The Cartel of the Suns (Spanish: Cártel de los Soles) is a Venezuelan criminal organisation allegedly led by members of the Venezuelan Government and high-ranking officers of Venezuela’s Armed Forces.
Los Soles are mainly involved in international cocaine trafficking, mainly along the country’s western border with Colombia, and the Caribbean coast. They are also involved in fuel smuggling and control of illegal mining activity. These include direct participation in the extraction and smuggling of gold, coltan, precious stones and other minerals.
This article analyses the origin and purpose of the cartel, its alleged members, and its links to other criminal organisations. This cartel is particularly notable, due to allegations that it is led by the Venezuelan government itself through the military elite.
2.0 History and Mission of Los Soles
The presence of Los Soles dates back to the 1990s when evidence was uncovered by the US that Bolivarian National Guard soldiers collaborated with drug traffickers, mainly by accepting payments to let traffickers pass through with their goods (source).
However, the term “Cartel of the Suns” first emerged in 1993. Two National Guard generals, anti-narcotics unit chief Ramón Guillén Dávila and his successor Orlando Hernández Villegas, were investigated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for drug trafficking and related crimes (source). Given their position as brigade commanders, each wore a sun as an insignia on their epaulettes, which gave rise to the name “Cártel del Sol”. When further DEA investigations into the involvement in drug trafficking of the division’s commanders, who held double sunshine because of their rank, came to light, the term was changed to “Cartel of the Suns” (source).
In the mid-2000s, elements of the National Guard and other branches of the Venezuelan military took on much more active roles in the narcotics trade. Several cells of the security forces began to buy, store, transfer and distribute cocaine directly. This was a significant leap from their initial activity of extorting narcos in the transfer of cocaine shipments. According to InSight Crime, a theory as to what may have motivated this move is that Colombian narcos began to pay the military in drugs rather than cash. This forced the Venezuelans to seek markets of their own.
2.2 From Corruption to Drug Trafficking
According to InSight Crime, three significant developments contributed to the rise of organised crime in Venezuela in the mid-2000s. First, in 1999, Colombia signed the multi-billion-dollar Plan Colombia security programme with the United States. This initiative consisted of the provision of foreign and military aid. This included arms and military equipment, training, and intelligence support (source). With greater US support Colombian security forces increased pressure on guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Colombian military operations led the guerrillas to shift more of their operations to Venezuelan border states, which had little police surveillance. There they forged closer ties with the government of President Hugo Chávez. He saw the guerrillas as ideological allies and a strategic stronghold against a more hostile Colombia and its ally, the United States.
In 2002, two key events pushed drug trafficking into Venezuela. The first was the interruption of the peace process between the FARC and the government of then-Colombian President Andrés Pastrana. This meant that the insurgents lost the large expanse of safe territory in southern Colombia. Therefore, they were forced to seek refuge elsewhere. The second was the coup attempt in Venezuela that led to the temporary overthrow of President Hugo Chávez. The coup led the Chávez administration to limit its circle of trusted supporters. Many influential positions in government or lucrative contracting opportunities were handed over to army loyalists. In return for his support, Chavez turned a blind eye to the growing corruption of the military.
2.3 Ties with Criminal Organizations
After the 2002 coup attempt, the Venezuelan government adopted the style of a praetorian regime, with active and retired army officers assuming positions in various state institutions. Chávez also created military zones of operations along the western border, citing fears of a US invasion from Colombia.
Cronyism and a presence along the Colombian border enabled the military to actively collaborate with the border insurgents and engage in criminal activity. Throughout the mid-2000s, Venezuelan officials became increasingly involved in the drug trade. Soon, parts of security forces began not only to charge drug traffickers to allow them to move shipments, but also to buy, store, transfer, and distribute cocaine themselves, leveraging their ties with guerrillas and other criminal actors.
2.4 Systematic Corruption
As the amount of cocaine flowing through Venezuela increased, evidence mounted that a growing number of high-ranking officials in the Chávez government were also facilitating or even directly involved in the drug trade.
