Both inside and outside Venezuela it is becoming more common to hear the term “narco-state” as a way of accusing not only the Venezuelan government but the entirety of the country’s institutions of being immersed in the crime of drug-trafficking.
This description is particularly brazen because amongst those who describe Venezuela this way are Colombia, the main global cocaine producer, and the United States, the fourth largest opium consumer and principal cocaine, cannabis, amphetamine, pharmaceutical stimulant and ecstasy consumer in the world.
Using this description generally looks to open the way for the intervention that the Trump administration is pushing full scale. These kinds of accusations, along with adjectives such as “terrorist” and “anti-democratic” to name just two, are a kind of tool used to demonise governments that are not to the liking of the White House. Paradoxically, countries that actually practice state terrorism or those that maintain bloody dictatorships that violate any and all principles of human rights receive Washington’s blessing, as long as they comply with the US’ mandate.
International media, in their creeping and subservient role, broadly respond to this information without presenting any half-serious evidence that may at least address the subject from a documented perspective.
It is an outright barbarity that from the United States, Colombia, or Spain they accuse Venezuela of being a narco-state. This accusation principally looks to negate the rationality of the population, with moral annihilation being the step prior to physical annihilation, as we have seen in Yugoslavia, Libya and Iraq.
Those governments allied to the White House and international media are the same ones that told us that if [Colombian drug baron] Pablo Escobar died, then drug shipments would stop. These governments, in their role as victims, are trying to make us conclude that the drug trade exists because the Venezuelan authorities are responsible for buying and producing huge quantities of cocaine that are going to end up, who knows how, on the streets of the global North, the victims. They also allege that this trade enriches the entire Venezuelan political establishment, including judges, ministers, deputies, governors, mayors and many others. This is an insistent attempt to render Chavismo synonymous with drug trafficking.
The Venezuelan drug route?
Venezuela is located in a geographically privileged area, with ample coastline and a 2,150-kilometre border with Colombia. This makes it a phenomenal potential route for the shipment of drugs to the United States and Europe, routes which previously included stop-offs mainly in the Dominican Republic, Aruba, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The Venezuelan route, however, despite being so attractive, is not the main one used.
The bulk of cocaine and heroin shipments produced by Venezuela’s neighbours leave via the Colombian Pacific, arriving in Panama, Honduras and Mexico, countries where the United States has at least 18 military bases. Another route, the second most used, departs from Cartagena City on the Colombian Caribbean coastline and arrives to the Bahamas, a small island of 13,000 square kilometres where the northern power also has a military base in Nassau. On this point, the Colombian, and even US, authorities agree.
The transit of drugs through Venezuelan territory en route to the United States and Europe is nothing new, nor is the relocation of [Colombian] drug lords to [Venezuela’s] western cities such as Merida or San Cristobal.
In 1997, Justo Pastor Perafán, the “last great drug lord” after the death of Pablo Escobar, was captured in the centre of San Cristobal. This former Colombian military man had been living for at least a year on Venezuelan soil where he could move freely.
Venezuela has been a historical stop-off for international drug shipments, something which at no point do we want to hide.
In 1999, a Boeing 727 belonging to Saudi Prince Nayef Bin Fawwaz al-Shaalan departed Caracas after he finished a meeting of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The jet was stopped in Paris with two tons of high quality cocaine. The prince has been protected by Saudi Arabia ever since, despite an arrest warrant being issued for drug trafficking.
For all this to have happened, there was undoubtedly cooperation between the [Venezuelan] military, police and civilian officials, as well as in all the countries considered part of the cocaine route. It is never our intention to deny the existence of networks governed by by this industry’s obscene profits; this is a historical and real fact. What cannot be accepted is the idea that the institutions of the Venezuelan state are designed for this purpose. There is a huge gap between the reality and these accusations, which if analysed with information from international organisations, leaves those who happen to be quickest to accuse us in a weak position.
The Colombia-US axis of narco-capitalism
According to the most recent report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), revenue from the drug trade is estimated to be at least US $320 billion in 2017. Of this, at least 95 percent is allegedly made in the recipient countries, i.e. US, Canada and Europe, while the remaining 5 percent is made by the producing countries.
These figures do not differ at all from the profit margins that industrialised countries (the consumers) and developing countries (producers-extractivists) receive through the marketing of any raw material, say iron, copper, gold, diamonds or coltan.
