pockets,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement that minced no words. “We are imposing costs on figures like Diosdado Cabello who exploit their official positions to engage in narcotics trafficking, money laundering, embezzlement of state funds, and other corrupt activities. This Administration is committed to holding those accountable who violate the trust of the Venezuelan people, and we will continue to block attempts to abuse the U.S. financial system.”

Smooth Operator

If Diosdado Cabello is the boss of the cartel, Vice President Tareck El Aissami is the businessman, and the one in charge of public relations. He’s handsome, well-tailored, slickly coiffed and only 43 years old. His Syrian-Lebanese family background allegedly has allowed him to link up easily with organizations in the Middle East such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and the close relations of the Venezuelan government with countries like Iran and Cuba supposedly made it easy for the young revolutionary to build a sophisticated network for illegal activities. But allegations that he or anyone else in the regime might collaborate with Al Qaeda or ISIS for an attack on the United States are a stretch, and the U.S. government—which clearly wants this regime to be over—has not reached that far.

The accusations about El Aissami’s ties to the Cartel of the Suns are pointed enough. Days after he was named vice president in early 2017, the Treasury Department slapped him with sanctions for his activities in his previous positions as interior minister and governor of Aragua state.

El Aissami “oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including those with the final destinations of Mexico and the United States,” said the Treasury Department statement. “He also facilitated, coordinated, and protected other narcotics traffickers operating in Venezuela.  Specifically, El Aissami received payment for the facilitation of drug shipments belonging to Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled Garcia. El Aissami also is linked to coordinating drug shipments to Los Zetas, a violent Mexican drug cartel, as well as providing protection to Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera and Venezuelan drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco.”

Our correspondent in Caracas, who thought it wise not to be named, says “there is still a lot to discover regarding the Cartel of the Suns. Their complex structure and huge logistic capacity makes it very difficult for the international authorities to track them and to punish them. Their close relation to the Venezuelan government makes it impossible to conduct any serious investigation against them in Venezuelan territory, and linking them to any illegal activity might be severely punished.”

“Because it is made up of the main figures of the so-called Socialist Revolution of the 21st century,” said the correspondent, “the Suns’ Cartel operates with complete freedom in Venezuela without paying attention to the severe economic and humanitarian crisis this country goes through. This is why they are so fervent about defending the revolution no matter the cost. For them, staying in power has become a matter of life and death.”

Despite a fragile peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the FARC at the end of 2016, cocaine production not only continued in 2017, it increased dramatically. The guerrillas formed a political party, but in April this year one of their congressmen, Jésus Santrich a.k.a. Seuxis Paucis Hernandez-Solarte, was arrested trying to set up a shipment of five metric tons of coke to the United States. In Colombia’s presidential elections, right-wing law-and-order candidate strongly critical of the FARC deal looks set to win a run-off later this month, but in practical terms, that may do little more than push Colombian narcotics producers closer to the Cartel of the Suns for protection and transport.

And the widespread impoverishment of the Venezuelan people continues.

For them, daily life has become a trial that seems never to end.

The Washington Post, December 6, 1991


In the a Nov. 27 news story, Michael Isikoff reported on the Noriega trial and convicted Colombian drug smuggler Carlos Lehder’s story about meeting with and bribing Cuban Defense Minister Raul Castro {“Noriega Trial Witness Says Cartel Met With Raul Castro; Plane Donated as Part of Deal for Cuban Drug Route“}. The writer also quoted a senior Drug Enforcement Agency official as saying that he was unaware of any probe that targeted Raul Castro and that more is needed to indict a high-level foreign official than the testimony of one person.

Well, there is more than one person — for example, Jan Sejna. The former high-level Czech official has described in detail his meetings with Raul Castro, usually four times a year from 1961 until 1968, when Mr. Sejna defected to the United States. Drug trafficking was always a major item on the agenda. Cuba and Czechoslovakia worked together to establish drug-trafficking networks throughout Latin America and to infiltrate those already in existence. The United States was the main target. Jan Sejna was the secretary of the Czech Defense Council and assisted in the planning of this activity and monitored its implementation. Much of his story is presented in my book “Red Cocaine.”

The book describes in detail the activities of East European and Soviet intelligence services (both KGB and GRU, but mainly the GRU) in international drug trafficking. The operation began in 1960, and by 1965 the KGB and the GRU had established multiple operations in almost every Latin American country.

I debriefed Mr. Sejna over a three-year period. When I recognized the potential importance of his testimony, I contacted every U.S. government agency that I thought might be interested in the data: Customs, DEA, Justice Department, Office of National Drug Control Policy, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Council, Department of Defense, Federal Bureau of Investigations and Defense Intelligence Agency. Customs sent two investigators out to talk to Jan Sejna and me. After two hours’ discussion, they said there was nothing they could do, that this was a political matter.

No one in the “War on Drugs” seems interested in learning about any communist role in drug trafficking. The senior DEA official’s response that The Post quoted is just another example.