The term “Cartel de los Soles” was brought back into the public eye in 2004. Journalist Mauro Marcano accused Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) brigade commander and intelligence director Alexis Maneiro, along with other members, of having links to drug traffickers (source). The Marcano case suggested that there was more systemic corruption in the GNB. However, the government made only a half-hearted effort to investigate the allegation. No investigation was opened against Maneiro, and he was transferred to a less notorious post.
Around this time, there were other signs that drug trafficking was growing in Venezuela. In 2004, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that about 50 tons of cocaine passed through the country. By 2007, that number was estimated at 250 tons, according to a report by the US Government Accountability Office (source).
In August 2004, several National Guard officers were also arrested in a separate case after being caught loading cocaine onto a private plane at Maiquetía Airport (now Simón Bolívar International Airport). These events brought to light the army’s role in narcotics trafficking. It also showed the tendency to seize drug shipments when they had not received the requested bribes.
In 2005, accusations of espionage against the DEA by then-President Chávez also contributed to the strengthening of organised crime networks in the country. The allegations put the brakes on US-backed counter-narcotics projects. This included an initiative that would have upgraded inspection technology at Puerto Cabello. This is one of the country’s most important exit points for drug shipments.
2.4 Internationalisation of the Cartel
In 2008, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned former Venezuelan intelligence chief Hugo “El Pollo” Carvajal Barrios and former military General Cliver Antonio Alcalá Cordones, of materially assisting the narcotics trafficking activities of Colombia’s FARC insurgents (source).
In 2011, the CICPC (Scientific, Criminal and Criminalistic Investigation Service Corps) captured a small plane in the northern state of Falcón containing about 1,400 kilos of cocaine. The plane had taken off from the La Carlota military base in Caracas. Spokespersons from the Army, the Air Force and the government gave different explanations for what happened (source). The “narco plane” case fuelled the idea of complicity with organised crime at the highest levels of government and the military.
On 10 September 2013, an Air France plane landed in Paris with 1.3 tonnes of cocaine. The plane had departed from Maiquetia airport in Caracas, which is under strict control of the National Guard. Although 28 arrests were made within the ranks of the National Guard in connection with the case, all of them were low-ranking officers beneath the rank of Colonel.
2.5 Ties with the Venezuelan Government
Even more drug trafficking scandals followed in the mid-2010s. In 2015, Leamsy Salazar, Chávez’s former presidential security chief, accused the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, of being one of the heads of the Cartel of the Suns (source). In August 2016, the US unsealed federal indictments against the former director general of Venezuela’s anti-narcotics agency, Nestor Luis Reverol Torres, and the former deputy director of the same agency, Edylberto José Molina Molina (source). The day after the indictments were made public, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro appointed Reverol as his new interior minister.
The long history of allegations of official involvement in drug trafficking came to a head in March 2020. The US Department of Justice indicted President Maduro, several of his administration officials and former officials – some of them mentioned before, as well as members of the FARC leadership, on narcoterrorism charges. The US considers that the Venezuelan regime is facilitating the importation of tons of cocaine into the US (source).
2.6 Maduro and Los Soles
Since Maduro took power, the Cartel of the Suns has become a criminal patronage system in which cocaine is used to help prop up his government.
Today, the catch-all term “Cartel of the Suns” masks the fact that the state-narco-trafficking axis is now less a network run by the military and Chavista politicians and more a regulating system. It is composed of a series of regional military-political-criminal nodes linked by a national regime that guarantees impunity for its allies. Within this system, the regime rewards loyalty by allocating it to regions known to offer abundant opportunities for enrichment through drug trafficking and other criminal economies.
Currently, drugs can pass through the hands of several different trafficking nodes as they move through the country. The military plays different roles within these nodes in different regions. Local, rather than national, politicians directly or indirectly manage the relationships between the military and criminal groups and control the environment in which traffickers operate.
In each of these regions, those in charge of the state component of these trafficking nodes change frequently. This is because military commanders rotate and political power is granted and withdrawn.
3.0 The Organisation of Los Soles
The initial involvement in this group included members of the army, navy, air force and National Guard, from the highest to the lowest ranks. InSight Crime reports also indicate that the cartel is also made up of high-ranking Venezuelan executive branch officials, including ministers and governors.
