Cartel de Soles
Center for Free Cuba Cartel de Soles
By Samantha Wutz

Research paper completed during internship with the Center for a Free Cuba on July 20, 2021 

Introduction

The drug trafficking organization Cartel de Soles or Cartel of the Suns is comprised of a network of cells spread throughout the various branches of the Venezuelan military and government.[i] This group is involved in drug and gasoline smuggling, illegal mining, and other illegal activities.[ii] The Cartel de Soles started off within the military, specifically in the National Guard. Since then, other branches of the military have been connected to the cartel including the army, navy, and air force.[iii] The Cartel has connections to various Colombian guerrilla groups who mainly supply and traffic the cocaine. Cuban involvement with Venezuela’s security forces and government influenced the Cartel’s expansion. The group allegedly has members high up in the government making it difficult to investigate the cartel on Venezuelan soil.[iv]

History

 The first mention of the Cartel de Soles came in 1993 when the US investigated two National Guard generals for crimes linked to drug trafficking.[v] These generals included Anti-Drug Chief Ramon Guillen Davila and Orlando Hernandez Villegas, Davila’s successor.[vi] The name Cartel de Soles came from the insignias worn on the shoulder of their uniforms. The insignia of double suns signified their rank in the National Guard.[vii] Following this investigation in the early 1990’s, various accusations against National Guard troops arose claiming these troops helped drug traffickers by accepting payments to look the other way.[viii] In these instances, Colombian narocs groups would run their drug trade through Venezuela.[ix] Military members from Venezuela involved in the Cartel would receive payments to look the other way while drugs were being trafficked.[x] The military’s involvement gradually progressed from just looking the other way to actively protecting and moving drug shipments.[xi] By the mid-2000’s members of the National Guard became much more involved in the drug trade.

 Involvement with the Cartel spread throughout the entire military with troops in all sectors of the military working for the Cartel.[xii] Those military members involved in the Cartel allow for the safe passage of cocaine shipments through approving arrivals and departures of aircrafts transporting drug shipments and by managing aerial radar.[xiii] Members of the Venezuelan military also allow these shipments to leave through both seaports and airports.[xiv] Various groups within the military also began to purchase, store, move and sell cocaine.[xv] One theory as to why this progression happened according to Insight Crime was that drug traffickers started paying the military with drugs, forcing them to develop their own markets.[xvi]

According to Insight Crime, three major events resulted in the rise of organized crime in Venezuela.[xvii] The first was the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia security program Colombia signed with the US.[xviii] This plan allowed Colombian security forces to put pressure on guerilla groups within the country. These groups included the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN).[xix] The second was when the peace between the FARC and the Colombian government under President Andres Pastrana ended in 2002. Due to these two events, these guerilla groups lost their haven in Colombia and then targeted Venezuela’s border to continue their drug trade.[xx] The third event was the attempted coup of President Hugo Chávez.

The former President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, played a major role in the expansion of the Cartel within the government. In 1992, then Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez attempted to take power through a coup which failed and ended in his arrest.[xxi] Once released from prison, Chávez went to Cuba where he developed a close relationship with Fidel Castro.[xxii] After returning to Venezuela, Chávez created a political movement inspired by Simón Bolívar’s memory.[xxiii] He won the election in 1999 and his close ties with Cuba allegedly allowed their influence on Venezuelan security forces to increase.[xxiv][xxv] Cuba helped develop the Venezuelan military under Chávez and abused this relationship by dominating domestic surveillance in Venezuela to watch for unrest within the country.[xxvi] Cuba allegedly had around 20,000 military members within Cuba.[xxvii][xxviii] Cuba created a program which armed and trained militias called collectivos in Venezuela modeled after their own forces.[xxix] This enviably led to more guns being in the hands of criminals.[xxx] Cuban counterintelligence is also said to have trained Venezuelan spies to help root out any opposition of Chávez’s regime.[xxxi] This came about after the attempted coup of President Chávez. During the coup, Chávez was temporarily removed from power but when he returned, he focused on identifying and punishing coup supporters.[xxxii] Chávez gave many government positions to army loyalist following the coup as he tightened his circle of supporters.[xxxiii] With the army being so closely tied to the cartel, this allowed army members from the cartel to be put in positions of power.

