Venezuela’s High-Profile Coke Traffickers and Low-Profile Coup

As international law enforcement focuses on the Venezuelan government’s drug connections, the U.S. indicts a top general and Maduro promotes him.

It’s been a couple of tough weeks for the Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro. First, court documents in the U.S. revealed alleged confessions by the infamous nephews of Maduro’s first lady, who are being held on drug-related charges in New York. They showed how the two young men planned an 800-kilo cocaine deal, and it looks like the trial may expose a whole network of public officials.

To make an ugly case even uglier, court documents also showed two of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informants involved were murdered soon after the nephews were arrested last November.

Then, on Monday the U.S. Justice Department announced the indictment of two former top officials of the ONA, the Venezuelan anti-narcotics agency. Maj. Gen. Néstor Reverol, one of the officers indicted, was also head of the Venezuelan National Guard until a month ago.

Different corruption cases involving Venezuelan public officials have been exposed by Brazil and Argentina, and Venezuela’s former regional allies have been blocking its previously expected appointment to the rotating presidency of MERCOSUR, the South American common market.

Yet inside Venezuela, official accountability for public officials is nonexistent—unless they fall from grace with the big bosses, and then their offenses (disloyalty or excessive ambition) may have nothing to do with their actual corruption. For the average man or woman on the street, this institutional rot is taken as a constant.

Ironically, all this pressure from the outside only means the most notorious crooks are likely to stay in Venezuela and enjoy official protection, at least for a while. Not the least of the reasons Maduro and his cronies want to hold on to power is the certainty that a new government would leave them exposed to prosecution domestically as well as internationally.

So the official posture is defiance. On Monday, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration states without equivocation that Néstor Reverol and his former ONA deputy, Edylberto Molina, “used their positions of power to enable drug trafficking organizations, all the while hindering law enforcement’s efforts to thwart them.” On Tuesday, Maduro appoints Reverol minister of interior and justice.

And there’s more. Maduro noted that Reverol had been minister of interior in the latter days of the Hugo Chávez presidency and “broke the record” for capturing global drug traffickers. “That’s why the narcotraficantes who run the the politics of the United States want to make him pay,” said Venezuela’s president.

In the midst of the economic and political crisis that’s all but overwhelmed the country thanks to low oil prices and high government incompetence, Maduro is not going to mess with top military officers, no matter what their crimes. Indeed, he just keeps giving them more power—and, despite the risks, they keep taking it.

Crime and impunity, corruption and politics are all deeply interwoven. The expression “narco-state” has been thrown around loosely when referring to Venezuela, but the explosive Venezuelan crisis has so many angles, in fact, it’s hard to decide where to start.

Over the years, Hollywood has oversimplified the level of complexity involved in disarming a bomb. On film it usually comes down to a timer, a choice between two wires (red and blue), and a Swiss Army knife. Pretty straightforward. You close your eyes, say a prayer, and “clip.” There’s a 50 percent chance you’ll either save the day, or you’ll end up splattered like a Jackson Pollock all over the pavement. Real life, however, is so much more complicated. Ask Venezuela’s minister of defense, Gen. Vladimir Padrino.

On July 11 President Maduro went on national TV to announce that Gen. Padrino (whose last name, coincidentally, means godfather) would share the task of solving the food crisis. Maduro explained that Venezuela’s most prominent military tactician was the correct person to fight off scarcity since it was a consequence of The Economic War waged by the country’s enemies.

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Then Maduro looked at his ministers, and gave them a very clear order to subject themselves to whatever Gen. Padrino needed to handle these issues. The order was penned down in a resolution which confirms the vast powers that the general now has over the cabinet. This is much more than an unusual, albeit illegal, transfer of powers to the Minister of Defense. In effect, Padrino was appointed as a prime minister of sorts, and he has indeed assumed the role, as President Maduro has become less visible in the past few weeks.

Swiftly enough to choke local outrage, and cryptically enough to block the meddling eyes of international media, the military has made its move. A coup d’état? Power is still being shared. But it’s increasingly hard to tell who has the final word.

While Padrino has at his disposal every single minister of Maduro’s cabinet; and seemingly unlimited power to address the situation, the military-led government of Venezuela hasn’t taken a single steady-handed measure. Instead, it has been doubling down on Maduro’s bad decisions. For instance, a disturbingly unconstitutional decree was released a few days ago, which, in short, adds forced labor to the Venezuelan formula for planetary happiness.

On July 22, the Ministry of the Popular Power for the Social Process of Labor issued a resolution which establishes that any public institution or private company involved with the agro industry must lend its workers, upon request, to any entity which the government considers is in the process of reactivating its production. It doesn’t require much explanation to understand that moving around workers as if they were machinery violates some pretty basic human rights.

And all of this, to reactivate companies that were rendered unproductive by the late President Hugo Chávez’s economic policy, or that were simply taken over by his government and driven into insolvency by incompetence.

The language in the resolution is clearly military, and it undoubtedly carries the stamp of the same policy-makers who designed the labyrinth of economic controls in which the country is lost. There’s not one measure that would help solve Venezuela’s economic problems at its core. It’s as if they’d rather have people starve because there is no food on the shelves, than have them struggle with realistic prices.

And the bomb keeps on ticking.

The hands-on, disciplined, military man seems to be cornered by the same demons that had the incompetent civilian president pressed against the wall.

A small taste of that same fear of action, which most likely led President Maduro to share his burden, came last week. After allowing telecommunication companies to raise their service fees so they would be able to invest in maintaining and upgrading platforms, the government backed down due to the public outrage of the price increase for mobile phone services, internet, and digital cable (which in some cases were up to 300 percent).

You can expect, in a few weeks, to read how Venezuelans were left off the grid because these technological platforms couldn’t take it anymore and shut down.

Meanwhile, the opposition-held parliament finally showed its teeth and moved to invalidate the illegal appointment of 13 Supreme Court justices stacked there by the previous lame duck legislature. Of course, these judges are not likely to step down, which sets the scene for a belated constitutional conflict between the judicial and legislative powers.

All of this happens in the midst of a major effort by the opposition to hold a recall referendum against President Maduro. While the elections authority has allowed the Kafkaesque process to move forward, and the opposition coalition (MUD) has been authorized to move on to the next step, any attempt by the government to delay or annul the process may still spark civil unrest.

So it’s fair to say that the government (and/or the military) is getting nervous. Very nervous. And that may be why the Supreme Tribunal, ever subservient to the whims of Chavismo, just ratified a resolution by the Ministry of Defense allowing the use of firearms to control street protests.

The Godfather General has been tasked with dismantling a bomb, but as he fumbles with the wiring, he may be making it deadlier.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Aug. 3, 2016, 2:30 a.m. EDT