Venezuela Drug Addiction Problem
Over the last several years, Venezuela has become a pivotal player in the international drug trafficking game. Previously, huge shipments of cocaine leaving Colombia and destined for the U.S. were mostly relayed via Mexico on an Eastern Pacific route. But drug interdiction efforts and law enforcement pressure on the Mexican drug cartels forced an adjustment of these routes. One of the primary new routes developed was from Colombia to Venezuela and then on to the U.S. or Europe.
Much of the drug production in Colombia is controlled by the revolutionary forces called the FARC. These revolutionaries transport multi-ton loads across the border to Venezuela where there are many abandoned airstrips where they load their drugs on drug cartel-owned planes headed toward the U.S. or to Western Africa where they are transshipped on to Europe. Other drugs are loaded on trucks headed for the coast where they travel by commercial airline or small boats such as fishing or fruit boats.
The mutation of the trafficking channels shows up in rising crime and drug trafficking statistics in the Caribbean, particularly the islands just off the coast of Venezuela. Cocaine and other drug seizures in the Netherlands Antilles (Bonaire and Curacao), Trinidad and Tobago have been increasing.
Drug interdiction efforts in Amsterdam have succeeded in reducing drug trafficking from the Netherland Antilles to the Netherlands, but as usual, the drugs just move to another route - Trinidad and Tobago off the coast of Venezuela are an easy choice. Cocaine seizures on these two islands skyrocketed in the last few years. Crime rates across the Caribbean have increased sufficiently to draw the attention of diplomats, bankers and government officials.
New Trafficking Routes Involve Retired Boeings and Other Planes
In early November 2009, an abandoned and burned Boeing 727 was found in the desert of Mali. It had been flown there from Venezuela by drug traffickers. When mechanical problems developed after its cargo was unloaded, it was burned to destroy identifying clues. A Boeing 727 can carry ten tons of cargo.
In December 2009, a Gulfstream 11 jet was found with its engines running, ready to take off, sitting on an airstrip on Margarita Island off the Venezuelan coast. When the crew ran off, law enforcement found 2.3 tons of cocaine aboard.
As the drug cartels obtain retired 727s or smaller jets, they can transport their drugs to Western African countries where there is little or no radar, little law enforcement and enough corruption that liberal bribes buy cooperation. Countries that have come on board include Mauritania, Guinea-Bisseau and Sierra Leone as well as Mali. The DEA reports that so far, all aircraft seized in Western Africa originated from Venezuela. Forty percent of all the cocaine seized in Europe was transited out of Venezuela, according to the UN.
So much airline traffic has been passing back and forth between Venezuela and Western Africa that some organizations are referring to this route as "Highway 10" - referring to Latitude 10 South, the approximate location of the route.
In June 2009, a leader of a major drug trafficking organization based in both Colombia and Venezuela was arrested in Romania and then extradited to New York. During the investigation leading up to the arrest, this person attempted to purchase a cargo plane capable of carrying ten tons of cargo. He stated that he intended to start with just two or three tons of drugs at a time to start. In the process of the attempted purchase, he turned over $1.5 million in cash. The operations for this organization stretched from Bolivia, Spain and the Netherlands through Sierra Leone, Guinea, Mauritania, Mali, Cyprus, and as far as the United States.
Drug Enforcement Faltering Within Venezuela
Between 2002 and 2005, President Hugo Chavez was cooperating with American efforts to reduce drug trafficking through his country. But that cooperation now seems to be at an end. He recently accused the U.S. of sending planes into his airspace to plan a takeover of his country when these planes were actually patrolling drug trafficking routes. He has also refused to cooperate with international plans to fight his country's involvement in the movement of drugs.
Widespread corruption in military, finance and law enforcement circles permit the growth of transshipment activities. A recent report from the U.S. General Accounting Office referred to three of Chavez' top officials as "drug kingpins."
While sixty tons of cocaine were recently seized inside the country - an increase of 11 percent over the prior year - some critics point out that none of the seizures were made of shipments being moved by the FARC.
Drug Abuse Rises Within Venezuela
There are three grades of cocaine being abused in Venezuela - powder cocaine, crack cocaine and basuco, the highly toxic, unrefined form of cocaine that is broadly distributed across South America. While cocaine abuse is reported to be rising within Venezuela, specifics on how many people are addicted are very hard to come by.
Out of a total population of nearly 27 million, fewer than 2,000 people received addiction treatment in 2007. About 28 percent of addicts in drug treatment facilities were being treated for one of the types of cocaine, while the primary drug of abuse in the drug recovery centers was cannabis (marijuana).