Drugs Money and Crime Make the World Go Round


My purpose is to draw attention to the phenomenon of a new form of crime network, in effect the globalisation of crime aided by terrorism, sometimes energised by “anti political” governments, and the hijacking of freedom movements in the developing world by people with very dubious agendas.

In the early years of his first presidency, Vladimir Putin predicted that the confluence of major criminal networks with terrorism would prove to be a major challenge for the world.

I begin by examining important recent research published by two reputable international bodies. Both show that Russia’s current prime minister got it right.

When an enabling political environment magnifies Putin’s intersection, the threat quickly becomes unmanageable. Such an enabling political environment can be provided by  volatile border or other areas not under full state control, political belief systems that are prepared to break international norms for their own ends, and by “anti-political” administrations  take power –  some waving flags of liberation  when in fact all that happens is the exchange of one form of tyranny for another.

Much of the early part of this paper is devoted to Venezuela. Distorted nationalism, allied to the activities of the FARC narco-terrorist group, have placed  Venezuela today at the centre of the most threatening of these new criminal/terrorist networks, further destabilising its neighbour Colombia, itself a major drug producer. But their influence reaches far beyond their shores, as sophisticated distribution networks deliver their death-dealing cargoes to criminal associates in Europe, West Africa   and the United States.

I then examine research material which fills in important detail from many countries showing that the intersection between crime and terrorism, frequently using the same “pipelines” for funding, arms, money-laundering, the acquisition of forged documentation, trafficking, etc., is turning each individual threat into an escalating problem even in the most stable societies.

In conclusion, I argue that there is a need for co-ordinated radical action by developed countries to stop the drug–trafficking/terrorist   contagion from spreading.

 – Richard Whelan, Dublin, Ireland,  January 2012

The International Crisis Group report on Venezuela

Violence and Politics in Venezuela1 published in 2011 by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict worldwide sets out to understand the nexus between crime, violence, and politics in Venezuela today, and the factors that have led to an increasingly unstable situation, both in that country and internationally.

Any discussion of Venezuela under the leadership of its charismatic and unpredictable president Hugo Chavez must take account of his relationship with the FARC narco terrorist group fighting neighbouring Colombia. The total FARC manpower is about 9,000 today, and about 1,500 are in a variety of locations in Venezuela.   Venezuela provides a safe haven, refuge, rest and recreation, healthcare, opportunities for redeployment, and help in exporting cocaine and in meetings with NGOs, foreign supporters, and other militant groups such as the IRA and ETA.

As background, it should be noted that an earlier report by the ICG in January 2005 concluded that around 60% of operational FARC forces were in some way involved in the coca or poppy trade. In March 2006, when it indicted 50 FARC leaders on charges of importing cocaine, the US Department of Justice claimed that the group supplied 50% of the world’s cocaine. Independent public opinion polls over the last few decades in Colombia show support for the FARC at derisory levels (3% to 5%) continually. It has in essence no internal mandate, which explains its reliance on external support, funding, and facilities, considered later. PVenezuela is one of the most violent countries in the world. On average more than 10 people are killed on the streets of Caracas, the capital, every day. Violence and crime did not start when Chavez took office as president in 1999, but they have increased exponentially since then. The current homicide rate of 75 per 100,000 inhabitants, has almost quadrupled since Chavez took office, and is now more than double that of Colombia, despite its neighbour’s major insurgency/terror problem with the FARC, and more than four times that of Iraq. Venezuela is now “one of the most dangerous countries in the world”

with   “homicide … the first cause of death for its young people.” With 12 million illegal arms circulating in the country the lines between the criminal and the political have become increasingly blurred, according to the IGC. 

In analysing how this happened the IGC report focuses on three factors:

  1. An increase in criminal violence generally,
  2.  An increase in the activities of international organised crime in Venezuela
  3.  An increase in politically motivated violence.

1. Criminal homicide and kidnapping are now endemic in Venezuela with over 90% of the population evaluating their personal security situation as either serious or very serious. The majority of ordinary crimes are allegedly committed by hampa comun, individual delinquents or small community-based gangs consisting of five to 10 members, and by the police themselves. (In 2010, another non-governmental organisation, Transparency International, ranked Venezuela the worst in Latin America in public sector corruption, 164th out of 178 countries overall.) With the government continuing to arm civilian militias for political purposes and a wish to improve its standing in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections, a decrease in ordinary criminal violence is unlikely.

