The news out of France last week shocked Parisian authorities but law enforcement officials who regularly monitor the drug trade may have been less scandalized.
On September 20, French police confiscated more than 1.3 metric tons of cocaine hidden in 31 suitcases on an Air France flight from Simon Bolívar International Airport in Caracas. The cases were all registered under false names that did not correspond to any of the passengers aboard the plane.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said it was the largest seizure of cocaine made on mainland France.
But while it may have been the biggest haul for French authorities, it was by no means the largest seizure to have come out of Venezuela.
In 2006, Mexican police located 5.5 metric tons of cocaine that reportedly came from the South American nation at an airport ramp in Ciudad del Carmen.
Since last year, at least 19 major cocaine shipments coming from Venezuela have been seized
The following year, Venezuelan authorities stopped two tons of cocaine from being shipped to Sierra Leone from the island of Margarita. In 2012 at Caracas’s La Carlota city airport, security forces found 1.2 metric tons of cocaine on a private plane.
And last Monday, Spanish authorities found an undisclosed amount of cocaine hidden inside religious items at Madrid-Barajas airport that came off a flight from Venezuela.
The Caracas daily newspaper El Nacional reports that since last year at least 19 major cocaine shipments coming from Venezuelan airports or seaports have been seized.
Drug enforcement experts say that because Venezuela is located on South America’s northern Caribbean coast, it has become a transshipment point for drugs from Colombia destined for the United States and Europe.
Compounding this problem are corrupt officials in Venezuela who are willing to help traffickers. The experts say that the country’s police officers have been isolated from the rest of the international law enforcement community because the Venezuelan government of the late President Hugo Chávez often accused security agents from other countries working in Venezuela – mainly from the United States – of meddling in internal affairs. Chávez kicked out the US Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005.
Some military officials have been reported to be working closely with the Mexican drug cartels
Some military officials have also been reported to be working closely with the Mexican drug cartels, according to anti-drug authorities. On Sunday, three National Guard officers were arrested in connection with the 1.3-metric-ton cocaine shipment discovered in Paris; in all 22 people have been detained in Venezuela and France.
Carlos Tablante, a former minister and ex-chairman of the Commission Against the Illicit Use of Drugs, described Venezuela as “a criminal state” because traffickers no longer need clandestine routes or measures to ship their narcotics. They can do it openly with the help of corrupt authorities.
“The Mexican cartels have now infiltrated our national airports and use airstrips with the help of officials who supervise them,” Tablante said. “The question remains: how many more suitcases have been able to pass through there?”
It would be unfair to blame the late Chávez, who died from cancer in March, and his supporters for the organized crime groups that exist in Venezuela, but there has been a proliferation of drugs since he took office in 1998.
Last year, former Supreme Court Justice Eladio Aponte Aponte, who was wanted by Venezuelan authorities, escaped to the United States and began cooperating with the DEA. He accused high-ranking officials in the Chávez administration of having connections with drug traffickers. Among them he said were Henry Rangel, the former defense minister, who is now governor of Trujillo state, and General Clíver Alcalá Cordones, former commander of the powerful IV armored division.
Aponte Aponte told US authorities that top government officials put pressure on him to acquit an army commander who was convicted in 2005 in connection with a two-metric-ton shipment of confiscated cocaine that disappeared from a security compound.
Many believe that the armed forces are actively involved in the drug trade while others say only a few corrupt officers are connected to traffickers. Although no evidence has surfaced to prove it, some analysts also refer to a tight-knit group in the military known as the Sun Cartel, in reference to the sun medals worn on the officers’ lapels.
How many more suitcases have been able to pass through there?”
But journalist Javier Ignacio Mayorca says it is a mistake to assume that the entire armed forces were involved in the drug trade as a cartel. "If there are some Venezuelan generals who have been deeply corrupted though a concerted and sustained effort, it is possible that this is the result of a conspiracy,” he wrote in a political journal in 2012.
Tablante also agrees with this assertion, saying that in Venezuela there are no such things as established mafias but instead loose criminal organizations that come and go depending on the crimes they commit. Venezuela is being held hostage by corruption that threatens to devour the government and its institutions, he said.
Lawyer Bayardo Ramírez Monagas believes that Venezuela can no longer be considered a transshipment point but rather a nation that is used as a storage center for drugs.
Despite criticism from home and abroad that Venezuela has turned a blind eye to traffickers, the government insists it has made in-roads in stopping the drug trade. Officials point to the 45 metric tons of cocaine confiscated last year, and the number of top cartel leaders who have been captured. They include Beto Rentería, alias “Valenciano,” the last head of the Norte del Valle cartel, who had links with the Zetas in Mexico, and Diego Pérez Henao, head of the Los Rastrojos organization.
The majority of these arrests have taken place after 2008 when Chávez and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos patched up their countries’ rocky relations and began sharing information on drug trafficking and guerrilla activities.
But the UN World Drug Report paints a different picture. While 59 metric tons of cocaine were confiscated in Venezuela 2005, only half that amount was seized by authorities in 2010, according to UN estimates.
While the investigation into the Air France cocaine seizure continues, authorities in Venezuela said they have arrested a total of 17 people in connection with the case while French authorities announced five people have been detained. French Interior Minister Valls estimated that the cocaine had a street value of 50 million euros but police and other sources believe it could be valued between 250 million and 350 million euros.