The two men in blue jeans and T-shirts were strangers but entered the governor’s gym in the Venezuelan city of Maturín looking as if they owned the place. They asked the front-desk attendant if the governor was in. He was.
A guard, spotting their weapons, grabbed his two-way radio and blurted: “Armed men just walked in.”
They were his last words before a burst of 9mm gunfire tore into him and sent gym goers, including Gov. José Gregorio “El Gato” (The Cat) Briceño, diving to the floor.
Not 10 minutes later, Briceño, shaken, breathless but alive, received a call from President Hugo Chávez.
“Gato, what happened?” Chávez asked,
“I have no doubt that it was ordered by Diosdado,” Briceño said.
That would be Diosdado Cabello, the close Chávez aide who was fast becoming one of the richest and most powerful men in Venezuela. The same Diosdado Cabello who, according to Drug Enforcement Administration records, interviews with exiled colleagues, and a U.S. indictment, today juggles jobs as a captain in the military and member of the national assembly while simultaneously running the Cartel or the Suns, the connective tissue between Colombian drug producers and the Venezuelan regime.
Cabello, who graduated second in his class at the military academy, has allegedly consolidated power through connections with current President Nicolás Maduro and his late predecessor, Chávez. He enforces his will by maintaining a firm grip on the nation’s security forces. Aided by partners, most of them fellow military officers, he also runs a network of companies that monopolize government contracts, usually submitting grossly overinflated invoices.
Although garden-variety corruption is a major source of his wealth, drug trafficking has gained greater importance following the decline of the country’s oil income, the U.S. alleges.
Finally, his control over the nation’s main ports allows Cabello’s drug operations to flourish, sources claim. Ill-gotten gains must be laundered. Here he holds another trump card: his brother, who runs the Venezuelan equivalent of the IRS.
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