CIA Director Mike Pompeo told senators Thursday that he believed Venezuelan government and criminally owned weapons could end up in the hands of terrorist organizations and drug cartels, creating an “incredibly real and serious” danger to the region.
Pompeo testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on an array of international threats to the United States and the Western Hemisphere generally. During his testimony, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked about Venezuela specifically, noting that the socialist regime has armed gangs, known as colectivos, to use them to threaten and attack dissidents. “We all are aware of the Maduro regime’s cozy relationship with Hezbollah, with the FARC, which is a designated terrorist organization, and links to narco-trafficking,” Rubio noted, asking whether the proliferation of weapons given to colectivos is a “real threat.”
“Senator, it is a real threat,” Pompeo replied. “As we have all seen, the situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate, Maduro gets more desperate by the hour. The risk of these colectivos acting in a way that is not under his control increases as time goes on as well.”
“There are plenty of weapons running around in Venezuela. And this risk is incredibly real and serious and ultimate threat to South America and Central America in addition to just in Venezuela,” he added.
While noting the threat to the immediate region surrounding Venezuela, weapons in the hands of groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who participate in continental drug trafficking, and Mexican drug cartels that operate near the American border could also threaten to harm the national security of the United States.
Pompeo noted that no evidence exists that the Nicolás Maduro socialist regime sells weapons to these groups. Venezuela is known to have close ties to the FARC and Hezbollah, with FARC leader “Timochenko” exiled in Havana extending his support to Maduro in April. The Venezuelan Chavista regime has long kept close ties to Hezbollah’s main patron, Iran, and has reportedly issued passports to Syrian, Iranian, and other non-Venezuelan nationals affiliated with Hezbollah. The U.S. Treasury has designated Venezuela’s vice president, Tareck el Aissami, a known “drug kingpin” for ties to both the FARC and Hezbollah, as well as other regional cocaine trafficking outlets.
In the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community published by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) this week, the DNI notes that Venezuela is currently facing a “collapsing economy” and volatile political situation that threatens to create a regional threat. “The unpopular government charges that the opposition is waging an economic war and trying to stage a political coup and will probably ratchet up repression to maintain power,” the report notes. “Shortages of food, medicine, and basic supplies will probably continue to stoke tensions through 2017.”
Thirty-nine people have died in the latest wave of protests within the past month, including individuals who were not protesting but were asphyxiated by government-issued tear gas in their own homes. Protests erupted in March following an attempt by the Maduro-friendly Supreme Court to install itself as the nation’s Congress.
In response to the protests, Maduro declared in April that he will be handing out free firearms to at least 400,000 of his supporters to form colectivos and seeks to arm one million socialists. Private ownership of firearms is banned in Venezuela, leaving only criminals and soldiers armed in one of the world’s deadliest countries. In 2014, Maduro opened “disarmament centers” to encourage the few civilians possessing weapons and not affiliated with the government to disarm voluntarily.
The Venezuelan government also possesses hundreds of Russian Igla-S surface-to-air missiles and 400,000 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, which experts fear could fall into the hands of terrorists should Maduro lose power.
Former President Barack Obama declared Venezuela a national security threat to the United States in 2015, a move that Maduro claimed was the first step to an Iraq-style invasion of the Latin American country.