The Cartel of the Suns

There is at least one explanation for the unsuccessful uprising to overthrow President Nicolas Madura: the Cartel of the Suns. That is the nickname given to the collective members of the military and government officials involved in drug trafficking, and the group’s influence is a possible reason why a number of Maduro’s supporters believe that under current conditions, it is better to continue united than divided. It was difficult to arrange an exile “with honor,” as had been proposed, for so many Maduro supporters — people condemned and pursued by United States law enforcement.

The criminal element in Venezuela makes it more difficult to achieve a negotiated solution to the current crisis, because there will not be any concessions. The Cartel of the Suns was a term coined in 1993 when it became known that the generals of the Venezuelan National Guard, Ramón Guillén, commander of the Anti-Drug Unit financed by the CIA, and his successor, Orlando Hernández, were being investigated for trafficking cocaine to the United States. This organization is not exactly a cartel because it does not control the means of production, the distribution, the commercialization or the price of drugs. It does transport the cocaine of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerrilla organization, from Venezuela to Honduras and Mexico, where it is then shipped to the United States by the Pacific cartel. It is also sent to the Dominican Republic and Suriname to be sent to Europe and Africa.

The command structure of the Cartel of the Suns, as explained by Brenda Fiegel, intelligence analyst at the Office of Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, includes only the high command of the military and of the government, in a hybrid hierarchic model. That is different from the Mexican and Colombian cartels, which have a pyramid structure comprising a boss, leaders of local branches and lieutenants. They must invest large sums of money through government connections to avoid capture. The Cartel of the Suns also comprises military officers and governmental officials who manage the organization, decide who is arrested, and make laws that benefit themselves, according to Fiegel.

Fiegel pointed out the historic leader of the organization is Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Constituent Assembly, and his power is distributed horizontally, which is different from the Mexican and Colombian cartels. Cabello, a man who is very close to Maduro, is only one major player. A three-year investigation by InsightCrime found 123 people connected to the Cartel of the Suns. It identified a small group that included Tareck El Aissami, former vice president for the economy and current minister of industry and national production; Major Gen. Nestor Reverol, current minister of justice; Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, ex-minister of the interior and of ustice; and Henry Rangel Silva, governor of the state of Trujillo and former chief of the Strategic Army Command.

The criminal links include the business sector. The investigation recalled that the U.S. Treasury Department applied the Kingpin Act through the Office of Foreign Assets Control to sanction seven people, the majority of them business leaders, for their alleged involvement with a network of corruption that included the former treasurer, Claudia Díaz Guillén, who was able to exchange dollars at a preferential rate that generated $2.4 billion in profits.

The investigation revealed that drug trafficking has been found in at least 12 institutions, including the vice presidency, the Venezuelan National Guard, the Venezuelan Armed Forces, the Venezuelan National Intelligence Service and Venezuela National Petroleum—now controlled by the military, and seven ministries. “Instead of sidelining those accused of drug trafficking, Maduro has promoted them to the highest offices, perhaps calculating that they have the most to lose if his regime falls and will therefore fight the hardest to preserve it,” stated InSight Crime. “The most powerful figures in the Bolivarian regime now have the taint of drug trafficking to differing degrees.”

On the second day of the uprising, the Venezuelan crisis was characterized by two features. The first, which began with the attempted military coup called Operation Liberty, has to do with the narrative of the victory between Maduro and the self-proclaimed interim president, Juan Guaidó. The other, that of negotiations with Minister of Defense Vladímir Padrino, the commandant of the presidential honor guard, Iván Hernández Dala, and with Maikel Moreno, president of the Supreme Court of Justice, all of whom have not been connected to drug trafficking.

Elliott Abrams, a foreign policy hawk and the United States special envoy for the Venezuelan crisis, told Agencia EFE that the U.S. had negotiated a rupture with Maduro, but when the moment for action arrived, the U.S. was not ready to do it. In that definitive moment, those who were going to turn their backs on Maduro reevaluated the situation and closed ranks, at least for now, with the Cartel of the Suns.

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