Massive corruption, the political agenda of Chavez (particularly his relationship with the FARC – see below) and its pivotal location have turned Venezuela into a major hub for international organised criminal activities. This has directly led to an increase in violence of all kinds. As the ICG puts it: “Venezuela’s transformation into a major centre of operations for international organised crime has indirectly and directly fuelled violence.” Located on the northeast shoulder of Latin America, Venezuela is a logical jumping-off point for illicit goods to Europe, Africa and the US. According to the UN, Venezuela has become a major transit corridor for drug flows towards the US and, above all, Europe and West Africa.

2. International crime networks. The centrality of Venezuela to international criminal networks and activities is mind-boggling. “It appeared to be the sole source of all the clandestine shipments of cocaine intercepted along the West African route into Europe and Asia. More than 40% of cocaine shipments seized in Europe (in cases where the origin could be determined) between 2004 and 2010 and more than half (51%) of shipments to Europe intercepted at sea between 2006 and 2008 (67 incidents in all) originated in Venezuela … In 2010, more than 90% of non-commercial flights trafficking cocaine from Colombia originated in Venezuela… Venezuela is the source, transit and destination country for men, women and children who are victims of sex trafficking and/or forced labour.”

“Many of these problems pre-date 1999, when Hugo Chavez became president. However, in most if not all cases, they have become significantly worse under his presidency, during which a wide variety of criminal organisations have taken advantage of the opportunities provided by corruption, complicity and a weak institutional framework.” These groups range from the FARC, demobilised Colombian paramilitaries (now criminal gangs), Mexican drug cartels, European and North American traffickers, the Russian Mafia, Chinese triads, and the Japanese yakuza. FARC’s increased international drug trafficking has led to an increase in drugs entering the domestic market in Venezuela, becoming a major contributor to the massive homicide rates in poor urban neighbourhoods.

The ICG is clear why this development occurred: “There is broad evidence to suggest that high-level complicity with organised crime has indeed existed” [in Venezuela.] This extends not only into illicit drugs, but also diamonds, subsidised goods, and gasoline. This led the ICG to quote a respected journalist and analyst (see below) who described Venezuela as a criminalised state which “counts on the integration of the state leadership into the criminal enterprise”, and “franchises out part of its criminal enterprises to non-state actors”.

3. Political Violence. The third source of the increase in crime and violence is political violence principally derived from, and driven in the main, by the political project of President Hugo Chavez. This has generated a huge amount of opposition and protests. “While the vast majority of protests continue to be non-violent and are not met with repression, political adversaries run the risk of being treated as guilty a priori, and the criminal justice system is employed as an instrument of political control, or even of political vengeance – a growing trend that human rights monitors have termed the ‘criminalisation of dissent’.”

Some responsibility for these developments has to rest with the opposition. “Still, a great part of the blame for the climate of latent and explicit violence undoubtedly lies with the aggressive and often crude vocabulary employed by the president and some of his leading supporters. Several aspects of this deserve attention, including the constant use of military terminology and dehumanisation of opponents. Elections are described as “battles”, supporters of the ruling party are organised into “battalions” or “battle units”, schoolchildren are recruited as “communications guerrillas” to combat negative media reports. The opposition is denigrated as “fascist” or “pitiyanquis” (‘Little Yankees’) or belittled by animal imagery (“squealing like a truck-load of pigs”). The Archbishop of Caracas was labelled a “troglodyte”, Manuel Rosales, who contested the 2006 presidential election, an “imbecile and a drug-trafficker.”

“Coupled with the climate of impunity that protects aggressors, such rhetoric encourages violence against political opponents, without the need for specific orders.”

To understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to examine the three main sources of political violence.  FARC carries out much of the extensive political violence along with the Bolivarian Liberation Forces, and the urbancolectivos. These three groups combine criminal activities with a political discourse sympathetic to the Chavez project


Originally a Marxist group focused on overthrowing the Colombian state, the FARC is now in essence a narco-terrorist group, primarily focused on its own survival, financing itself through massive drug operations and other criminal activities particularly kidnapping, extortion and trafficking of arms and other materials. Its aim is just to survive, avoiding confrontation with the Colombian armed forces, hoping international/local circumstances will change for the better for it, and in the meantime using terrorist attacks to maintain pressure on the Colombian government and strengthen FARC’s own internal cohesion. Part of this terror approach is the deliberate planting of mines throughout the areas of conflict in Colombia (particularly the border regions with Venezuela and Ecuador), killing and  wounding many civilians.

