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Revealed: Chávez role in cocaine trail to Europe
The guerrilla group Farc has long been suspected of running the Colombian cocaine industry. But how does it move the drug so readily out of the country? In a special investigation, John Carlin in Venezuela reports on the remarkable collusion between Colombia’s rebels and its neighbour’s armed forces
Sunday February 3, 2008
Some fighters desert from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) because they feel betrayed by the leadership, demoralised by a sense that the socialist ideals that first informed the guerrilla group have been replaced by the savage capitalism of drug trafficking. Others leave to be with their families. Still others leave because they begin to think that, if they do not, they will die. Such is the case of Rafael, who deserted last September after 18 months operating in a Farc base inside Venezuela, with which Colombia shares a long border.
The logic of Rafael’s decision seems, at first, perverse. He is back in Colombia today where, as a guerrilla deserter, he will live for the rest of his days under permanent threat of assassination by his former comrades. Venezuela, on the other hand, ought to have been a safe place to be a Farc guerrilla. President Hugo Chávez has publicly given Farc his political support and the Colombian army seems unlikely to succumb to the temptation to cross the border in violation of international law.
‘All this is true,’ says Rafael. ‘The Colombian army doesn’t cross the border and the guerrillas have a non-aggression pact with the Venezuelan military. The Venezuelan government lets Farc operate freely because they share the same left-wing, Bolivarian ideals, and because Farc bribes their people.’
Then what did he run away from? ‘From a greater risk than the one I run now: from the daily battles with other guerrilla groups to see who controls the cocaine-trafficking routes. There is a lot of money at stake in control of the border where the drugs come in from Colombia. The safest route to transport cocaine to Europe is via Venezuela.’
Rafael is one of 2,400 guerrillas who deserted Farc last year. He is one of four I spoke to, all of whom had grown despondent about a purportedly left-wing revolutionary movement whose power and influence rests less on its political legitimacy and more on the benefits of having become the world’s biggest kidnapping organisation and the world’s leading traffickers in cocaine.
Farc has come a long way from its leftist revolutionary roots and is now commonly referred to in Colombia and elsewhere as ‘narco-guerrillas’. Pushed out to the border areas, it has been rendered increasingly irrelevant politically and militarily due to the combined efforts of Colombia’s centre-right President, Alvaro Uribe, and his principal backers, the United States, whose Plan Colombia, devised under the presidency of Bill Clinton, has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the Colombian military and police. A large part of Plan Colombia is designed to eradicate the vast coca plantations cultivated and maintained by Farc and other Colombian groups.
However, the impact on Farc has been ambiguous: its chances of launching a left-wing insurrection in the manner of Nicaragua’s Sandinistas in 1979 are nil, but then they probably always were; yet it looks capable of surviving indefinitely as an armed force as a result of the income from its kidnapping, extortion and cocaine interests.
Helping it to survive, and prosper, is its friend and neighbour Hugo Chávez. The Venezuelan President sought to extract some international credit from the role he played as mediator in the release last month in Venezuelan territory of two kidnapped women, friends of Ingrid Betancourt, a French citizen and former Colombian presidential candidate held by Farc for six years. But Chávez has not denounced Farc for holding Betancourt and 43 other ‘political’ hostages.
I spoke at length to Rafael (not his real name) and three other Farc deserters about the links between the guerrilla group and Chávez’s Venezuela, in particular their co-operation in the drug business. All four have handed themselves in to the Colombian government in recent months under an official programme to help former guerrillas adapt back to civilian life.
I also spoke to high-level security, intelligence and diplomatic sources from five countries, some of them face to face in Colombia and London, some of them by phone. All of them insisted on speaking off the record, either for political or safety reasons, both of which converge in Farc, the oldest functioning guerrilla organisation in the world and one that is richer, more numerous and better armed than any other single Colombian drug cartel and is classified as ‘terrorist’ by the European Union and the US.
All the sources I reached agreed that powerful elements within the Venezuelan state apparatus have forged a strong working relationship with Farc. They told me that Farc and Venezuelan state officials operated actively together on the ground, where military and drug-trafficking activities coincide. But the relationship becomes more passive, they said, less actively involved, the higher up the Venezuelan government you go. No source I spoke to accused Chávez himself of having a direct role in Colombia’s giant drug-trafficking business. Yet the same people I interviewed struggled to believe that Chávez was not aware of the collusion between his armed forces and the leadership of Farc, as they also found it difficult to imagine that he has no knowledge of the degree to which Farc is involved in the cocaine trade.
I made various attempts to extract an official response to these allegations from the Venezuelan government. In the end Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro made a public pronouncement in Uruguay in which he said, without addressing the substance of the allegations, that they were part of a ‘racist’ and ‘colonialist’ campaign against Venezuela by the centre-left Spanish newspaper El País, where I originally wrote about Farc and the Venezuelan connection.
