The Castros claimed Cuba was never into drug smuggling, then they said it quit. But their own operations were nothing compared to the ones they helped facilitate in Venezuela.
The medals, the honors, the general’s uniform—all had been stripped away. Arnaldo Ochoa, once considered a great hero of the Cuban Revolution and its military expeditions in Africa, stood before Fidel Castro’s court in 1989 wearing a cheap plaid shirt. He looked like what he had always been, the handsome and charismatic son of Cuban peasants, a man of the people, a leader, and that may have been the real cause of his downfall. But the charges were narcotics trafficking and treason.
Ochoa’s trial was a pivotal moment in the history of Cuba and of what Washington in those days was calling “the war on drugs.” It marked the end of an era in which Fidel Castro’s dictatorship had facilitated the shipment of cocaine to the United States from the infamous cartels of Colombia, including Pablo Escobar’s operation in Medellín. And not the least of the motives attributed to the Cubans was the desire to tear at the fabric of yanqui society. These were the days of the crack cocaine epidemic shattering the peace of cities across the United States. Fueling addiction, desperation and crime while enriching the Revolution must have seemed perfectly legitimate goals to some of the Castros’ cohorts, and their intelligence services did what they thought they had to do for their regime to survive on its own terms.
There in the military tribunal in Cuba all was not as it seemed.
As in any of the show trials the world has read about or witnessed, whether conducted by Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, or the Castro brothers, the defendant made an abject confession to all the charges in the court, and with pitiful vehemence exculpated his superiors: Fidel’s brother Raúl, the chief of the armed forces who had promoted Ochoa so many times, was innocent of any complicity, and so, of course, was Fidel.
The press in the United States and Europe theorized Ochoa might have been tortured or drugged. Even in the military tribunal, not-so-veiled threats were made against his family if he did not cooperate. Perhaps, as one observer put it, he believed there was some remote possibility of a pardon in exchange for his confessions, although that would have been offered only “in the darkness of his cell.”
The idea that the Castro brothers knew nothing about the drug trafficking was perfectly absurd. Cuba was a country where, as the saying goes, “not a leaf moved on a tree” unless the Castros wanted it to.
In fact the officer accused as Ochoa’s key accomplice, Antonio De la Guardia, was in charge of a special department in the Ministry of Interior, which is the center of the Cuban state security operations. His operation was known by the initials MC (for Moneda Convertible, or convertible currency) and its mission as part of the Cuban Foreign Trade Corporation (CIMEX) was to thwart the U.S. trade embargo.
According to an editorial in the official Cuban Communist Party organ Granma at the time of the trial, these modern blockade runners smuggled medicines, medical equipment, computer gear, spare parts—anything that “could be useful to the country.” To do this, MC had connections with citizens and residents in the United States, as well as boats and planes to transport the goods. This was all legitimate in the face of the “criminal blockade” by the U.S., Granma told its readers. And those who carried out these operations were “rigorously” prohibited from any involvement with anyone trafficking narcotics.
No doubt those rules had been fudged. The drug-running took place at a moment when things were looking desperate for the Cuban Revolution. The Soviet Union was on the verge of disintegration, the Berlin Wall was about to fall, and the Kremlin no longer wanted to underwrite its obstreperous little satellite off the coast of Florida. This, while pressure from Washington about Cuba’s involvement in narcotics trafficking had been building for years.
By the early 1980s, indictments were being handed down and defectors were exposing operations one after another. In 1982, a federal grand jury in Miami indicted four Cuban officials. Among the accused, the vice-admiral in charge of the Cuban Navy, and an intelligence officer who had organized the chaotic, vindictive Mariel boatlift in 1980, exporting not only legitimate refugees but dangerous criminals to U.S. shores.
In 1987, the deputy commander of the Cuban air force defected, and focused attention on the activities of CIMEX. Another defector claimed Colombian traffickers had a fleet of 13 ships and 21 aircraft operating in Cuban territory. A third defector, a longtime Cuban intelligence operative, alleged that the “special troops” unit of the Cuban interior ministry coordinated all drug shipments. (De la Guardia had been part of the special troops.) Fidel supposedly stashed 80 percent of the hard currency in the banks of Panama, where Manuel Noriega had taken over as strongman.
In 1988, five members of a Miami-based drug ring were convicted of smuggling $10 million worth of cocaine into the U.S. through Cuba the year before, and one of the conspirators fingered De la Guardia and his operation at the Ministry of Interior’s MC department.