Foreign law-enforcement agents on the ground suggest that around two-thirds of the cocaine passing through Venezuela originates with the FARC, and a former senior Venezuelan law enforcement officer states that without a green light from the guerrillas, much of the rest would not cross the border either. This politically enabled drug-trafficking has corrupted much of Venezuelan society: “Many drug and arms operations appear to be carried out in active cooperation with, or at any rate with the silent and allegedly well-paid complicity of members of the Venezuelan military, particularly the National Guard and the army.”

FARC bases in Venezuela, near the border with Colombia, have led to increased violence in those areas, and increases violence elsewhere by fuelling illicit economies as well as through its corruption of the security forces and its training of domestic armed groups as part of a formal “deal” with Chavez which I discuss later. Following a change of president in Colombia, the current Santos government there is adopting a less confrontational approach to Venezuela with respect to these matters. This has led some to assume that this problem will go away. That is utterly unrealistic.

The ICG concludes: “There are legitimate doubts whether the president [Chavez] could, if he wanted to, exert control over the guerrillas, given the pervasive nature of military corruption and how entrenched, rich and well-armed the guerrillas still are. Evidence from the ground suggests that, rather than actively combating them, there is a policy of lowering their profile and taking exemplary action when necessary and convenient … Community representatives from the northern border states are not witnessing substantial changes in the FARC and ELN [another, but much smaller Colombian leftist group] presence and operations, but they report that the support provided by the security forces is less open and visible.”

“This is not so, however, along the southern border. There is evidence of a considerable FARC presence in the southern Venezuelan state of Amazonas, where insurgents maintain drug trafficking networks and smuggle weapons into Colombia. In contrast with the northern border states, FARC camps in the South can operate more or less in secret, as access to the area is restricted by the National Guard.”

[B] Bolivarian Liberation Forces

Also known by the abbreviation FBL, this is a paramilitary organisation allegedly armed and financed by the Venezuelan government to consolidate its hold over certain sectors of the border with Colombia. The ICG explains that -according to sources in the border area – the government was supplying the FBL with money, weapons and infrastructure and turning a blind eye to its extortion, kidnapping and smuggling.  Locals in the area in which FBL mainly operates indicate that it patrols at night and does “social cleansing”, arresting and sometimes killing individuals accused of criminal activities or those it disapproves of. It imposes its own law regarding consumption of alcohol and other activities such as hunting, fishing and logging. It also extorts money from farmers and business people, runs a contraband cross-border gasoline trade and is also involved in cattle rustling and kidnapping. The penalty for breaking the “law” imposed by this vigilante group can be death or forced labour on the farms it runs. The same policy of controlling the community at gunpoint is applied to politics: those critical of the government or denouncing irregularities in the military are likely to receive a visit from gunmen who see their job as defending the revolution and keeping the Chavez regime in power.

[C]  Urban colectivos

The third source of political violence is the urban colectivos, armed civilian groups loyal to the Chavez regime, based in Caracas. As the ICG explains: “The government’s ambivalence to violence is nowhere more apparent than in its relations with the colectivos of the 23 de Enero slum district, close to the presidential palace of Miraflores in the west of Caracas.” Some members of these groups have been close Chavez allies from before his February 1992 attempt to overthrow the elected government in Venezuela. Roughly a dozen armed chavista groups of this kind are thought to exist in Caracas, with some having branches in other parts of Venezuela, notably the university campus in Merida. They have received military and political training from the FARC.

As the ICG explains: ”They describe themselves as socialist, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist, while their activities include vigilantism and ‘social cleansing’… some colectivos have combined political activities with drug-trafficking, car theft and other forms of organised crime. They have declared several parts of the 23 de Enero slum no-go areas for the police, who must seek permission from the group leaders in order to enter, even if carrying an arrest warrant…” Having noted their violent targeting of various media outlets, and their description of the chairman of an opposition TV channel as a military target, without any legal action been taken against them, the ICG concludes-”This pattern of impunity became familiar in cases involving members of the colectivos or other violent pro-Chavez groups, even when the accusations have included homicide, death threats or other serious crimes… Although the official government line is that only the state security forces can legitimately bear arms in defence of the state, no attempt has been made to disarm the colectivos.”