The exploitative relationship and the international division of labour is also identical for illegal industries. The actors are the same. On the one hand there are the winners, the great international banking system, the corporations, and the military-industrial apparatus. On the other, there are the losers, those who provide the blood and the sweat in the war: the unemployed, peasants without opportunities and thousands of children who offer their labour as leaf scrapers or “raspachines”.
Coca production in rural Colombia is directly influenced by poverty. The areas where there is the highest concentration of this crop coincide with levels of government abandonment and the domination of para-legal groups. The Colombian government’s signing of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States [in 2012] has meant that the land destined for these crops has multiplied greatly. Areas where previously there was food crop production, virgin forests or even national parks are now large areas dedicated to coca cultivation.
While the coffee-producing area, the main industry of the Colombian economy, has remained virtually stable between 2002 and 2018, the planting of coca leaves occupies increasingly important spaces. To date, and according to projections, the coca leaf is the third most planted product in the country, behind only bananas (which it is near to overtaking) and coffee.
Society, highly influenced by what the press writes, sees the problem in the rural population and demands solutions that even threaten the lives of the campesinos. It is truly difficult for a farmer from [the Colombian regions of] Antioquia, Nariño or Norte de Santander to launch into the neoliberal arena of “free trade,” to compete against a producer which may be subsidised and enjoys a broad protectionist policy in [the US states of] Nebraska or North Dakota.
Likewise, the signing of the FTA made it a crime to store and preserve seeds, while it became law to have to only use “certified” seeds marketed by large multinationals such as Monsanto (now Bayer) and Dupont.
As with the international coffee market, of which coffee growers are estimated to receive only US $2 out of every US $1,000 that is generated, the income for the Colombian farmer who sows and transforms the coca leaf into the basis for cocaine is small next to that of the great drug lords. These barons, it is worth noting, are not Colombian, Mexican, and much less Venezuelan, but US, Spanish, Portuguese, French or Dutch.
While in the Colombian countryside a kilo of coca hydrochloride (the final product, ready for consumption) costs on average US $1,500, on the streets of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Detroit it can reach a much higher price. In Europe, the influx of gigantic shipments of cocaine – mainly through Spain and Portugal – increases its cost, always depending on the purity and quality.
Contrary to what government-constructed publicity in Colombia and the United States try to portray, there is a steady growth in the planting of the coca leaf and its subsequent production, with a similar growth in its demand in the developed countries.
By 2009, an estimated 210 million people were consuming [illegal] narcotics in the world. In 2017 this figure has increased to 271 million. At least 76.2 million are from North America (United States, Mexico and Canada), reflecting the huge public-sector complex (including the military and police), as well as the private sector, which operates around this lucrative business.
It is believed that 188 million people consume cannabis every year, of which 36 percent are in the United States and Western and Central Europe where only 10 percent of the world’s population live. This exponential growth, coupled with the trend of legalising marijuana use, has been exploited by large corporations that have been displacing the two traditional producers: Mexico and Morocco. Right now, the leader in global production is curiously the world’s self-styled anti-narcotics policeman, the United States.
At the regional level, the planting of coca leaves and the production of coca hydrochloride have been increasing.
Despite more than US $11 billion invested in Plan Colombia, nine U.S. military bases and an indeterminate set of “quasi-bases” that are housed in at least 51 buildings and 24 leased facilities (which could be more) being installed and dedicated entirely to “combating” this scourge, hundreds of contractors who enjoy total immunity as if they were accredited diplomats, thousands of square kilometres of virgin rainforest bathed with glyphosate (which Monsanto dispenses), large losses for the peasantry, effects on the water they consume and the air they breathe, displacement, years of “democratic security” under [former hard-right President Alvaro] Uribe and the demobilisation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, historically marked as the great producers of the alkaloid, it can be said that Colombia, instead of eradicating drug production, has been monopolising the cocaine market ever more, almost quadrupling its production in just 4 years.
The most recent data published by UNODC highlights that in Colombia 48,000 hectares (ha) of coca were planted by 2013, representing 40 percent of the total amount grown on the planet. By 2017, the area in use increased to 171,000 ha., or 70 percent of the world’s production. By 2020 this figure could reach 250,000 ha., an area similar to the surface of [Venezuela’s] Margarita Island and La Guaira State put together.