The cartel lacks a clear command structure. It is a diverse network of traffickers, including both state and non-state actors. They operate entirely with the approval and protection of key figures within the Venezuelan government. Without this crucial political facade and payments to the right individuals, smuggling operations would come to a halt (source).
Currently, there is only a list of names of individuals working in the Venezuelan military forces who have been identified by US agents as being involved in the government’s criminal actions. InSight Crime has compiled a list of 123 high-ranking officials, both active and retired, who have been accused of cocaine trafficking (source).
3.1 Low-level Personnel
According to reports by the International Crisis Group (ICG), lower-ranking National Guardsmen compete for positions at border checkpoints to be paid bribes for “illicit trade”. However, a large part of the bribes go to their superiors. Corrupt officials allegedly traffic drugs from Colombia to Venezuela, from where they are shipped internationally (source).
3.2 Senior staff
Corrupt senior members of the military, including Colonels, Lieutenants and Majors, are also accused by the US and think tanks such as InSight Crime of facilitating the passage and even smuggling of the drug from the Colombian border to ports in the Caribbean Sea. Once here, they hide on cargo ships sailing through international waters to Europe or the United States.
They also use speedboats to transport the drugs, first making a stopover on a Caribbean Island. It is even presumed that they use the Maiquetía Airport in Caracas to export the drugs hidden in commercial and private planes going abroad.
3.3 High-level Officials
It is not known to what extent Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is involved in the activities of Los Soles. However, following Chavez’s legacy, Maduro has personally promoted people accused of drug trafficking to high positions in the Venezuelan government. Reports by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s OFAC indicate that he had received drug trafficking benefits from Diosdado Cabello (source).
Another case that has revealed such high-level relations between drug cartels and the government of Nicolás Maduro involves the nephews of the Venezuelan presidential couple. These are Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas. Both were convicted by a jury in New York of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilos of high-purity cocaine from Venezuela to the US via Honduras (source).
Cabello was Minister of Interior and Justice from 2002 to 2023, and President of the National Assembly from 2012 to 2016. He is currently a Deputy of the ANC. He is also an active member of the Venezuelan armed forces, with the rank of captain.
In January 2015, the former head of security for both Chávez and Cabello, Leamsy Salazar, made accusations that Cabello was head of the Cartel of the Suns (source) (source). He first accused them of accepting bribes from Derwick Associates for public works projects in Venezuela. He also accused them of nepotism to reward friends and family and running “colectivos” (far-left Venezuelan armed paramilitary groups that support Nicolás Maduro) by paying them with funds from Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) (source).
Tareck El Aissami
Tareck El Aissami is a Venezuelan politician who served as Vice President of Venezuela between 2017 and 2018. From 2018 to 2021, he was the Minister of Industries and National Production. From 2020 to 2023, he was the Minister of Petroleum. He is one of the few people involved who is not military. In 2023 he resigned from all his posts due to corruption charges (source).
While holding ministerial positions, El Aissami faced allegations of participating in corruption, money laundering and drug trafficking (source). He faces drug trafficking charges in the US. He is also on the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) most-wanted list (source).
Nestor Reverol is a Venezuelan military officer and politician. He was head of the national anti-drug office from 2008 to 2010, and commander of the Venezuelan National Guard (GNB) from 2014 to 2016. From 2016 to 2020 was appointed minister of the interior and justice. Since 2020 he has served as Minister of Energy.
He has been accused by the US of drug trafficking, for alerting criminals about operations, freeing drug traffickers and obstructing investigations (source).
Hugo Carvajal was Director of Military Counterintelligence between 2004 – 2011 and 2013 – 2014. From 2016 to 2019 he was a member of the National Assembly (ANC). In 2021 he was arrested by Spanish police in Madrid and he is currently in prison waiting to be extradited to the US (source). On July 2023 he was extradited to the US (source).
In 2008 his assets were frozen by the US for allegedly helping to protect drug shipments and preventing authorities from seizing such shipments.
Edilberto Molina was deputy director of the National Anti-Drug Office (ONA) between 2008 and 2010 and is now Vice Minister of the Integrated Police System.