Corruption and violence

The extraordinary increase in violence and political, local, and international crime under the Chavez administration has been facilitated by an enormous increase in corruption (particularly in the public sector) and by a steady process of institutional erosion  manifested in the judicial system and the security forces. For political reasons impunity levels have soared for even the most serious crimes. (A telling example is that of the Barrios family of Aragua state, seven of whose members were murdered, allegedly by state police, on separate occasions between 1998 and 2011. The last murder followed an approach to Venezuela to protect them by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which also said the state had never seriously investigated the case.)

In 2009, according to Venezuela Violence Observatory,  91% of murder investigations did not lead to the arrest of a suspect. This compares, the organisation says, with 58 arrests per 100 homicides in 1998, the year before Chavez took office.

A highly dysfunctional police force now endangers the security of the citizens of Venezuela. In December 2009, the interior and justice (sic) minister, Tarek El Assaimi, admitted that the police were involved in 15% to 20% of crimes, a figure likely to be significantly understated. The courts are also subject to political pressures that are hard to resist because more than half the judges lack tenure and can be dismissed at a moment’s notice. Heavily politicised, the armed forces are increasingly seen as part of the problem, as they are enmeshed with organised crime and Chavez forces and are pressed by the president to commit themselves to the partisan defence of his “revolution”. Presidential control is allegedly enforced by Cuban advisers (around 5,000 Cubans are said to work in various organs of Venezuelan intelligence and counter-intelligence.) The creation, arming and training of pro-governmental militias further increase the levels of violence and crime in the country.

The corrupting influence, in the broader sense, of all of this is summarised by the ICG. “The other rather high price that the president seems prepared to pay in exchange for loyalty is the implication of senior military members and their subordinates in crime. In September 2008, the US Treasury Department added three senior Venezuelan officials to its drug kingpin list, accusing them of “materially aiding the Colombian FARC guerrillas in drug-trafficking”.”

“Venezuela has become a much more violent country under President Chavez …  violence not only appears to be a price the government is willing to pay for loyalty and political control but is also a result of inadequate crime prevention policies. The president and his allies have directly fuelled violence by arming civilians, failing to disarm criminal groups and exacerbating political divisions with aggressive rhetoric. The executive has systematically co-opted the other branches of state, thereby in large measure blocking the mechanisms, which in a democracy enables a peaceful resolution of disputes.

The Secret Archive of Paul Reyes – the IISS perspective

The second independent report is The FARC files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the secret archive of ‘ Paul Reyes’, published by The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in May 2011.

At the IISS annual conference in Geneva, in September 2010, Nigel Inkster,  presented a compelling case against  the FARC saying it was  at the centre of a 50-year insurgency/terror campaign against the government of Colombia. Inkster, the IISS director of transnational threats and political risk, said that after successful Colombian government efforts against the FARC, the centre of gravity of the insurgency/terror campaign is now mainly in Venezuelan border areas. He noted that the continuance of this campaign is now solely due to the state support of Venezuela.

This is based on two years research by the IISS into data seized by the Colombian Armed Forces, following a raid in 2008 on a FARC camp just inside Ecuador. That raid led to the death of FARC leader Luis Edgar Devia Silva, better known by his nom de-guerre Paul Reyes. Reyes had since the mid-1990s headed the FARC’s foreign network of representatives and sympathisers. He maintained an archive of his e-mail communications since 2000, and almost 30 years worth of strategic documents, including records of the major conferences and other meetings, which constituted milestones in the evolution of the FARC.

Colombian forces seized this archive and, following a forensic analysis by Interpol to ascertain its authenticity and integrity, it was handed to the IISS for analysis. Both have confirmed its authenticity. It provides an invaluable insight into the thinking and activities of the FARC, international groups and bodies who have cooperated with it, and its close liaison with the Chavez government of Venezuela and its extensive dealings with the government of Ecuador, confirming and amplifying the ICG findings above. 2

On 10 August 1999, five months after the election of Hugo Chavez as president FARC and Venezuela signed a memorandum of  understanding (MoU) . “The MoU went even further than simply establishing a relationship of non-aggression between the parties … While neither party subsequently complied fully with the terms of this document, it did demonstrate how they both envisaged the relationship in ideal terms.”