Raúl Castro, for his part, saw the scandal as a way to purge his enemies and potential competitors for the succession, with Ochoa first on the list.
Emilio T. Gonzales, who would serve on George W. Bush’s national security council and in the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in a 1997 paper (PDF) that with the Ochoa trial, “Fidel and Raul Castro hoped to bury long-standing allegations of Cuban drug smuggling along with their potential political rival.”
At two in the morning, July 13, 1989, just a month after the first announcement that Ochoa had been arrested, he and De la Guardia and two of their alleged fellow conspirators were taken into a field next to the Baracoa air base east of Havana and shot.
One chapter in the annals of Cuban involvement with drug runners was coming to an end, but more subtle and complex relationships would would soon begin centered on Colombia and Venezuela—two countries much bigger, more populous, and much richer than Cuba.
In the years that followed the Ochoa trial, Cuba offered to cooperate with the United States fighting against drug traffickers. The Clinton administration shelved proposed indictments of the regime, and as relations gradually warmed, the U.S. would begin to liaise with Cuban authorities in the war on drugs. But at the same time the Cuban intelligence services were reaching out in other directions, to networks that would become the world’s biggest suppliers of cocaine: the narco-guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and Venezuela’s security forces. Cuban counterintelligence is said to have tutored the Venezuelan spies, domestic and foreign, and helped to organize them to root out opposition to the regime of Hugo Chávez. Indeed, the Cubans taught them to do whatever might be necessary to survive.
Over time, many of Chavez’s officers would become known as the Cartel de los Soles, the Cartel of the Suns: “cartel” because of their involvement with the drug trade on a scale that nobody in 1989 could have imagined; “the suns” for the insignias on the epaulets of Venezuela’s generals.
Under Nicolás Maduro, just given a second term last month in a system-rigged re-election, Venezuela has become a full blown economic, political and criminal disaster, most likely headed for a showdown with its neighbors and with Washington. And the traffickers in the government not only continue to thrive, their corruption has become vital to the cohesion and survival of the regime.
“Their stake is very high,” says Frank O. Mora at the Cuba Research Institute of Florida International University. “They fear they are going to be persecuted if they lose power.”
Last month, the investigative news site InSight Crime published a report that bluntly labeled Venezuela “a mafia state” (PDF). Tons of pure cocaine—yes, tons—are involved in some shipments, and there are often several shipments a month. The “commissions” for facilitating the trade mount into the billions of dollars. And that doesn’t begin to include the Venezuelan kleptocracy’s looting of the state oil company or its cynical manipulation of different currency rates.
In the chapter of the InSight Crime report dealing with the Cartel of the Suns, investigators name 30 people alleged to be involved, mainly because they have been the object of U.S. federal indictments or Treasury Department sanctions, or both. About half the names are from the intelligence services or the police, organizations advised and in some cases virtually run by Cuban counterintelligence operatives.
“Of course,” says Mora, “the Cubans know that there are generals and others involved in the trafficking of drugs. Are they involved? I would guess not. But they turn a blind eye because that in some way keeps the place together.”
Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez first tried to seize power in Venezuela in a failed coup in 1992. Released from prison in 1994, he was welcomed to Cuba by Fidel Castro himself. Chávez had “no money, no political experience, no organized support, and, it seemed, not much of a future,” Rory Carroll writes in Commandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. But as a former aide to Chávez told Carroll, Fidel “sniffed him right out. He recognized Chávez’s potential straightaway.”
“Castro personally attended to Chávez for the entire visit,” writes Carroll. “The pair bonded over Baskin-Robbins and marathon talks where they compared life arcs: both rural boys, talented pitchers who traded professional baseball dreams for politics and insurrection.”
Chávez built his left-wing populist political movement around the idealized memory of El Libertador, Simón Bolívar, who fought to free Latin America from Spain early in the 19th century. In today’s context, one might even say the thrust of the Chávez campaign and the core ideology of his government was to make Bolívar great again. He promised to end corruption and distribute the country’s vast oil wealth to the poor. And he won. The next time he returned to Cuba, in 1999, was as president-elect of Venezuela. Later, Fidel visited him there. They were, said Chávez, “swimming together toward the same sea of happiness.”
