The Cartel of the Suns, an intercontinental cocaine trafficking organization run by the Venezuelan military and high-ranking members of the socialist regime, is able to move upwards of 350 metric tons of cocaine per year valued at $6.2-$8.7 billion, according to a report published by the Miami Herald on Monday.
The Herald’s report is part of a broader international investigation known as “NarcoFiles: The New Criminal Order.” The NarcoFiles investigation is a pan-regional collaboration project spearheaded by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and involves journalists from more than 40 media outlets across 23 countries, including Latin America, Europe, and the United States. The Miami Herald is among the list of participating outlets.
The NarcoFiles investigation began as a result of a massive email leak from the Colombian prosecutor’s office in 2022. According to OCCRP, the leak contains more than 7 million emails and other documents and audio clips and “reveal rare details about the inner workings of transnational criminal gangs and law enforcement’s efforts to dismantle them.”
The Cartel of the Suns, named after the sun insignias worn by high-ranking Venezuelan military officials, is considered to operate through a diffuse network within the Venezuelan armed forces – unlike a traditional drug cartel that operates through a hierarchical manner. The organization is largely believed to have forged alliances with other drug trafficking organizations such as the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel, the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) terrorist organizations.
Socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro, ruling socialist party strongman Diosdado Cabello, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, and defrocked former Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami are believed to be on the list of high-ranking members of the socialist regime that are part of the Cartel’s top brass. Hugo Carvajal, late socialist dictator Hugo Chávez’s former spymaster, is also among those accused to be part of the Cartel of the Suns. Spanish authorities extradited Carvajal to the United States in July.
U.S. prosecutors indicted Maduro, Cabello, and others in 2020 on narco-terrorism charges, accusing them of using cocaine as a weapon to “flood” the United States. Since then, the United States has offered separate bounties for information that could lead to their arrest and/or conviction.
The report published on Monday accused the Maduro regime of becoming increasingly dependent on drug trafficking as a result of more than two decades of socialist mismanagement leaving the nation’s oil industry in shambles. Also fueling the rise of the importance of drug trafficking, reportedly, was the imposition of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry in 2019 — oil sanctions that President Joe Biden temporarily lifted in October in response to the Maduro regime’s vague promises of holding a “free and fair” presidential election sometime next year.
The Venezuelan socialist regime is believed to have started engaging in drug trafficking almost 20 years ago, but its drug-trafficking activities have reportedly seen a “substantial rise” in volume over the past three years. Initially, the role of the Venezuelan military in drug trade was limited to simply “looking the other way” in exchange for bribes, but it is now believed to be engaged in an active role in international drug trafficking.
“They are the ones that are in charge now, directly involved in the transportation of cocaine, the distribution of cocaine, not only to the United States, but also to Europe,” Mike Vigil, former chief of International Operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told the Herald.
Vigil’s assessment, according to the Herald, was confirmed by three former DEA agents who supervised Venezuela, as well as by “half a dozen” former Venezuelan officials who broke ranks with the regime and now live in the United States.
The Cartel of the Suns’ efforts, according to the investigation, have turned Venezuela into a major cocaine hub capable of shipping between 250 and 350 metric tons of cocaine per year, much of which is U.S.-bound. The shipped cocaine has an estimated street value of between $6.25-$8.75 billion.
The wealth generated from the drug sales, according to the report, is often stashed overseas or in opaque offshore corporate accounts. It has become an important source of income for the cash-starved socialist regime and the Venezuelan economy, and it has helped the Maduro regime sustain itself after bringing the nation’s oil industry to a near-ruined state prior to the 2019 U.S. oil sanctions. Drug trafficking revenue reportedly amounted to $5.1 billion in 2022 – or 8.5 percent of Venezuela’s GDP.
Internal reports obtained as part of the NarcoFiles investigation indicated that Colombian security officials consider the socialist-led cartel an “active threat” alongside Mexico’s Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels, as well as the Aragua Train, Venezuela’s largest known criminal organization whose illicit activities have spread across the region and “possibly” into the United States.