He is accused by the US of similar charges to Reverol, in addition to the release of seized drugs (source).
Yazenky Lamas was a former bodyguard of First Lady Cilia Flores. He had also been a captain in the Bolivarian National Guard. He is known as the “Pilot of the Cartel of the Suns”.
In 2016 he was arrested at Bogota’s El Dorado airport in Colombia. In 2017 he was extradited to the United States. Lamas claimed to have provided air traffic codes to allow cocaine planes to pass as commercial flights. Lamas has been linked to hundreds of drug flights operated in Venezuela.
Clíver Alcalá was a retired Venezuelan major general until 2013 when he was discharged by Maduro. In 2011, Alcalá was accused by the US government of being a drug trafficker and member of the Cartel. Several years later, in 2018, Alcalá moved to Barranquilla, Colombia, publicly opposing Maduro.
In March 2020, Alcalá surrendered to US authorities in Barranquilla. In 2023, he pleaded guilty in a US court to providing aid to the Colombian FARC.
José David Cabello
José David Cabello is a Venezuelan politician and brother of Diosdado Cabello. He was appointed Venezuela’s Minister of Infrastructure in 2006. In February 2008 he became head of SENIAT, the Venezuelan tax agency. Previously he was head of the airline Conviasa.
In 2018, the OFAC alleged that David Cabello used his position at SENIAT for extortion and money laundering.
4.0 Criminal Activity
Initially, the activity of the Venezuelan Armed Forces regarding drug trafficking consisted of accepting bribes and turning a blind eye while traffickers moved their merchandise. However, after some time, drug traffickers asked members of the GNB to transport and protect the shipments they were sending to the country. During President Hugo Chávez’s government, this corruption expanded to unprecedented levels by corrupting the Public Ministry, the judicial system, and the armed forces.
Currently the Venezuelan government, through the Cartel of the Suns, controls a significant portion of the drug trafficking business. However, members of the Cartel are also implicated in other activities. For example, they are involved in selling or supplying weapons to Colombian insurgent groups. They are also involved in promoting “collectivos” in support of the government. Furthermore, the Cartel is often involved in other criminal economies such as fuel smuggling, illegal mining, black markets, and extortion.
4.1 Drug Trafficking
The United States has been accusing Venezuela of connections to the global drug trafficking industry for a long time. Various investigations conducted by federal agencies in the US demonstrate that Venezuela has become a narco-state with distinct characteristics and unprecedented dimensions in the history of Latin America.
A CFR report shows that Venezuela allows drug traffickers, organised crime networks, potential terrorists and other criminal actors within its borders. CFR reports show that Colombia’s criminal gangs (BACRIM), FARC-EP dissidents and the National Liberation Army (ELN) operate in the country. Other groups such as Mexico’s Sinaloa and Los Zetas cartels; the latter, defunct in 2018 but with a surviving faction called the “Cartel del Noreste”, have also begun to operate in the country.
4.1.1 Narco Network
The drug trafficking network created by Venezuelan authorities has four main objectives:
- Tax Collection: Trafficking networks make periodic payments to local military units to allow them to operate with impunity.
- Creation of Safe Passage Corridors: Criminals pay military units to ensure the safe passage of drug shipments through certain territories. This includes payments at road checkpoints, authorized clandestine flights, or ensuring that maritime patrols do not occur at specific times.
- Drug Transportation: In certain routes, army units transport drugs using military vehicles. This occurs especially along internal corridors that connect the border region to dispatch points.
- Control of Traffic Infrastructure: Military control of infrastructure used for drug dispatch. Particularly ports and airports mean that exports are directly organized by military officials stationed in these areas. They coordinate operations by paying other officials or workers in key positions. This ensures that drugs pass security checks and go undetected.
Over 20 years, the Cartel of the Suns transitioned from being a loosely organised trafficking network to becoming an elaborate patronage system used to distribute the wealth generated from drug trafficking among those whom Maduro considers necessary to maintain the stability of the regime.
The Venezuelan military’s most common function in drug trafficking is to ensure the safe passage of cocaine shipments. These activities occur in three dimensions: on land, at sea, and in the air.
