- By Daniel Lansberg-RodríguezDaniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.
With its economic woes multiplying by the day, the last thing the Venezuelan government needs is another blow to its international reputation. But that’s exactly what it got yesterday, when the Spanish newspaper ABC reported that an ex-bodyguard of Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the Venezuelan parliament, has provided information to U.S. authorities implicating his former boss as a kingpin in the drug trade. According to the report, Leamsy Salazar, a well-connected officer within the Venezuelan armed forces, has defected to the United States, and is set to serve as the star witness in an American investigation into ties between the Caracas government and powerful narcotics syndicates.
Given his background, Salazar certainly ought to be in the know. Prior to turning state’s witness, he spent over a decade as the head of Hugo Chávez’s personal security detail and sometime personal assistant; a YouTube video currently making the rounds on Venezuelan social media even shows El Comandante singing Salazar’s praises on TV. Following the death of Chávez in early 2013, Salazar was reassigned to Cabello, whom he is prepared to depict in court, according to ABC, as the capo di tutti capi of the “Soles” narcotics cartel.
The Soles cartel, named for the sun emblem embroidered on high-ranking Venezuelan military uniforms, is an alleged drug trading organization nested inside the armed forces. No one has ever managed to quite confirm its existence, though accounts of it have long circulated in the Caracas rumor mill (which, however unreliable, is the main alternate source of information for most Venezuelans now that censorship and state control have subdued the press).
Cabello has been a fixture within the Bolivarian Revolution from the outset, having gotten his start as one of Chávez’s military barrack-mates in the early 1990s. Since then he has served as vice president, state governor, chief of staff, presidential campaign manager, and minister of everything from justice to public works. A WikiLeaks U.S. Embassy cable from 2009 characterized Cabello as a “major pole” of corruption often “working through intimidation behind the scenes,” and speculated that even “Chavez himself might be concerned about Cabello’s growing influence but unable to diminish it.” Today, give or take President Nicolás Maduro himself, Cabello is widely considered the most powerful individual in post-Chávez Venezuela. (The photo above shows Cabello, on the right, with the president during the latter’s State of the Nation speech earlier this month.) Of the two, Cabello is almost certainly the most feared, given his rumored corruption, his ruthlessness, and his deep ties to the military.
Emili Blasco, the ABC reporter who broke the story, says that his report on Cabello’s criminal enterprise draws upon information from anonymous “sources within the U.S. investigation” as well as an interview with the defector himself. The Soles are said to hold a veritable monopoly over the Venezuelan drug trade, which specializes in transferring cocaine produced in rebel-controlled territory in Colombia (near the Venezuelan border) to Mexican cartels. (The detour through Venezuela enables the Colombian traffickers to dodge their own security forces, who are ostensibly less corrupt than Venezuela’s.) According to the ABC report, an astounding 90 percent of Colombian drugs pass through Venezuela.
Blasco’s report weaves together several major themes from the annals of rumored corruption in Venezuela: the ephemeral arrest and failed extradition of Gen. Hugo “El Pollo” Carvajal on a U.S. warrant for drug charges; a truck found with $10 million in cash abandoned on the docks of Venezuela’s principal port last month; and shadowy Cuban involvement — all punctuated with descriptions of giant piles of money and speedboats stuffed with tons of cocaine. The names of high-ranking Venezuelan leaders, an unsurprising list of “usual suspects” commonly associated with corruption, also appear, and the report carefully outlines their respective roles within the organization (“the money launderer,” the “numbers guy,” etc.).
If this all reads a bit too much like counterrevolutionary fan fiction, dear reader, we sympathize. Yet outside sources do seem to back at least the overall thrust of the story. The Wall Street Journal confirmed that Salazar had been in talks with U.S. authorities for months, and quoted its own anonymous source close to the investigation, who told the paper that “there’s a lot of good information” that could be helpful to future prosecutions. William Brownfield, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela who now works for the Department of State’s anti-drug department, said that the ABC narrative was “not inconsistent” with evidence of high-level Venezuelan government complicity with cartels.
The regime, which quickly confirmed Salazar’s defection, otherwise reacted to the accusations with predictable defensiveness. Pedro Carreño, a high-ranking Chavista legislator and former minister, tweeted that the bodyguard “had his conscience bought by the CIA, so that they could link [Cabello] with narco-traffic.” President Maduro himself even chimed in, decrying the “vulgar” accusations and warning that traitors to the revolution will “face an inferno of solitude, failure, isolation and repudiation.”
Yet despite his fiery reputation, Cabello’s official response seemed more mystified than angry. “This is about human frailty, as well as disloyalty,” he explained. “Not just to Diosdado Cabello, but this man was around Hugo Chávez for a long time, long enough so that some of that strength, that loyalty, that love should have rubbed off on him.”
How exactly Salazar managed to resist all that love, we may never know. Yet we will probably soon find out whether his testimony will have consequences for Venezuela’s embattled revolutionary leaders, or if this will all just blow over – as have previous regime defections in the past.
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