What no one disputes, however, is that Chávez is a political ally of Farc (last month he called on the EU and US to stop labelling its members ‘terrorists’) or that for many years Farc has used Venezuelan territory as a refuge. A less uncontroversial claim, made by all the sources to whom I spoke (the four disaffected guerrillas included), is that if it were not for cocaine, the fuel that feeds the Colombian war, Farc would long ago have disbanded.
The varied testimonies I have heard reveal that the co-operation between Venezuela and the guerrillas in transporting cocaine by land, air and sea is both extensive and systematic. Venezuela is also supplying arms to the guerrillas, offering them the protection of their armed forces in the field, and providing them with legal immunity de facto as they go about their giant illegal business.
Thirty per cent of the 600 tons of cocaine smuggled from Colombia each year goes through Venezuela. Most of that 30 per cent ends up in Europe, with Spain and Portugal being the principal ports of entry. The drug’s value on European streets is some £7.5bn a year.
The infrastructure that Venezuela provides for the cocaine business has expanded dramatically over the past five years of Chávez’s presidency, according to intelligence sources. Chávez’s decision to expel the US Drug Enforcement Administration from his country in 2005 was celebrated both by Farc and drug lords in the conventional cartels with whom they sometimes work. According to Luis Hernando Gómez Bustamante, a Colombian kingpin caught by the police last February, ‘Venezuela is the temple of drug trafficking.’
A European diplomat with many years of experience in Latin America echoed this view. ‘The so-called anti-imperialist, socialist and Bolivarian nation that Chávez says he wants to create is en route to becoming a narco-state in the same way that Farc members have turned themselves into narco-guerrillas. Perhaps Chávez does not realise it but, unchecked, this phenomenon will corrode Venezuela like a cancer.’
The deserters I interviewed said that not only did the Venezuelan authorities provide armed protection to at least four permanent guerrilla camps inside their country, they turned a blind eye to bomb-making factories and bomber training programmes going on inside Farc camps. Rafael – tall and lithe, with the sculptured facial features of the classic Latin American ‘guerrillero’ – said he was trained in Venezuela to participate in a series of bomb attacks in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital.
Co-operation between the Colombian guerrillas and the Venezuelan government extended, Rafael said, to the sale of arms by Chávez’s military to Farc; to the supply of Venezuelan ID cards to regular guerrilla fighters and of Venezuelan passports to the guerrilla leaders so they were able to travel to Cuba and Europe; and also to a reciprocal understanding whereby Farc gave military training to the Bolivarian Forces of Liberation, a peculiar paramilitary group created by the Chávez government purportedly for the purpose of defending the motherland in case of American invasion.
Chávez’s contacts with Farc are conducted via one of the members of the organisation’s leadership, Iván Márquez, who also has a farm in Venezuela and who communicates with the President via senior officials of the Venezuelan intelligence service. As a Farc deserter who had filled a senior position in the propaganda department said: ‘Farc shares three basic Bolivarian principles with Chávez: Latin American unity; the anti-imperialist struggle; and national sovereignty. These ideological positions lead them to converge on the tactical terrain.’
The tactical benefits of this Bolivarian (after the 19th-century Latin American liberator, Simón Bolívar) solidarity reach their maximum expression in the multinational cocaine industry. Different methods exist to transport the drug from Colombia to Europe, but what they all have in common is the participation, by omission or commission, of the Venezuelan authorities.
The most direct route is the aerial one. Small planes take off from remote jungle strips in Colombia and land in Venezuelan airfields. Then there are two options, according to intelligence sources. Either the same light planes continue on to Haiti or the Dominican Republic (the US government says that since 2006 its radar network has detected an increase from three to 15 in the number of ‘suspicious flights’ a week out of Venezuela); or the cocaine is loaded on to large planes that fly directly to countries in West Africa such as Guinea-Bissau or Ghana, from where it continues by sea to Portugal or the north-western Spanish province of Galicia, the entry points to the EU Schengen zone.
A less cumbersome traditional method for getting the drugs to Europe in small quantities is via passengers on international commercial flights – ‘mules’, as they call them in Colombia. One of the guerrilla deserters I spoke to, Marcelo, said he had taken part in ‘eight or nine’ missions of this type over 12 months. ‘Operating inside Venezuela is the easiest thing in the world,’ he said. ‘Farc guerrillas are in there completely and the National Guard, the army and other Venezuelans in official positions offer them their services, in exchange for money. There are never shoot-outs between Farc and the guardia or army.’
Rafael said he took part in operations on a bigger scale, their final objective being to transport the cocaine by sea from Venezuelan ports on the Caribbean Sea. His rank in Farc was higher than Marcelo’s and he had access to more confidential information. ‘You receive the merchandise on the border, brought in by lorry,’ he said. ‘When the vehicle arrives the National Guard is waiting, already alerted to the fact that it was on its way. They have already been paid a bribe up front, so that the lorry can cross into Venezuela without problems.