- Venezuelan military officers stationed in the border region can determine whether to allow the passage of drug shipments by land. They also often protect them during transit.
- The Venezuelan military also facilitates the illegal arrival and departure of aircraft, primarily through the manipulation of air radars. Officers often demand payments from drug traffickers to disable the radars at precise moments to prevent the flight from being registered. They may also issue special codes to ensure that the flight is recorded as legal. Thereby guaranteeing that authorities do not pursue the aircraft in the future.
- Government agents are also involved in authorising the departure and take-off of cargo from official port and air terminals. These facilities are typically managed by the military, and they maintain tight surveillance over these areas.
Venezuela has become the preferred drug smuggling route in South America. It is a popular route used by drug traffickers to bring cocaine to the US via Central America and the Eastern Caribbean. It is also used to transport to Europe, via West Africa. Venezuela has become the most important distribution centre for drug trafficking in the Americas. Nearly 24 per cent of global cocaine production transits through Venezuela, according to the 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment report of the DEA (source).
4.2 Arming Insurgents
Authorities in Colombia stated that documents purporting to show Hugo Chávez offered payments of up to $300 million to the FARC. They added that this was “among other financial and political ties that date back years”.
In 2007, Colombian authorities also seized laptops during a raid against FARC insurgent Raul Reyes. They contained documents showing the FARC rebels sought Venezuelan assistance in acquiring surface-to-air missiles. According to Interpol, the files discovered by Colombian authorities were real. Consequently, in 2008 the US Treasury Department charged several top Venezuelan government officials with providing material aid for drug-trafficking operations carried out by Colombia’s FARC insurgent group.
The Cartel of the Suns engages in other illicit activities. Not only do they engage in international drug trafficking and supplying the domestic market. They also in gasoline smuggling, illegal mining, timber exploitation, resale of regulated products, and trafficking of arms and ammunition within the prison system (source).
5.0 Points of Interest
Military elements primarily implicated in Venezuela’s drug trade are located along the country’s western border with Colombia. Particularly in the states of Apure, Zulia, Táchira, and Amazonas. They are also active on the Caribbean coast. Particularly the states of Falcón, Sucre, Delta Amacuro, and Carabobo, which is home to Venezuela’s main shipping port, Puerto Cabello. This is because the power of these cells stems from their access to the country’s main airports, roadblocks, and ports. However, military involvement in cocaine trafficking is prevalent throughout the numerous internal transit channels that connect the border to dispatch hubs.
Cartel members buy cocaine in the border states of Apure and Zulia, as well as in Colombian border departments. Given the scarcity of dollars in Venezuela and the ongoing depreciation of the local bolivar on the black market, cash purchases are uncommon. Cocaine is frequently swapped for guns, particularly in previous deals with the former FARC. Otherwise, Venezuelans collaborate with Colombian traffickers, agreeing to divide revenues from the trafficking of cocaine overseas.
In addition, Los Soles uses air trafficking routes to the Dominican Republic and Honduras. Cocaine can also be transported by land to Suriname. Then is transported by air or sea to West Africa, and finally to Europe. Cocaine is typically stashed on rural ranches and farms controlled by civilian contacts when carried by land.
6.0 Allies and Enemies
The previous connections and trafficking relationships between the Cartel of the Suns and the FARC guerrillas have continued since the guerrillas’ demobilisation in 2017. This is done through cooperation with some factions of the FARC splinter groups, known collectively as the former FARC Mafia. Notably the Acacio Medina Front and the Segunda Marquetalia. However, relations with other factions, notably the 10th Front, have soured. They and their drug trafficking operations have since been extensively monitored by the army.
The National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas have also become a key ally of Los Soles. They have taken advantage of the FARC’s demobilisation to expand their presence in Venezuela and their involvement in drug trafficking in the region. In recent months the ELN has been in contact with the new (left-wing) president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro. This led to the formal resumption of peace talks. The ELN may follow in the footsteps of the now-extinct FARC. However, there will likely be factions that refuse to lay down their arms and continue their criminal activity. This was the case with the FARC dissidence (source).