Cuba played a big role in establishing drug trafficking within Venezuela though their connection with Colombian guerilla forces.[xxxiv] The FARC is said to be the organization that many in the Venezuelan military receive their drugs from.[xxxv] The relationship between the FARC and Venezuela under Chávez was strained at times due to members of the FARC seeing Chávez as ideologically unreliable and a shootout between the FARC and Venezuelan troops.[xxxvi] Cuba had close relations with both Chávez and Colombian guerilla groups like the FARC who had liaison offices in Havana.[xxxvii] Due to this, Cuba assisted in mending the issues between the two groups.[xxxviii] Cuba’s actions within Venezuela have further destabilized the country and worsened the humanitarian crisis.[xxxix] The relationship now between the Cartel de Soles and the FARC is mutually beneficial. The cartel within the military allows cocaine produced by the FARC to be moved through Venezuela for bribes and other services. The FARC, in return, are offered a safe haven in Venezuela and routes to trafficking their cocaine thorough the country.[xl]

Over the early 2000’s the cartel continued to become more active and more publicly known. A journalist named Mauro Marcano again used the term Cartel de Soles when he accused Alexis Maneiro, the Intelligence Director in the National Guard, of being involved with drug traffickers along with other members of the National Guard in 2004.[xli] He also alluded to more systematic corruption within the National Guard. Despite these claims, the government didn’t do an in-depth investigation.[xlii] Between 2004 and 2007, drug trafficking in Venezuela became more evident. The amount of cocaine being trafficked through the country increased from 50 metric tons to 250 metric tons, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the US Government Accountability Office report.[xliii] During this time, the Venezuelan military’s involvement with the Cartel de Soles became more public with various National Guard members being arrested for cocaine trafficking and other illegal activities.[xliv]

 When Chávez accused the US DEA of espionage, organized crime within Venezuela was strengthened.[xlv] During this time, the US DEA was involved with the fight against drugs, especially in this region, which Chávez claimed the US was using to spy on Venezuela’s government.[xlvi] After the accusation, US backed counter-narcotics projects halted and all flyovers of Venezuela for drug monitoring were suspended. Venezuela essentially became a black hole for the US regarding collecting intelligence on the drug trade.[xlvii]

Geography

 The Venezuelan-Colombian border is the main geographic area where the Venezuelan military facilitates drug trafficking.[xlviii] This is especially true in the border cities of Apure, Zulia, and Táchira where cocaine shipment is purchased and traded for weapons.[xlix] The most popular trafficking routes are air routes to the Dominican Republic and Honduras. However, there are various other routes leading as far as West Africa and Europe.[l]

Leadership

According to Insight Crime, there is a list of 123 senior officials that they have created with connection to the cocaine trafficking operation in Venezuela.[li] Government sources began to suspect various high-level government officials of being involved with the cartel around 2008.[lii] The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) began sanctioning various members of the government and army for allegedly serving as contacts for the FARC including Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, Director of Military Intelligence, Henry de Jesús Rangel Silva, Chávez’s General in Chief and Defense Minister in 2012, and Ramón Emilio Rodríguez Chacín, former Minister of Interior and Justice. OFAC also sanctioned Cliver Antonio Alcalá Cordones, Freddy Alirio Bernal Rosales, Congressman and former Caracas Mayor, Ramón Isido Madriz Moreno, Intelligence Officer, and politician Amilcar Jesús Figueroa Salazar for providing the FARC with weapons and security.[liii]

There are also ties between the Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s family and the Cartel de Soles. The children of Cilia Adela Flores de Maduro, the first lady of Venezuela, are thought to be involved in a corruption scheme with connections to the cartel.[liv] The scheme is allegedly run by one of President Maduro’s trusted money men and businessman from Colombia, Álex Saab. The first lady is also connected to a pilot facing drug charges, Captain Yazenky Antonio Lamas Rondón.