‘Sometimes they provide us with an escort for the next phase, which involves me and other comrades getting on to the lorry, or into a car that will drive along with it. We then make the 16-hour trip to Puerto Cabello, which is on the coast, west of Caracas. There the lorry is driven into a big warehouse controlled jointly by Venezuelan locals and by Farc, which is in charge of security. Members of the Venezuelan navy take care of customs matters and the safe departure of the vessels. They are alive to all that is going on and they facilitate everything Farc does.’
Rafael described a similar routine with drug operations involving the port of Maracaibo which, according to police sources, is ‘a kind of paradise’ for drug traffickers. Among whom – until last week when he was gunned down by a rival cartel in a Venezuelan town near the Colombian border – was one of the ‘capos’ most wanted internationally, a Colombian called Wilber Varela, but better known as ‘Jabón’, which means ‘soap’. ‘Varela and others like him set themselves up in stunning homes and buy bankrupt businesses and large tracts of land, converting themselves almost overnight into personages of great value to the local economy,’ a police source said. ‘Venezuela offers a perfect life insurance scheme for these criminals.’
This ‘tactical’ convergence between the Venezuelan armed forces and Farc extends to the military terrain. To the point that, according to one especially high-placed intelligence source I spoke to, the National Guard has control posts placed around the guerrilla camps. What for? ‘To give them protection, which tells us that knowledge of the tight links between the soldiers on the ground and Farc reaches up to the highest decision-making levels of the Venezuelan military.’
Rafael told how he had travelled once by car with Captain Pedro Mendoza of the National Guard to a military base outside Caracas called Fuerte Tiuna. He entered with the captain, who handed him eight rifles. They then returned to the border with the rifles in the boot of the car.
Rafael said that members of the National Guard also supplied Farc with hand grenades, grenade-launchers and explosive material for bombs made out of a petrol-based substance called C-4.
An intelligence source confirmed that these small movements of arms occurred on a large scale. ‘What we see is the drugs going from Colombia to Venezuela and the arms from Venezuela to Colombia. The arms move in a small but constant flow: 5,000 bullets, six rifles. It’s very hard to detect because there are lots of small networks, very well co-ordinated, all of them by specialists in Farc.’
Rafael worked directly with these specialists, both in the arms and the drugs business, until he decided the time had come to change his life. ‘In June and July I had received courses in making bombs alongside elements of Chávez’s militias, the FBL. We learnt, there in a camp in Venezuela, how to put together different types of landmines and how to make bombs. They also taught us how to detonate bombs in a controlled fashion using mobile phones.’
They were training him, he said, for a mission in Bogotá. ‘They gave us photos of our targets. We were going to work alongside two Farc groups based in the capital. The plan was to set off bombs, but as the date dawned I began to reflect that I could not continue this way. First, because of the danger from the military engagements we had with the ELN [another formerly left-wing guerrilla group] on the border over control of the drug routes and, second, because it now seemed to me there was a very real risk of getting caught and I believed I had already spent enough years in jail for the Farc cause. It was also highly possible that the security forces in Bogotá would kill me. That was why at the end of August I ran away and in September I handed myself in.’
A European diplomat who is well informed on the drug-trafficking business generally, and who is familiar with Rafael’s allegations, made a comparison between the activities of Farc in Venezuela and hypothetically similar activities involving Eta in Spain.
‘Imagine if Eta had a bomb-making school in Portugal inside camps protected by the Portuguese police, and that they planned to set off these bombs in Madrid; imagine that the Portuguese authorities furnished Eta with weapons in exchange for money obtained from the sales of drugs, in which the Portuguese authorities were also involved up to their necks: it would be a scandal of enormous proportions. Well, that, on a very big scale, is what the Venezuelan government is allowing to happen right now.’
‘The truth,’ one senior police source said, ‘is that if Venezuela were to make a minimal effort to collaborate with the international community the difference it would make would be huge. We could easily capture two tons of cocaine a month more if they were just to turn up their police work one notch. They don’t do it because the place is so corrupt but also, and this is the core reason, because of this “anti-imperialist” stand they take. “If this screws the imperialists,” they think, “then how can we possibly help them?” The key to it all is a question of political will. And they don’t have any.’
A similar logic applies, according to the highest-placed intelligence source I interviewed, regarding Farc’s other speciality, kidnappings. ‘If Hugo Chávez wanted it, he could force Farc to free Ingrid Betancourt tomorrow morning. He tells Farc: “You hand her over or it’s game over in Venezuela for you.” The dependence of Farc on the Venezuelans is so enormous that they could not afford to say no.’
A nation at war
· Colombia, the centre of the world’s cocaine trade, has endured civil war for decades between left-wing rebels with roots in the peasant majority and right-wing paramilitaries with links to Spanish colonial landowners.
· Manuel ‘Sureshot’ Marulanda named his guerrilla band the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 1966.
· Farc is thought to have about 800 hostages. The most high-profile is Ingrid Betancourt, 45, held since 2002.
· Every Farc member takes a vow to fight for ‘social justice’ in Colombia.
· About a third of Farc guerrillas are thought to be women.
· Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez is pushing for ‘Bolivarian socialism’, while Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is a free-market conservative.