Firstly, it appeared to give FARC an advisory role within the Venezuelan administration in matters of ideology, strategic planning and social control. “Secondly, it details a comprehensive agreement aimed at facilitating the security and development of Venezuelan border regions, made possible by communications between the FARC secretariat and Venezuelan government and armed forces at a senior level. FARC would provide intelligence on other criminal groups; violently oppose these groups in Colombia; abstain from violent operations in Venezuela; seek authorisation for any training of Venezuelan armed groups; and generally respect Venezuelan law. In return, the Venezuelan government would provide help with healthcare, safety for operatives on Venezuelan soil, unspecified ‘special support’, and various arrangements to trade energy resource with FARC and to launder money through investments in agriculture, housing and finance.”

The combination of this MoU and the porous and lengthy border between Venezuela and Colombia meant that the FARC could use significant elements of Venezuelan territory bordering Colombia for its operations “with relative impunity.” As envisaged in the MoU,  “direct channels of communication were established between FARC and the Venezuelan government at the highest level, principally through Rodriguez Chacin as Chavez’s delegate. A veteran of Chavez’s coup attempt, Rodriguez Chacin  was one of the president’s closest confidants, and joined the Chavez administration as deputy director of DISIP”   [ National Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services.]

The IISS study shows clearly that the Chavez government lied repeatedly about its relationship with and the activities of the FARC, that the “peace process” embarked on by the FARC for decades was in fact a charade (the objective was always a complete military victory in Colombia) and that the government of Venezuela was aware of the criminal activities of the FARC and other groups. When FARC activities either embarrassed or threatened to embarrass the Chavez government, it engaged in “the pretence of remedial action … in order to face down allegations of complicity.”

There can be no doubt about the extent of knowledge of criminal activities that the Venezuelan government had,  and the extent of its liaison with FARC: “although the Venezuelan government was clearly prepared to limit or pretend to limit FARC activities when the circumstances demanded, it often used its  channels of communication with FARC not to restrict the group but rather to coordinate operations in such a way that it  could act against other security threats while avoiding any impact on FARC. Thus, when local security problems were caused by the illegal activities of groups reportedly controlled by FARC, the Venezuelan government’s response was often to seek clarification from the Colombian group before acting. In March 2002, for example, DISIP asked the [FARC] secretariat for confirmation, which was later given, that a group in Apure  engaged in extorting money from Venezuelan citizens was not part of FARC’s 10th Front before taking military action against it … doubts arose over FARC’s compliance with its commitment, established in the MoU of August 1999, to scale down its involvement in kidnapping and extortion on Venezuelan territory.”

The Chavez government sought the FARC’s help with the development of pro-government paramilitary groups (analysed above) throughout Venezuela. With the growth in actual and possible conspiracies against Chavez, the relationship broadened and deepened: “Rodriquez  Chacin  began to plan for a much more active operational role for FARC both in providing border security and social control, suggesting  ‘it is time for us to work together on a plan for mass organisation on both sides of the border’.”

Interestingly, when Chavez briefly lost power in a coup attempt in April 2010, the FARC was quite critical of him. “He had been too respectful towards the constitution and traditional centres of economic and media power and too careless regarding the loyalty of the armed forces and the need to develop his political and paramilitary support base.” One FARC secretariat member called “Chavez a ‘deceitful and divisive president who lacked the resolve to organise himself politically and militarily’, and ‘scorned the corruption of Chavez’s political associates,  and dismissed his delegate Chacin  as ‘the worst kind of bandit’”.

When Chavez regained power, communication lines between the FARC and the Venezuelan government were interrupted for a period. This led to some very revealing FARC records of a meeting to sort these  and related matters out at the end of October 2004 between FARC and Barrios Carvajal, a general and director of the DIM, the Military Intelligence Directorate in Venezuela. “Carvajal noted the presence of uniformed [FARC] operatives in Venezuelan villages and of FARC’s camps in populated areas; ad hoc ‘checkpoints’ on roads; land invasions on farms that belonged to friends of Chavez; and indiscriminate kidnapping for ransom of Venezuelan citizens (indeed, he was reported as adding that ‘there is nobody left to kidnap’).