Another influential player within the cartel is Tareck Ek Aissami. He was Venezuela’s Minister of Industries sand National Production but is now Vice President under Maduro. In 2017, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Aissami for “playing a significant role in international narcotics trafficking”.[lv] Aissami oversaw narcotics shipments from Venezuela and protected other narcotics traffickers in Venezuela.[lvi] Aissami is linked to Walid Makled Garcia, a broker between Venezuelan officials and the FARC in the mid-2000’s.[lvii] He controlled many airports and seaports where he could safely ship cocaine.[lviii] After Garcia’s relationship with Chávez went bad due to his family getting into politics, he gave up information on the Cartel de Soles when he was arrested.[lix] This information was thought to be enough to finally shut the cartel down, but cocaine continued to be trafficked through Venezuela proving the cartel was still running.[lx]

 Diosdado Cabello, the former Head of the National Assembly, is the one most associated with the cartel.[lxi] Cabello and Chavez had a close relationship in the early 1990’s.[lxii] After Chavez’s death, many people believed that Cabello was going to replace Chavez as President.[lxiii] After Maduro was appointed instead, many in the military did not agree with the appointment.[lxiv] Cabello, however, preferred to remain lower in power because conducting business with the cartel was easier.[lxv] Leamsy Salazar, former bodyguard to Chavez, served on Cabello’s security team following Chavez’s death.[lxvi] In 2015, Salazar defected to the United States and in exchange for access to the witness protection program, he gave information indicating that Cabello is the head of the Cartel de Soles.[lxvii]

Current Events

After Chavez’s death, President Maduro continued to facilitate the Cartel de Soles and furthered their involvement in the government. In March of 2020 the US Justice Department indicted President Maduro along with other officials in the Venezuelan government.[lxviii] The charges consisted of narco-terrorism, drug trafficking and corruption for their actions in connection with the Cartel de Soles and with the FARC.[lxix]

[i] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[ii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[iii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[iv] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[v] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[vi] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[vii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[viii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[ix] https://insightcrime.org/investigations/drug-trafficking-venezuelan-regime-cartel-of-the-sun/

[x] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xi] https://insightcrime.org/investigations/drug-trafficking-venezuelan-regime-cartel-of-the-sun/

[xii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xiii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xiv] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xv] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xvi] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xvii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xviii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xix] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xx] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xxi] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[xxii] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[xxiii] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[xxiv] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[xxv] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/26/world/americas/venezuela-cuba-oil.html

[xxvi] http://www.fhrcuba.org/2019/07/a-look-at-the-cuban-governments-role-in-venezuelas-downfall/

[xxvii] http://www.fhrcuba.org/2019/07/a-look-at-the-cuban-governments-role-in-venezuelas-downfall/

[xxviii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/as-venezuelas-misery-grows-us-focus-shifts-to-cubas-role/2019/03/26/05fedfa0-4b2c-11e9-b79a-961983b7e0cd_story.html

[xxix] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[xxx] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[xxxi] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[xxxii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xxxiii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xxxiv] http://www.fhrcuba.org/2019/07/a-look-at-the-cuban-governments-role-in-venezuelas-downfall/

[xxxv] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xxxvi] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[xxxvii] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[xxxviii] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[xxxix] http://www.fhrcuba.org/2019/07/a-look-at-the-cuban-governments-role-in-venezuelas-downfall/

[xl] https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/The-Maduro-Regime-Illicit-Activities-A-Threat-to-Democracy-in-Venezuela-and-Security-in-Latin-America-Final.pdf

[xli] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xlii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xliii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xliv] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xlv] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xlvi] https://insightcrime.org/investigations/drug-trafficking-venezuelan-regime-cartel-of-the-sun/

[xlvii] https://insightcrime.org/investigations/drug-trafficking-venezuelan-regime-cartel-of-the-sun/

[xlviii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[xlix] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[l] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[li] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[lii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[liii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[liv] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[lv] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[lvi] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[lvii] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[lviii] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[lix] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[lx] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[lxi] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[lxii] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[lxiii] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[lxiv] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[lxv] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[lxvi] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[lxvii] https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-cuba-helped-make-venezuela-a-mafia-state

[lxviii] https://insightcrime.org/venezuela-organized-crime-news/cartel-de-los-soles-profile/

[lxix] https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/nicol-s-maduro-moros-and-14-current-and-former-venezuelan-officials-charged-narco-terrorism