So too, at the time, was the FARC in neighboring Colombia. It had a permanent liaison office in Havana, as did the other major Colombian guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN). And both had major stakes in the cocaine trade. And as the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported in an exhaustive study of 30,000 FARC documents captured by the Colombians in 2008, when Chávez became president there was “a wholesale transformation of Venezuelan security policy, particularly regarding the Colombian–Venezuelan border and Colombian insurgents.”
There were differences, to be sure. Populists do not make good communists, and the FARC leaders found Chávez ideologically unreliable: “One day he says he is a Marxist, the next that Christianity is what must guide the construction of socialism, today he said in his [TV] program that Trotskyism must do that, in short he has an enormous muddle in his head that nobody understands.”
In 2002, when Chávez moved to take complete control of the powerful state oil company — this in a country that has the world’s largest proven reserves — he faced a counter-coup and almost lost power. But his nemesis overplayed his hand, people rallied to Chávez’s defense, and he returned to power. Before that, as Carroll notes, the “situation room” beneath Chávez’s office had been manned by Venezuelans who tracked developments throughout the country. After 2002, the Cubans took over in the situation room, the central intelligence node for the Venezuelan president.
A bloody shootout between FARC guerrillas and Venezuelan troops near the frontier led to a break in relations, but the Cubans eventually helped to smooth things over. As the IISS analysis notes, in 2006 Cuban intelligence was reporting to the Venezuelans and the guerrillas as well that the Colombian government, the U.S., and Colombian right-wing paramilitaries were plotting to take over the contested border province of Zulia and secede. That probably was not true, but Chávez, concerned that it might be, moved to shore things up with the FARC.
Meanwhile, as Cuban influence on Chávez’s security establishment increased, so did common crime and narcotics smuggling. A Cuban-style program to arm and train popular militias, known as collectivos, eventually put more guns into the hands of more criminals.
The great leap into narco-trafficking came in 2005, when Chávez ended what cooperation had existed with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, accusing it of spying. He also withdrew from the Joint Interagency Task Force East monitoring flights and ships in the Caribbean and along the northern shore of South America. The activities of the informal Cartel of the Suns picked up dramatically. A few months later a DC-9 based in Florida but flying out of Venezuela landed in Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico, after numerous changes to its flight plan. It had 5.5 tons of cocaine aboard, ostensibly bound for the Sinaloa cartel of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Walid Makled Garcia, a fat-faced Syrian-born thug known as “El Turco” or “El Arabe,” emerged in the middle of the 2000s as a broker between Venezuela’s senior figures and the FARC. The deal he promised was protection for shipments of cocaine, and because he controlled several airports and a major seaport, that was fairly easy for him to do. But as the profile of Makled by Insight Crime points out, he ran afoul of Chávez and his people when his family decided to go into politics. Then he was accused of ordering the murder of a journalist and of a veterinarian whose farm was next to his. And after Venezuela issued a warrant, Makled actually was arrested in Colombia in 2009—at which point, as gangsters used to say, he started to sing.
Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, declared that “even among global narcotics traffickers, Makled Garcia is a king among kingpins.” And for a while, as indictments and Treasury Department sanctions multiplied, it looked as if Makled’s information might help the U.S. roll up the Cartel of the Suns. But no.
The failure to shut down the organization became obvious when 1.3 tons of pure cocaine in unregistered bags showed up on the baggage carousel at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris in 2013. The flight had come direct from Caracas, and the cargo, it would seem, had been mishandled.
Chávez, who died of cancer in 2013 after months of treatment in Cuba, took no substantive action against the accused traffickers in his government, and as the United States tried to put pressure on them with indictments and sanctions, Chavez’s successor, Maduro, promoted them. Néstor Reverol Torres was the head of the national anti-narcotics bureau when Makled said he was on the take. Today Reverol Torres is the interior minister. Tareck Al Aissami was interior minister when Makled leveled his accusations, now he is vice president.
These characters now have such grim reputations that they are among those accused of command responsibility for torture in a brief to be presented to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. That comes on top of a letter sent to the court on May 30 by Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, stating that “there is no recourse for justice in Venezuela,” and noting “evidence that points to the systematic, tactical and strategic used of murder, imprisonment, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as tools to terrorize the Venezuelan people.”
The Daily Beast’s correspondent reports from Caracas that the name most Venezuelans are likely to associate with the Cartel de los Soles is Diosdado Cabello, the former head of the national assembly. He remains a familiar face, not least because every day he’s on the air haranguing his enemies and hyping his ideas, an aspiring caudillo in the age of YouTube.