Carvajal was quick to reassure FARC both of the possibility of renewed cooperation and of substantial material assistance … As an alternative to indiscriminate kidnapping, which was politically embarrassing for the government, he suggested that FARC ‘look for other objectives, that there are enemies of the revolution around and that they themselves (the Venezuelans) can help us [FARC] with that’. He also offered to help the guerrillas attack Colombian Armed Forces and paramilitary outposts along the border.”

It is truly astounding that this is a record of a conversation between a senior Venezuelan government official and the FARC, a group condemned as a narco-terrorist organisation by the EU, the USA, and Canada.

Humanitarian prisoner exchanges in Colombia which attracted much media attention, are revealed to be a tactical ploy. FARC noted that in releasing some prisoners, it would continue to hold others and kidnap more according to its needs.  For his part Chavez got the benefit of an improvement in his international reputation.  The process was also affected by the Colombian government picking up intelligence that the Chavez government had promised US $300 million to the FARC.

In February 2008, a month before the Reyes documents were seized, Chavez met FARC leaders at a location in Barinas. He committed to support FARC in one or more of at least four different ways, having again confirmed the US $300 million support. “Firstly, the plan to facilitate FARC weapons purchases from two private Australian arms traffickers remained under discussion … Secondly, Chavez offered FARC two ways in which it might receive substantial income from the sale of Venezuelan oil or petrol, in both cases with the cooperation of ‘the manager of PDVSA’ [the state oil company used by Chavez as a slush fund for political and financial purposes.”] One option was ‘a business in which we receive a quota of oil in order to sell it abroad, which would leave us with a juicy profit’, and the other was to create a  create a profitable business for investment in Venezuela  that would sell petrol to Colombia, or in Venezuela, and be awarded state contracts …

“Lastly, Chavez now sought to involve President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus in his sponsorship [of FARC] plans.”

The IISS conclusions fully support the case made earlier by the IGC. “FARC’s alliance with the Venezuelan government has increasingly meant access to Venezuelan’s own network of foreign relations. Both the Belorussian and, apparently, Chinese governments have at different time shown interest in supplying FARC with weapons … It has been possible for FARC force to be safely redeployed through Venezuelan territory to different areas of Colombia, and Venezuela has become an important corridor through which FARC exports the cocaine which provides much of the group’s revenue … The archive makes clear the extent which Chavez has been interested in FARC as an asymmetric capability, and it indicates a number of specific actions undertaken by the group in support of the security of Chavez’s regime, ranging from the training of paramilitary organisations to collaboration with the Venezuelan intelligence services in direct terrorist activity against opposition targets in Caracas [the capital of Venezuela]… over the past decade the relationship has  inexorably developed greater depth and substance. On the Venezuelan side, it has become tantamount to an official policy of state support. It is a relationship that is enduring, resilient and strategic in nature…”

“The archive highlights the risks of taking at face value any peace overtures which FARC might make. The group has long espoused an ostensibly reformist agenda, claiming that it is willing to reach a negotiated solution and until then to take steps to mitigate the human cost of the conflict by, in particular, releasing hostages. The archive makes clear, however, that the group has only ever pursued peace politics as part of a strategy relentlessly focused on securing total military victory.”

Practical Implications

Two articles in the June 2011 edition ofPrism(a journal published by the National Defence University3 Press for the Centre for Complex Operations in the US) amplify the information above on the nature of the criminal/terrorist networks and the significant impact of their evolving modus operandi.

On July 1, 2010, the US attorney for the southern district of New York unsealed an indictment describing a template of emerging criminal/terrorist activity. The indictment showed that drug trafficking organisations in Colombia and Venezuela, including the FARC, had agreed to move several major loads of cocaine through Liberia en route to Europe. The head of Liberian security forces (who is also the son of its president) negotiated the trans-shipment deals with a Colombian, a Russian and three West African citizens. According to the indictment, two of the loads (one of 4,000 kg and one of 1,500 kg) were to be flown to Monrovia from Venezuela and Panama respectively. The third load of 500 kg was to arrive aboard a Venezuelan ship. In exchange for transhipment rights, the drug traffickers agreed to pay in both cash and product.

