Venezuela: The Mafia State Next Door

Venezuela: The Mafia State Next Door
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Venezuela: The Mafia State Next Door
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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Venezuela: The Mafia State Next Door

The ongoing man-made disaster in Venezuela was already bad enough, with millions of people fleeing deprivation and repression. Now a former senior U.S. State Department official says the country has morphed into a full-blown “mafia state” that threatens U.S. borders and regional stability. With Washington D.C. being closer to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, than it is to Los Angeles, it is time U.S. policymakers begin to craft a broader strategy to neutralize that threat.

Ambassador William Brownfield, who headed the bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (“Drugs and Thugs”) under both the Obama and Trump administrations, recently told a Washington audience that Venezuela today is “worse than a narco-state; it is a mafia state that goes beyond just drug trafficking.”

“It is hub for financial crimes, money laundering, any sort of smuggling and trafficking in which a criminal organization can make money,” he said. “All institutions and programs [of the government] have been completely co-opted by criminal players.” And all this is aided and abetted by China, Russia, and Cuba.

To emphasize, this is not a case of corrupt government officials being paid off to enable or ignore transnational organized crime within and through its territory.  This is a situation where the entire government has converted itself into a transnational criminal enterprise.

Venezuela’s ties to international crime are nothing new. They became evident during the tenure of the late socialist firebrand Hugo Chávez and have only grown under his successor, Nicolás Maduro. As early as 2008, intelligence seized by Colombia after it bombed a jungle camp of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) revealed close ties to the Venezuelan government. A U.S. response took shape during the Obama administration and has increased in volume under President Trump. The United States has sanctioned progressively more individuals in the Venezuelan government -- more than 70 to date  -- tied to drug trafficking, human rights abuses, and the undermining of democratic institutions.

Some of the more nefarious characters sanctioned include Diosdado Cabello, the powerful former head of the National Assembly and current vice president of  Maduro’s ruling party, of whom a U.S. Justice Department official told the Wall Street Journal: “There is extensive evidence to justify that he is one of the heads, if not the head, of the cartel” known as the Cartel of the Suns, after the insignia on Venezuelan military uniforms.

Another is Vice President Tareck El Aissami, aparticularly sinister figure with ties to radical Middle Eastern groups including Hezbollah. El Aissami is accused of facilitating drug shipments from Venezuela to Mexico and the United States.

These are but two entries in a rogues’ gallery of criminals operating at the top of Venezuela’s government. The list also reveals the limitations of individual sanctions as a deterrent to Venezuela’s expanding criminality. Under Maduro, and despite the plethora of targeted U.S. sanctions, Venezuela’s role continues to metastasize from one of cooperation with transnational criminal organizations to one of expansion and control.

And that has dire repercussions not only for U.S. security, but for the security of our allies in the region. Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia has staked its future on a peace agreement with FARC, a militant group with narco-terrorist inclinations. But even as FARC has pocketed amnesty concessions from the agreement, its drug-trafficking territories have been occupied by other criminal groups aligned with Venezuela, which is the worst of all outcomes for our stalwart ally.

In Mexico and Central America, the Trump administration has made it a priority to help governments stem the outflow of migrants that are arriving at the U.S. border.  Yet a huge driver of the migration is personal insecurity, and that insecurity is a direct result of drug trafficking and of other criminal activity with links to Venezuela.

The Trump administration has already demonstrated the political will to directly confront the criminal authoritarian regime in Venezuela. But the time has come to drop the hammer on its criminality. The surgical approach has its utility, but it clearly has not been effective in halting a criminal Venezuelan regime.

For starters, the Trump administration needs to take the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) out of the game. While the company is a shell of its former self, with oil production crippled by gross mismanagement, the Maduro regime is nevertheless using it to launder billions in illicit profits through the international financial system. This needs to end. The Treasury Department should designate PDVSA as a money-laundering enterprise, thereby crippling its ability to do business with international banks and drying up the critical hard currency the Maduro regime needs to sustain itself.

At the same time, the U.S. Justice Department should accelerate the unsealing of any indictments of senior Venezuelan officials for international criminality in order to severely constrict their ability to travel abroad and conduct business.

The Maduro regime believes its strategy of deliberately stocking its upper echelons with those involved in criminal activity will ensure unity in his embattled government; that they will all succeed or fall together. It is time to drive up the cost of unity within that den of thieves.

 — José Cárdenas served in senior foreign-policy positions at the State Department, the National Security Council, and the U.S. Agency for International Development during the George W. Bush administration, focusing on Latin America and the Caribbean.

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