One of the confidential Colombian intelligence reports, according to The Miami Herald, stated that the Cartel of the Suns has an active presence in the Colombian departments (states) of Vichada, Guainía, and Arauca, where it has established alliances with Colombian drug trafficking organizations and Mexican cartels to establish shipping routes for its U.S.- and European-bound drugs, in addition to the Cartel of the Sun’s illicit gold and other illegally extracted minerals.
Another top-secret Colombian army report obtained through the NarcoFiles leak reportedly revealed that the shipping platform is “used for the movement of contraband, arms trafficking and liquids required for the production of narcotics to later be taken to Venezuela and from there distributed to Central America [on its way to the United States] and Europe.”
The report details that the center of the Cartel’s vast trafficking network is located in Colombia’s Catatumbo region, which neighbors Venezuela’s western Zulia state. The Catatumbo region is home to the third largest concentration of coca leaves in Colombia, used in the manufacture of cocaine.
Catatumbo’s coca leaf plantations are mostly run by independent peasants tending small lots. The lots have become big sources of income for FARC, ELN and the People’s Liberation Army (EPL), according to a leaked report by the Colombian army.
The Herald’s report continued by stating that as a result of Colombian far-left President Gustavo Petro’s pro-drug stances, the nation has focused on pursuing top members of drug trafficking organizations rather than focusing on local producers. This, however, has led to an increase in acreage devoted to coca production, DEA sources told The Miami Herald.
As of September, reports suggested that, due to Petro’s lenient drug policies, cocaine is on track to become Colombia’s main export and may overtake oil “as soon as this year.”
The reviewed documents suggested that more than 330 tons of cocaine transited through Venezuela’s Zulia state out of Colombia’s Catatumbo region in 2022, with the rest moving through the Arauca River and the southern jungle region through the Orinoco and Vichada Rivers.
“These groups have turned coca leaf cultivation into one of the primary income sources in Catatumbo, earning around 25 trillion pesos ($6.38 billion) per year,” a 2022 Colombian army document reportedly read.
According to sources cited by the Herald, most of the coca leaf production in Catatumbo is controlled by ELN after a series of clashes between the FARC, ELN, and EPL “changed the equation.” The leaves are turned into coca paste or cocaine powder, which is then sold to the Cartel of the Suns.
Venezuelan sources told the Miami Herald that the drugs are primarily shipped from Venezuela through three main routes.
The first and largest route receives the production coming out of the Catatumbo region, where the coca leaves are turned into paste or powder cocaine. That product is later loaded into boats that travel into Venezuela through the Catatumbo, Zulia, and Tarra rivers from Colombian towns such as Ocaña, La Gabarra, and Tibú.
In Venezuela, the Cartel of the Suns’ laboratories turn the cocaine paste into powder and is then flown to the Dominican Republic through recently built airstrips before heading to Honduras. According to sources, this route has begun to change after it became known to U.S. officials. Drug traffickers are allegedly experimenting with shipping it through boats heading to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The second path of the Cartel’s drug operations is based in the Colombian and Venezuelan lowlands, representing some 30 percent of all drug operations. The drugs shipped through this route reportedly then go on to Europe, the Caribbean, and Central America.
The shipments are taken through by boats towards the Venezuelan town of San Fernando, Apure, and nearby towns. The Cartel of the Suns reportedly uses cattle ranches in the area with private landing strips and access to the rivers as storage hubs, from which they move the shipment north to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela’s main port city.
The third and smallest route operates around the Vichada and Orinoco Rivers. The shipments are taken out of Colombia’s Isla Ratón (“Mouse Island”) and from there towards the Venezuelan town of Puerto Ayacucho on their way north toward the Delta Amacuro and Monagas states.
Sources told the Herald that, while the bulk of the cocaine shipments enter Venezuela through remote and undeveloped areas, overarching control of the operations resides in the “hands of those that hold the country’s reins” in the capital city of Caracas, which also serves as the seat of power of the rogue socialist regime.
“All of this is administered by the same powerful factions that have control of the state, who have turned drug trafficking into an instrument of the state in order to survive,” Douglas Farah, president of the research and advisory services firm IBI Consultants, told the Herald. “This is not something casual. It has become a central element allowing the regime to stay in power.”
Christian K. Caruzo is a Venezuelan writer and documents life under socialism. You can follow him on Twitter here.