What the drug traffickers did not know was that the head of the security forces with whom they were negotiating was an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and had recorded all the conversations, providing very clear evidence of the growing ties between  designated Latin American terrorist organisations/drug cartels, Venezuela, and emerging West African criminal syndicates that move cocaine northward to lucrative and growing markets in Europe and the former  Soviet Union. These West African criminal syndicates, in turn, are often allied to and cooperate with illicit smuggling  operations of members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

An article in Prism notes:  “The main book Chavez has adopted as his military doctrine is  Peripheral Warfare and Revolutionary Islam: Origins, Rules and Ethics of Asymmetrical Warfare  by the Spanish politician and ideologue Jorge Verstrynge … In a December 12, 2008, interview with Venezuelan state television, Verstrynge  lauded Osama  bin Laden and Al Qaeda for creating a new type of warfare that is ‘de-territorialised, de-stateised and de-nationalised’,  a war where suicide bombers act as ‘atomic bombs for the poor’. Chavez liked the book so much that he had a special pocket-sized edition printed and distributed to the officer corps with express orders that it be read cover to cover.”4

The author of the paper quoted above, Douglas Farah explains what many have missed in these developments. Shadow facilitators who understand how to exploit the seams in the international legal, financial, and economic structures and who work with both terrorist and criminal organisations are now linking those organisations together. These terrorist/criminal organisations now use the same pipelines, and the same illicit structures, and exploit the same state weaknesses. Of the 43 foreign terrorist organisations listed by the US Department of State, the DEA states that 19 have clearly established ties to drug-trafficking organisations, and many more are suspected of having such ties. This mixture of enemies and competitors working through a common facilitator or in loose alliance for mutual benefit is a pattern that is becoming common, and one that significantly complicates the ability of law enforcement and intelligence operatives to combat. This strengthens both the criminal and the terrorist groups, reinforcing their desire to continue in this liaison.

Farah illustrates these emerging alliances: “Operation Titan, executed by Colombian and US officials in 2008 and still ongoing. Colombian and US officials, after a two-year investigation, dismantled a drug-trafficking organisation that stretched from Colombia to Panama, Mexico, the US, Europe and the Middle East. Most of the drugs originated with the FARC in Colombia, and some of the proceeds were traced to a Lebanese expatriates network to fund Hezbollah, a radical Shi’ite Muslim terrorist organisation that enjoys the state sponsorship of Iran and Syria.”

Having explored the Chavez administration sponsorship of FARC and other criminal enterprises, Farah explains the implications: “A criminal state, however, counts on the integration of the state’s leadership into the criminal enterprise and the use of state facilities (for example, aircraft registries, facilitation of passports and diplomatic status on members of the criminal enterprise, accounts in the central bank, and End-User Certificates to acquire weapons).”

“A further variation of the criminal state occurs when a functioning state essentially turns over or franchises out part of its territory to nonstate groups to carry out their own agenda with the blessing and protection of the central government or regional power. Both state and nonstate actors share in the profits from the criminal activity.”

“Both of these models, but particularly the model of states franchising out their territory to nonstate actors, are growing in Latin America through the sponsorship of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ led by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, including Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua of nonstate armed groups. The principal criminal activity providing the revenues is cocaine trafficking, and the most important (but not sole) recipient of state sponsorship is the FARC.”

These developments are not just a concern for the US or North and South America. “As Antonio Maria Costa, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, head, wrote, this epidemic of drugs and drug money flooding Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere has become a security issue: drug money is perverting the weaker economies of the region … the influence that this buys is rotting fragile states; traffickers are buying favours and protection from candidates in elections.”

“Given this history, the broader dangers of the emerging overlap between criminal and terrorist groups that previously did not work together are clear. Rather than working in a business that could yield a few million dollars, for these groups the potential gains are now significantly more.”

“The new revenue streams are also a lifeline to Latin American nonstate actors that merge the criminal and the terrorist. The principal beneficiaries are the FARC, now estimated as the world’s largest producer of cocaine, and the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, with the world’s largest distribution network

Future scenarios

In March 2010 in Spain’s high court, a state prosecutor implicated high-ranking members of the Chavez regime in a FARC conspiracy with ETA, the Basque separatist guerrilla faction, to exchange know-how in terrorist tactics and even plan abductions of officials like Colombia’s ex-president Andres Pastrana.