In recent years, reports have evidence of the Venezuelan government’s closeness to Hezbollah. The group has a tight relationship with Iran. At the same time, Iran has established covert operations in Venezuela, with Hezbollah coming along as its proxy. Venezuela has been a crucial source of political, financial, and logistical support for Hezbollah (source).
According to a secret dossier compiled by Venezuelan agents a few years ago, Tareck El Aissami, former Venezuelan vice president and current industry minister, helped recruit Hezbollah members to expand spying and drug trafficking networks in the region.
Furthermore, Hezbollah has established a crime structure in Venezuela that operates through segmented familial groups. Some are the Nassereddine, Saleh, and Rada clans. These groups infiltrate both the illicit economy controlled by the regime and its political apparatus. Hezbollah also exerts control in some regions like Margarita Island, where they can operate safely (source) (source).
Hezbollah, backed by Tehran, has established an efficient and advanced criminal network in Venezuela. The group finances itself by laundering money on behalf of criminal organisations. Then they use the proceeds to fund its activities in Lebanon and Syria. This network extends its influence into neighbouring Colombia and other countries in the region (source).
Military and political actors involved in drug trafficking maintain connections with several criminal groups and trafficking networks throughout the country. As well as powerful drug traffickers such as Hermágoras González Polanco, alias “Gordito González,” the head of the Guajira Cartel.
However, these relationships can soon deteriorate and allies become enemies. An example is the case of the Paraguaná Cartel. The cartel enjoyed governmental protection and collaborated with parts of the army but has recently been targeted by security forces. Los Rastrojos, who had imposed control over a variety of criminal economies along the Colombia-Venezuela border, do not have their support either. Not only are they at odds with the ELN in Venezuela, but government officials have attacked the group on several occasions in targeted operations on charges of terrorism.
6.5 Alleged Relations
Reports indicate that Los Soles has links with other organisations. These are the dissident EPL, the Sinaloa Cartel and the former Los Zetas (allegedly the Northeast Cartel faction). There is little information on this. However, reports from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) suggest that the Venezuelan government allows them to operate freely within the South American country without fear of reprisals. Sometimes even offering security and support for their activities (source).
7.0 The Future
There have been recent efforts by the US and other organisations to expose the Cartel of the Suns’ activities and even censure or indict some of its alleged members. However, the Venezuelan government has not launched formal investigations or legal processes against the accused. What is more, the Maduro administration has elevated military officers accused of drug trafficking in some circumstances.
Given this situation, as well as Venezuela’s deepening political and economic crisis, it is likely that the Cartel of the Suns’ operations will continue unrestrained, and they may even extend further. The lack of effective action by Venezuelan authorities, as well as the country’s complex political landscape, add to the difficulties in resolving this issue.
The military, at least on its own, is unlikely to be willing to defend the rule of law given that its officers are the suns. The current situation is making them rich, therefore they do not have reasons to prosecute criminality. Added to this is a high degree of involvement of the regime, which is an accomplice and facilitator of drug trafficking. This state of criminality creates a vicious circle of corruption that is very difficult to combat. A change in government that alters or removes patronage networks seems to be the only way to alter the current drug trafficking situation in Venezuela. Regardless of the path taken, the role of the Armed Forces will be crucial in addressing the issue of criminality in the country and its own ranks.
The Cartel of the Suns is unique in that it is directed by Venezuelan authorities. The involvement of high-ranking public officials, both military and civilian, renders the Cartel extremely powerful both within and outside the country. The power and wealth-seeking tendencies of these elites make it difficult, if not impossible, to halt their activities. Furthermore, the socio-political situation in Venezuela only reinforces the need for many individuals to seek extra profits and obey their superiors. The complex interplay of political, economic, and social factors has created a challenging environment for addressing the issue effectively.
There is a high probability that the activities of the Cartel of the Suns will continue to expand. The history of Los Soles has been one of growth and adaptability. It is ultimately the responsibility of the Venezuelan government to address this situation by upholding the rule of law. Without a clear political will to combat criminality and public cooperation, the situation is likely to worsen. While a change of government or external intervention could potentially bring an end to this issue, such scenarios are unlikely to occur and would not guarantee an end to drug trafficking in Venezuela.