Diosdado wears his hair cropped short, military-style on his square cranium, and sports plain green fatigues. There are no suns on his epaulets—but then again, he doesn’t need them. His close ties to Chávez dated back to before the attempted coup in 1992. He held several ministerial portfolios, and was even president himself for a few hours in the confusion during the 2002 counter-coup. Many thought he would succeed to the presidency for good, but when Chávez departed for Cuba and what turned out to be his last surgical procedure in 2013, he surprised the nation by naming the former bus driver and foreign minister Nicolás Maduro as the president in waiting.
The army didn’t like that. Many of the generals—the suns—refused to salute a civilian commander. But Cabello realized he might be better off behind the throne than on it. He calmed things down so he could dedicate himself to his business, allegedly including the drug business, without having to worry about ruling a country.
What Cabello hadn’t counted on was the defection to the United States of a man who knew many, if not all, of his secrets.
Leamsy Salazar had been one of the bodyguards closest Hugo Chávez in a security detail that the Cubans would have trained, and after the commandante’s death he served on Diosdado Cabello’s security staff. According to statements Salazar provided to the U.S. government in exchange for access to the witness protection program, Cabello is the head of the Cartel de los Soles.
Salazar went over to the DEA in January 2015. In November that same year two nephews of Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores were picked up in Haiti with a large shipment of cocaine. At their trial, the prosecutor presented a recording where one of the nephews refers to Cabello as “the most powerful man in Venezuela” and “a guarantee for the business.”
Cabello claimed earlier this year on his TV show that he would “leave Venezuela if a single [corrupt] dollar is found under his name.” Those dollars may be harder to find since last month, when the U.S. Treasury placed sanctions on Cabello, his wife, his brother and his “front man.”
“The Venezuelan people suffer under corrupt politicians who tighten their grip on power while lining their own pockets,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement that minced no words. “We are imposing costs on figures like Diosdado Cabello who exploit their official positions to engage in narcotics trafficking, money laundering, embezzlement of state funds, and other corrupt activities. This Administration is committed to holding those accountable who violate the trust of the Venezuelan people, and we will continue to block attempts to abuse the U.S. financial system.”
If Diosdado Cabello is the boss of the cartel, Vice President Tareck El Aissami is the businessman, and the one in charge of public relations. He’s handsome, well-tailored, slickly coiffed and only 43 years old. His Syrian-Lebanese family background allegedly has allowed him to link up easily with organizations in the Middle East such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and the close relations of the Venezuelan government with countries like Iran and Cubasupposedly made it easy for the young revolutionary to build a sophisticated network for illegal activities. But allegations that he or anyone else in the regime might collaborate with Al Qaeda or ISIS for an attack on the United States are a stretch, and the U.S. government—which clearly wants this regime to be over—has not reached that far.
The accusations about El Aissami’s ties to the Cartel of the Suns are pointed enough. Days after he was named vice president in early 2017, the Treasury Department slapped him with sanctions for his activities in his previous positions as interior minister and governor of Aragua state.
El Aissami “oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions, including those with the final destinations of Mexico and the United States,” said the Treasury Department statement. “He also facilitated, coordinated, and protected other narcotics traffickers operating in Venezuela. Specifically, El Aissami received payment for the facilitation of drug shipments belonging to Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled Garcia. El Aissami also is linked to coordinating drug shipments to Los Zetas, a violent Mexican drug cartel, as well as providing protection to Colombian drug lord Daniel Barrera Barrera and Venezuelan drug trafficker Hermagoras Gonzalez Polanco.”
Our correspondent in Caracas, who thought it wise not to be named, says “there is still a lot to discover regarding the Cartel of the Suns. Their complex structure and huge logistic capacity makes it very difficult for the international authorities to track them and to punish them. Their close relation to the Venezuelan government makes it impossible to conduct any serious investigation against them in Venezuelan territory, and linking them to any illegal activity might be severely punished.”
“Because it is made up of the main figures of the so-called Socialist Revolution of the 21st century,” said the correspondent, “the Suns’ Cartel operates with complete freedom in Venezuela without paying attention to the severe economic and humanitarian crisis this country goes through. This is why they are so fervent about defending the revolution no matter the cost. For them, staying in power has become a matter of life and death.”
For the Venezuelan people, meanwhile, daily life has become a trial that seems never to end.