Robert Killebrew5  notes the growing ties between Venezuela and Iran in another essay in the same issue of Prism.  “Venezuelan passports are apparently widely available to all comers, and have been issued to a number of travellers from Syria, Yemen, Iran, and other Middle Eastern states that have been known to harbour terrorists. In November 2008, Turkish authorities intercepted 22 shipping containers labelled “tractor parts” bound for Venezuela from Iran that contained bomb-making chemicals and laboratory equipment.” Likewise, in September 2006, Rodolfo Sanz, the Venezuelan minister for basic industries, announced that: ‘Iran is helping us with geophysical area probes and geochemical analysis” in its search for a uranium in a promising area near the border with Guyana …’”

“Since about 2006, Iranian military advisers have been serving with the Venezuelan army, joining a strong contingent of Cuban military officers. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, including members of the elite Quds Force, operates in Venezuela in both a military and civilian role, managing a number of Iranian-owned and-controlled factories in remote areas in Venezuela.”

The recent reports of an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US, using a Mexican drug gang to carry out the bomb attack, can be easily understood in the light of this analysis.


Many are dimly aware of the growing and symbiotic relationship between criminal and terrorist groups in the world today. However most have not appreciated the extent to which this deadly relationship is already proving to be beyond the capacity of certain states, particularly those in Africa and Central America with weak institutions .. With the presence of a number of “anti-political” leaders in Central and Latin America, particularly Chavez in Venezuela, and due to the liaison of these emerging criminal/terrorist networks with “political” terrorist entities such as Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, and the developing relationship with Iran, this growing threat is magnified dramatically. It is now clear that the monster Chavez has created in FARC would turn Venezuela into a major war zone if he tried to curb its powers, and those of its criminal associates.

We are therefore likely to see for some time, irrespective of political developments in Venezuela, a continuing and extraordinarily complex threat from criminal/terrorist groups such as the FARC. The fact that those groups already have “fruitful” connection with Al Qaeda and other terror groupings magnifies the threat dramatically, and may prove to be the key enabling factor in allowing Al Qaeda as a terrorist group to broaden, disperse, and amplify its activities. Paul Reyes, the FARC leader who kept the computer records which formed the basis of the IISS strategic dossier analysed above, described 9/11 as “the happiest day of my life”.  The violence, corruption, and a weakening of state capacity and institutions affecting Central and Latin America and Africa are already having an effect in more developed countries.

Europe and North America are not immune from these developments, and must bear some responsibility as the major consumers of the relevant illegal drugs. To the extent that these problems arise in countries with weak institutions in Eastern Europe (and in some cases significant criminal penetration of the state) or with new “anti-political” governments elsewhere in Europe or in future in North America, the impact of these developments is likely to be much worse than we might imagine.

It is particularly worrying that the election of a former coup leader as president of Venezuela was facilitated by the rise in that country of what the ICG describes as “anti-politics” – the belief that politicians were by nature corrupt, which led to support for political “outsiders”. Venezuela is a classic example of the failure of such “anti-politics”, where the cure is significantly and clearly much worse than the original disease, and may eventually kill the patient and many others. In the meantime the increasing criminality generated by the anti-politics of Chavez is having a major deleterious effect on Venezuela, all its neighbours (including Brazil where the FARC have an extremely sophisticated illicit drug operation in the Brazilian Amazon), and further abroad in Africa, North America, and Europe.

It is clearly time to fully reconsider the nature of policing in the world today to ensure that it matches the threat now facing it, to recalibrate the approach the EU, the US, and other western countries should adopt diplomatically to the countries in Central and Latin America and Africa that create an enabling environment for many of these developments, and finally to consider decriminalising major aspects of the current illegal drug trade. Bluntly the amounts of money involved in the illegal drugs trade today is beginning to dwarf the police and military capacity in many states to combat it, particularly at a time of challenged state budgets.

1 Latin America report No 38-17 August 2011. Quotations in this section are from the same report, unless otherwise stated.

2 All quotations in this section from The FARC files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the secret archive of ‘ Paul Reyes’, published by The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in May 2011, unless otherwise stated.

3 The National Defence University in Washington DC is clearly part of the US military establishment, but its publications have a  commitment to factual research and afford a platform to those who challenge its views,  of which I have personal positive experience.

4 Terrorist-Criminal Pipelines and Criminalised States: Emerging Alliances, by Douglas Farah, Prism June 2011.

5 Criminal insurgency in the Americas and beyond, Col Robert Killebrew, Prism, April 2011.

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