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Maduro played a hands-on role in Venezuela's drug cartel, unsealed indictment says

Antonio Maria Delgado, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

He might not have been among the first officials asked to participate when late President Hugo Chavez decided to get into the drug business, but current ruler Nicolas Maduro ended up playing a leading role and exerting great influence in the so called Cartel de Los Soles as his power inside Venezuela grew, according to newly unsealed federal indictment.

A previously sealed indictment introduced in a federal court in New York against leaders of the Venezuelan drug cartel alleges that Maduro’s involvement in the drug trade was more extensive than previously thought, and he eventually became one of the top bosses of the organization.

Maduro ”helped manage and, ultimately, lead the Cártel de Los Soles as he gained power in Venezuela,” the indictment reads.

While officially charged in the U.S. in 2020 as being one of the Venezuelan officials responsible for turning the country into a drug-trafficking state, the prevalent view has been that Maduro played a minor role in the cartel, with the leadership of the organization frequently being attributed to former National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and his now disgraced rival, former vice president Tareck El Aissami.

Maduro’s name does not often appear in court documents describing the initial meetings held by Chávez with his top lieutenants as he moved to set up a partnership with the guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, to ship cocaine to the United States. Often presenthe U.S. indictment says, based on testimony from informants.

But Maduro’s influence in the cartel grew following Chavez’s death as he assumed the Venezuelan presidency and as the interest of the drug trafficking operations began to intertwine with the matters of state, court documents show.

The FARC, which eventually entered into a peace process with the Colombian government, was for many years considered one of the largest producers of cocaine in the world. The U.S. State Department placed the annual volume of the drug transiting through Venezuela at more than 250 tons. Experts currently believe the current volume going out of Venezuela doubles that amount.

The Venezuelan regime has two key reasons for entering the drug trade the indictment says.

“The Cártel de Los Soles sought not only to enrich its members and enhance their power, but also to ‘flood’ the United States with cocaine and inflict the drug’s harmful and addictive effects on users in this country,” the document says.

The previously sealed indictment says Maduro participated in negotiations to secure multi-ton shipments of cocaine from the FARC in exchange for the delivery of money and weapons to the guerrilla group.

U.S. officials also accuse him of coordinating with the authorities of Honduras and other Central American countries for the uninterrupted passage of drug shipments heading towards the United States.

Those efforts helped to set up an “air bridge” of drugs in the region. The State Department reported that 75 flights of small planes suspected to carrying drug loads were detected over Honduran airspace in 2010 alone. But flights are just one of several methods used by the cartel; a large portion of the drugs are shipped by speedboats on established routes through the Caribbean.


“The maritime shipments were shipped north from Venezuela’s coastline using go-fast vessels, fishing boats, and container ships. Air shipments were often dispatched from clandestine airstrips, typically made of dirt or grass, concentrated in the Apure state” in southwestern Venezuela, the document says.

The indictment claims that Maduro was asked by Chavez in 2005 to help the cartel identify judges unwilling to provide protection to the FARC and their drug trafficking activities so they could be fired.

The indictment also says that around that time, Maduro obtained $5 million from the drug trade and got involved in a money laundering operation involving the palm oil business.

Eventually, the cartel used the state-run Petroleos de Venezuela to launder funds from its drug trafficking operation.

As the partnership with the FARC grew, Maduro found himself getting more involved in the operation, participating in meetings with the rebel group to get more drugs in exchange for weapons and more money. One of his roles as foreign minister under Chavez was to ensure that the border with Colombia remained open to allow shipments coming from the neighboring country to enter without disruptions.

The operation continued to grow after Maduro became president in 2013, following Chavez’s death, with his family members seeking to benefit directly from the drug trade.

Maduro’s nephews, raised by First Lady Cilia Flores, were arrested in 2015 in a DEA sting for attempting to export 800 kilos of cocaine into the United States. They were extradited and found guilty the following year and were sentenced to 18 years.

The nephews, who were released in 2022 as part of a prisoner swap with Venezuela, had told DEA informants during a sting operation that they had sought to obtain $20 million to help finance Cilia Flores’ election campaign to the Venezuelan National Assembly.

Their aim was political in nature, they claimed in the recorded conversations.

While describing Maduro as their father, one of the nephews said “what we want is for him [Maduro] to take control again of the National Assembly,” which was at the time controlled by the opposition.

After the arrest, two of the DEA informants involved in the sting were murdered.

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