Colombia: A narco-bourgeoisie with political power
In the [Colombian] cities of Bogota, Medellin or Cali, little is known about the painful consequences left in the bosoms of society and the family by coca farming. There, in the centres of power, citizens only enjoy the millions of dollars which come into the Colombian economic system.
The richest man in the country, Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo, is currently worth more than US $11 billion. This magnate, who is the owner of the principal Colombian bank, has laundered billions of dollars coming from criminal activities which stimulate the productive apparatus of the country, a fact which doesn’t at all bother the politicians, business class, and investors. This is where the “success” of Uribe’s policies originates.
While this goes on, in the impoverished towns on the outskirts, the semi-legal economy is what props up the law itself. The value of the coca leaf crop fields in the ten municipalities with the largest crop production in Colombia is almost double that of the public budget destined to these municipalities by the national government.
The same phenomenon occurs in the three states with the largest coca production: Putumayo, Nariño and North Santander. It is worth pointing out that these three states are border regions, the first two with Ecuador and the last with Venezuela.
By including itself in the drug industry, the Colombian state looks to bring down costs, and as such it is an accomplice of many of the other connected crimes.
One of these is fuel smuggling, which can be seen from Ecuador and Venezuela and which bleeds both countries out significantly.
The dominance of pseudo-demobilised paramilitary groups and the establishment of crop fields and laboratories close to international border lines allows for the permanent supply of fuel and other materials at often ridiculously cheap prices, such as car fuel, cement, and petrochemical products made in Venezuela. To produce one kilogram of base cocaine, 282 litres of gasoline are required, as well as thousands of litres for the laboratories which are generally set up in deserted areas with no electrical power.
The fact that Venezuelan and Ecuadorian fuel is of better quality than that produced in Colombia has also contributed to improving base cocaine output. The specialist technical support which is carried out by semi-legal groups has also increased the per-hectare output in the crop fields. In 2013, 205,000 tonnes of coca leaf were produced, whilst in 2017 this rose to 930,900 tonnes, a 453 percent rise. This fact is no coincidence, as scientific investigation has been working in line with drug production for many years, not just in Colombia but globally.
The First World: pharmaceutical dependency and accumulation of drug profits
So-called opioids are the cause of the very real public health epidemic in a large percentage of the developed countries. These are natural derivatives of morphine and poppies or are synthetically made, which are the most damaging versions.
The two best known opioids are fentanyl and oxycodone, both of which are synthetic analgesics and anaesthetics created in laboratories, and are 50 times more powerful than heroin. Opioids are responsible for more than 2,000 overdose-related deaths in the USA in 2007, and 47,000 in 2017 according to conservative UN data. Cruder official report from US health authorities suggest that overdose deaths for the same year are closer to 63,000, more than the entire number of US lives lost in the Vietnam War.
The global corporate system has known how to take advantage of this dependency on pharmaceuticals which threatens to devastate millions of lives in the next few years. Its alienating strategy generates juicy profits for the great laboratories which are backed up by the complicity and consent of governments. Even more worrying is the support they receive from the legal and political establishment.
Chinese, US, Colombian, Mexican, and South Asian laboratories compete for the immense booty which, apart from producing billions of dollars every year, also produces 600,000 deaths, something which transnational capital is not concerned about.
Johnson & Johnson is globally known for baby talc. Nonetheless, this firm is one of the principal producers of opioids. Not content with this, it is faced with an endless demand for its products, having sneakily pushed millions of people towards consumption and dependency. The transnational is on the brink of achieving an agreement with the [US] federal government for which it will have to pay a fine as if it had gone through a red light, which will free it up of any responsibility. Once again, all of this happens with the complicity of the system.
The system also regulates its own metabolism to efficiently guarantee the supply of narcotics from its primary production sites. The drug economy has been one of the principal motors which drives the world economy for some time, especially for consumers and producers.
If we bring together all of the criminal activities (drug running, piracy, illegal arms sales, fuel smuggling, informatics crimes, etc.), the contribution of the drug industry to global GDP is as high as 5 percent.
The Colombian banking system is not the only one which is stabilised from the money coming from this criminal economy, with the world banking system laundering astronomical amounts of money. According to the UN, US $1.6 trillion go into the system every year after having been laundered. During the last decade, financial institutions like the Bank of America, City Group, HSBC and even the Institute for the Works of Religion (popularly known as the Bank of God or the Vatican’s Bank) have been splattered with anti-laundering investigations.
But, even with all these official figures and data, the narco-state is apparently Venezuela.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.